Could Channel 4’s Humans be set for reality? Not just yet, says Kent academic

PUBLISHED: 15:55 22 June 2015



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Millions continue to tune into the hit drama, but are we close in reality to a world which we share with life-like robots?

Millions tune in to watch hit show

It had been touted for weeks as must-watch television, and it seems our appetite was sufficiently whetted as more than four million people tuned in to watch the first part of Channel 4’s robot drama Humans.

The figures represent Channel 4’s biggest audience for an original drama in ten years.

Produced in conjunction with US broadcaster AMC, which was the company behind the likes of huge hits Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the show features the likes of William Hurt and the IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson.

It is adapted from Swedish drama Real Humans.

It runs for eight episodes. The next episode is aired at 9pm on Sunday.

A leading Kent academic says the chance of life imitating art with a breed of life-like robots working in our homes and carrying out jobs is not just around the corner.

His comments come as Channel 4’s much-hyped new drama, Humans, depicts a modern world where we can buy robots to act almost like slaves in our homes.

The second part of the drama aired on Sunday.

The creations look and act look just like us, but need regular charging up and, as the show demonstrates, some may be so sophisticated they break their programming.

L-R Anita (Gemma Chan), Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill), Sophie Hawkins (Pixie Davies) and Toby Hawkins (Theo Stevenson) L-R Anita (Gemma Chan), Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill), Sophie Hawkins (Pixie Davies) and Toby Hawkins (Theo Stevenson)

Dr Ian Hocking is a senior lecturer in the school of psychology, politics and sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University.

He said to interact with a robot on a human level will take a mind-blowing amount of computer power that simply is not available.

He told us: “I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. To have that much processing power in a unit the size of a human is incredible.

“That’s why we still do not understand our own brains. I suppose in the future, we could model an artificial brain, but that is not likely in the foreseeable future.

“Even if we can come up with enough computer power just to read a person’s face and their emotions and understand what they are feeling, it is a whole new level required if that person is messing about or 

“We humans can often read when someone is doing something but meaning something else - a synthetic won’t be able to do that unless the brain is completely mapped and every possible outcome is programmed in.

“And the work involved in that is still beyond our comprehension.”

One of the writers of Humans, Jon Brackley said: “We’ve taken care not to pass judgement on this world. We’re not presenting it either as a utopia or a dystopia. It’s a world that we think could happen, and we’ve tried to portray it as realistically as possible, and offer both sides of the 

University of California at Berkeley, computer science professor Stuart Russell, is a co-author of the standard textbook on artificial intelligence used around the world.

He warns: “As machines get smarter and smarter, it becomes more important that their goals, what they are trying to achieve with their decisions, are closely aligned with human values.

“A domestic robot, for example, will have to know that you value your cat, and that the cat is not something that can be put in the oven for dinner just because the fridge is empty.”

Dominique Chu is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent with specific interests in computational intelligence and future computing.

He told us: “I don’t think we will make artificial humans, and I have to ask why would we need to.

“Do we want these robots in our old people’s homes so we don’t have to concerns ourselves with them anymore. Or in prison – will a robot be able to rehabilitate the inmates?”

He added: “In the future we will have robots for certain tasks like household chores but in a way we already have those, like dishwashers.

“There will always be so many short-comings with artificial intelligence at a human level. That is because the brain is so complex, we still don’t understand how it all works. Until that has been done, we won’t be able to program robots to that level, and again I have to ask if really want to go that far.

“The human mind is so complex, you won’t be able to code it at all. Having said that, we still don’t know what will be possible in another 100 years.

“You could eventually code simple emotions, but you could never have an interesting conversation with a robot, not yet at least.”

Actress Gemma Chan, who plays robot ‘synth’ Anita, is convinced they will be real soon. She said: “It’s just a step away from what we have now. I mean the technology we have already with iPhones and Siri [Apple’s in-built voice activated ‘assistant’ on its devices]; we call up a call centre, or ask our phone a question; you don’t necessarily have to speak to a person, you speak to a machine.

“This is just a step on from that in imagining a world where we do have humanoid servants or robots that do all the jobs that we can’t be bothered to do anymore.

“I think in parts of the world that’s already the case, where a lot of the work force has been replaced by machines, so we’re not far off really.”

She added: “In the world of Humans you get to see people’s fears and prejudices towards technology and the benefits and possibly the downsides of our lives being made easier in a way. But you know in gaining some things, you lose other things.

“In today’s age with the internet we seem to be so much more connected to the world and yet there’s a disconnect as well: we might talk to our family and friends less, we have less real interaction and I think the show explores all of those themes.”

There is no shortage of apocalyptic warnings of making such progress, including from the likes of Professor Stephen Hawking who said super-intelligent artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race”.

Like many others, Channel 4’s show centres around what is considered ‘the singularity’ – the moment when the technology we create becomes so sophisticated it assumes its own sense of awareness and surpasses our own abilities.


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