Stories about artificial intelligence and robots can be good opportunities to explore what it means to be human. That’s the case in AMC’s Humans, a series set in present-day London where human-looking robots called “synths” are mass produced and marketed as domestic help and menial workers.
I’m drawn to how the synths represent human experience on the margins and unmask the way we dehumanize each other. Mia and Niska, two of five synths given consciousness by a creator, hide their consciousness, fearing being deprogrammed or destroyed. Mistaken for abandoned regular synths (without consciousness), Mia and Niska are bagged by bounty hunters, reprogrammed and sold — Mia to the Hawkins family as domestic help and Niska to a brothel.
Their consciousness remains under the new programming, so Mia and Niska experience every degrading moment that goes along with their forced servitude. Family members talk about Mia in front of her as if she wasn’t there, make disparaging comments or take advantage of her. Niska screams silently at her reflection in the mirror at the end of a night in the brothel.
What really makes these scenes uncomfortable is the way they reflect dehumanizing behavior in our world. Mia’s treatment as less than human is common for many domestic and immigrant workers. Sex traffickers view women and children the way the brothel owners and users see Niska: a thing to be used.
But Humans doesn’t leave us without hope.
One night, filled with rage, Niska kills a man at the brothel and escapes. Eventually, she seeks refuge in the home of George Millican, an ailing scientist who once worked with Niska’s creator. After suffering a stroke, Millican himself is marginalized as one more social work case to manage.
Millican sees her for who she is: a fellow being wrestling with injustice and suffering. He treats her with respect, which gives Niska pause and wakens compassion in her for Millican.
“Mankind’s greatest creation is sitting on my sofa,” he tells her. “You worry me, sure, but there’s no denying that you are a miracle.”
This scene gets at our call to see each other in our stories.
C.S. Lewis said: “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Our interactions with others, Lewis said, must be as those “who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
Jesus tells of two Jews of high repute who walk by a man who’s been robbed and beaten, dehumanized and de-immortalized. Jesus’ audience expects the Samaritan, who is despised and dehumanized by the Jews, to walk by too. But he doesn’t. He sees the beaten, discarded man the way we are meant to see each other: as a neighbor. This, the parable tells us, is what it looks like to love your neighbor.
I appreciate how Humans challenges us to see each other as miraculous beings to be taken seriously and treated with compassion. When we love like this, we participate with God in his work to restore the struggling, immortal mess of humanity into everlasting splendors.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.