Anne Thériault wonders if human-like robots would help people move past stereotypes, or whether they’d only reinforce them. AMC’s new series, “Humans” offers an opportunity to explore that question.
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As robotics technology grows increasingly sophisticated, it becomes easier to envision a time when we will rely on robots to perform even the most basic household tasks. But as we move closer to that day, one thing is becoming eminently clear: we want our robots to look and sound like us.
It makes sense that we would feel most comfortable with robots who seem more like people. Having a robot who can mimic facial expressions, body language and vocal patterns is much less unnerving than a sleek faceless bot that delivers information in a flat monotone. Seeing robots give out the nonverbal social cues we’re used to receiving from humans – smiling, nodding along as we talk, raising their eyebrows, chuckling at our jokes – makes it easier for us to trust them. And, depending on the job the robot is doing, our ability to relate connect to them on an emotional level could be incredibly important.
Our desire to anthropomorphize robots means that we like to give them all kinds of human qualities, including – and perhaps especially – gender. Even robots like Roombas that don’t display any kind of gender traits can’t escape our desire to slot everything neatly into boxes marked “boy” and “girl“; studies show that Roomba owners often referring to their robot vacuum as “he” or “she”. It’s no accident that systems like Siri are available in a variety of male and female voices; gendering robots helps humanize them. This is probably because gender identity, as we understand it, is something that is specific to humans. So when we assign gender to robots, that helps us sort them into social groups. This, in turn, makes them easier to relate to.
But as our robots begin to look and sound more like people, we need to wonder how their human traits will perpetuate the harmful stereotypes that exist in our society.
In Humans, AMC’s groundbreaking new Sci-Fi series, the Synths – highly developed, artificially intelligent servants – look very much like our friends and family. And, like people, Synths are diverse; they’re created to appear as if they have a specific gender, race and age. Take Anita (Gemma Chan), a Synth purchased by Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) to help organize his chaotic household. Anita, who specializes in tasks like cleaning, cooking and childcare, is built to look and sound like a beautiful woman who oozes sweetness and compliance. On the surface, this seems like a smart design choice – most of the Hawkins family immediately warm to her, and she quickly transforms their home into a much happier, tidier place.
No doubt Anita’s creators felt that owners would be most comfortable having a “female” robot performing domestic tasks. After all, this is traditionally considered to be women’s work, and stereotypical female traits like empathy, submissiveness and a natural ability to nurture make it easier for the families like the Hawkins to accept such Synths into their homes. But how do robots like Anita impact how we view gendered tasks like housework? And how does that, in turn, impact how we view women?
Caregiving is not the only highly gendered role we see being taken on by female Synths; several of the ones shown in the trailers appear to be created for sex. One snippet from a preview shows a blond Synth in bustier running her hands over her body, as her not-quite-human voice purrs, “Hi, handsome, I’ve been waiting for you.” Another preview has a shot of three women from behind, their clothing fluttering to the ground as they disrobe. Even Anita, a model designed for household tasks, is clearly built for the male gaze. I suppose the argument would be that if you’re going to have human-looking robots, why not make them as young and beautiful as possible? That being said, it’s hard not to get a Weird Science sort of vibe from some of the interactions between the humans and female Synths.
The issue of gender stereotypes isn’t the only one raised by Humans. There’s also the matter of racial prejudice. In one of the trailers, we see a Synth designed to look like a black man; he’s wearing coveralls and rubber boots, and seems to be built for some kind of agricultural labor. As he runs through a row of plants, a voiceover asks “Did you think that we’d still want to be slaves?” The mental image that naturally accompanies this scene is of rows of black men and women working in cotton fields in the deep South, which is uncomfortable in exactly the right way: not only does it question what it would mean for humans to own sentient robots, it also asks what role racial bias might play in artificial intelligence.
It’s easy to believe that using robots for our most thankless, labor-intensive tasks will help promote equality. In theory, having robots performing the unpaid work that typically falls to women frees up time for women to go out and do all kind of things. But when many of the robots built to do domestic labour look like women, are we reinforcing our gendered views of the work they’re doing? The same thing goes for the impact that seeing groups of dark-skinned robots doing hard agricultural labor might have on our racial biases. And if those specific stereotypes not only persist, but are furthered by robots, what other prejudices will be brought along with them?
We tend to think of science fiction as a nerdy adolescent indulgence, more occupied with cool laser guns and hot alien babes than anything else. But Isaac Asimov had it right when he said: “Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology.” At its best, the genre does even more than that: it also uses speculation about the future as a way to look at our current society through a more objective lens. This is what Humans does – through its exploration of a world where highly advanced robots are omnipresent, it teaches us about how we live now.
The brilliance of Humans is that it holds up the treatment of Synths – who are literal objects – to showcase the ways in which we objectify different types of people based factors like gender, race, ethnicity and age. It demonstrates the type of future we are inevitably hurtling towards: one in which reliance on robot servants not only fails to create a race-less, gender-less, class-less utopia but instead perpetuates the deeply entrenched prejudices we already hold. When we watch Humans, we don’t just see an imagined universe that describes things as they might be; we see ourselves, replete with all of our flaws, just as we are now. And that’s exactly what science fiction is supposed to do.
Watch the series premiere of Humans Sunday, June 28 at 9/8c on AMC.
This post was written in partnership with AMC
Readers also have the opportunity to win $2,500 during the week of June 21 to June 28. Fans are encouraged to post their thoughts here (and confirm with Rafflecopter below), on the four HUMANS posts on The Good Men Project, and one comment will be chosen at random for the grand prize.
Read the rest of our authors’ thoughts and insights about HUMANS and the future of robots, and see more exciting trailers from this groundbreaking series:
Synthetic Love, Could a Human Fall In Love With a Robot? by Lisa Hickey
Do Androids Dream of Informed Consent? by Harris O’Malley
Could a Robot Make Your Relationship Better? by Thomas G. Fiffer