With a sci-fi drama as excellent as Humans, who needs high-tech gadgets?

Humans explores our relationship with artificial intelligence and the notion of sentience

If you have ever caught yourself having a heated argument with Siri, iPhone's talking personal assistant, it will not be too much of a leap to imagine a day when artificial intelligence has advanced such that a conversation like that becomes indistinguishable from an interaction between two people.

Imagine that sort of artificial intelligence in 3-D form - a robot that can cook, clean, drive the Prius and give you a sponge bath - and you have the all-too-plausible alternate reality explored in Humans, a superlative new British science-fiction drama.

The eight-part series begins with the Hawkins family purchasing their first "synth'' - a high-tech humanoid robot that functions as a live-in maid, cook, chauffeur and caregiver in many households.

Anita (played to perfection by the doll-like Gemma Chan) looks completely real except for her eyes which, as in all synths, have been turned a shimmering green so she cannot be mistaken for human.

But her arrival causes instant trouble. Laura (Katherine Parkinson) cannot help but feel that her husband Joe's (Tom Goodman-Hill) unilateral decision to buy Anita is an indictment of her as a wife and busy working mother who sometimes burns the dessert. Anita's proficiency with almost every household task only makes things worse.


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Daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless) resents Anita too, but for a slightly different reason: she blames synths for stealing her future. There is little reason for a young person like her to be motivated to study and do well because she knows most jobs will eventually be carried out by soulless androids.

The rest of the family are fans, though. Little Sophie (Pixie Davies) takes an immediate shine to Anita - with a child's talent for anthropomorphising, she has no problems accepting the droid as a part of the household.

Meanwhile, the two males in the house, Joe and his teenage son Toby (Theo Stevenson), are drawn to the robot's perfect, lithe body - which, it turns out, has been designed with an optional, adults-only feature in mind.

Then Anita starts behaving oddly. We learn that she is one of a handful of synths who have somehow developed self-awareness and are trying to conceal it from their human masters.

Their fate and those of the Hawkins brood eventually intersect with the heartbreaking story of the man who helped build the early robots, Dr George Millican (William Hurt).

Ironically, the elderly scientist is now resisting the governmentordered upgrade of his own out-of-date model Odi (Will Tudor) because his memory is fading and the leaking droid is his only connection to his late wife. He resorts to hiding Odi in the garden shed when a humourless new caretaker synth is forced on him.

More than three decades after Blade Runner (1982), the idea of advanced artificial intelligence is now well-trodden ground in science fiction. Yet, the 33-year-old film is still held up as one of the best cinematic explorations of the subject - an indication of how screenwriters often get the human drama of it wrong, particularly when it comes to the finer psychosocial and existential questions.

Recent films, such as Spike Jonze's excellent Her (2013), have started to ask more delicate questions about what our increasingly complex relationship with artificial intelligence could really be like.

Alex Garland's masterful movie Ex Machina (2015) delves further into the notion of sentience - whether it qualifies robots for personhood and if mankind's treatment of them as a subservient class will count as abuse.

Humans explores both these issues with sensitivity and fresh insight, much of which comes from cleverly using an ordinary family as a stand-in for society at large.

In Laura and Mattie, we see how easily a person can come to feel insecure and replaceable, while the mistreatment of Anita and Niska - a synth sex worker played movingly by Emily Berrington - demonstrates how having a slave class one can dismiss as less than human will, without fail, bring out the worst in people.

This is not the flashy sort of science fiction filled with special effects and futuristic gadgets. In the absence of those, you have an economically plotted, gracefully shot and finely acted drama that holds up a mirror to the world as it now stands, like the best sciencefiction works can do.

It is not too much of a stretch to extrapolate the dilemmas found in the show to modern-day issues such as the treatment of domestic servants or immigrant workers in many countries.

And with technology making more jobs increasingly redundant while also enabling people to avoid interpersonal contact, Humans will have us all wondering where that will eventually leave us - as individuals and as a species.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline With a sci-fi drama as excellent as Humans, who needs high-tech gadgets?. Subscribe