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An artificial life

04 November 2016


WHO needs human beings? A slew of programmes last week invited us to consider this significant issue, which I saw as clustered around the launch of the second series of Humans (Channel 4, Sundays), the drama that posits the successful creation of synths: robotic humanoids de­­signed to take over most of the drudgery of life.

The station whetted our appetite with How to Build a Human (Channel 4, Saturday), in which Gemma Chan, the actress who plays Mia, the starring android — it is worth noting that, so far, they have to employ a human being to perform this role — explored how far robotics technology could create a convincing artificial simu­lac­rum of her person (actually, only her head and torso: the rest was deemed unnecessary).

The answer is interestingly am­­bivalent: it was, at the same time, astonishingly close to the real thing, and yet light years distant. A raft of sensors, acting in the way our muscles do, mimicked the way her face changes expression, with minute accuracy. Even more im­­pressively, the voice and software that took on the part played by her brain is extraordinarily sophistic­ated, not merely regurgitating pre-downloaded phrases but able to learn from the conversation, to pick up information, and develop.

One of the biggest problems was trying to get the facial expressions to match the meaning of what she was saying. The test was to invite a group of journalists to interview the android, under the impression that it was really Gemma. It was only by Skype, in case they noticed that she did not have any legs.

None of them was fooled for long, but we are given pause for thought by how close the tech­nology can get nowadays.

Humans itself carries on where the first series left off, exposing a world more complex than most of its characters appreciate: there is not just a single brand of synths, built to specialise in this or that task, which they do with formid­able efficiency but a perceptible lack of imagination, and controlled by a single Corporation.

There are characters such as Gemma — experimental androids infused by their maverick creators with all the troubling traits of Homo sapiens: consciousness, emotion, and moral sensibility. A group of these is emerging, ques­tioning what their purpose is. Have they transformed from being so­­ph­is­­ticated machines to something else? Are they actually alive?

The drama raises questions for us human beings, too: do we learn, adapt, in any way signi­ficantly dif­fer­ent from these crea­tures? And, finally, although so far no one has talked about pro­gram­ming into these robots anything called an immortal soul, it makes you won­der if this is how God performs his conjuring tricks of creation.

On BBC4, we could witness a far older attempt artificially to create a human in Frankenstein from the Royal Ballet, a performance of Liam Scarlett and Lowell Lieber­mann’s new ballet, based on Mary Shelley’s enduring myth. As a prac­­tical workshop in the tech­niques required, it left something to be desired, but the focus on the human aspirations, delu­sions, and relationships raised and destroyed in seeking to take on the work of God was movingly and spec­tac­ularly communicated.

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