Robot Servants and Friends (and Lovers)

Laura Hawkins, the mother, stands in the upstairs hallway, looking into the middle distance. Her teenage daughter Mattie, says, “Mom? What are you doing?” Her mother responds, “Just standing here being a shit mother.”

That seems harsh. Here is the interaction that just preceded that.

Laura wakes up her daughter, Sophie. “Time to get up. I’ll go and do your lunchbox.” Sofie says, as an afterthought, “Can you cut off the crusts, like Anita does?”

The show begins with an advertisement for the new household robots. [1]

“Could you use some extra help around the house? Introducing the world’s first family android [mechanical maid] What could you accomplish if you had someone, something, like this?”

The “extra help” the advert [1] refers to comes in the form of a Synth, programmed for household chores. Just what those “household chores” would necessarily include is not touched on by the advertising. What they might come to include, if the Synth turned out to be better at something than the parents are, is one of the main themes of the show and why I like it so much. [This is “Anita” (in other plots, “Gina,” played by Gemma Chan, reading to Sophie.]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is synth-1.jpeg

I’d like you to keep the expression “extra help” in your mind as you consider Sophie’s request, “Can you cut off the crusts….like Anita [the family Synth] does?” It is clear that in the advert, it is presumed that you will go on about your life, off-loading the onerous or inconvenient jobs to the Synth. It is clear in the interaction between Sophie and her mother that a new and higher standard of lunch-prep has been set by the Synth and now it is up to the mother to meet that new standard.

And as soon as you see that event, you say, “Or course. How could it be any other way?”

Toby, the teenage son, has a weight problem. He takes one look at Anita and says, “Why did they have to make you so fit?”

Mattie, the super-techie older sister, tries to reprogram Anita with far-reaching consequences, none of which Mattie had in mind. At the Hawkins’ home, Mattie speaks rudely to Anita so that her mother will tell her such language is appropriate so that she can tell her mother, firmly, that it is exactly appropriate for a “being” like “Anita.”

Joe, the husband, is the “primary user” (purchaser) so Anita is “bonded” to him in a special way. Also in some ordinary ways. For instance, Anita comes with a special sex packet called 18+ and, at Joe’s request, she instructs him in its use. They have what would be a “fling” if she were human and the next morning she is back to Synth mode, impersonally polite and helpful to everyone.

I asked you to try to keep in mind the expression “Extra help around the house” which is featured in the advert.[2] Does any of this sound like extra help around the house?

One night at bedtime, Sophie asks Anita to read her a story. “No, no,” Laura intervenes, “that’s a mother’s job.” Sophie says she would rather have Anita do it. “You read too fast,:she tells Laura. And we hear, “You always seem to be rushing through the story so you can go do something else.” Which is probably true. Anita doesn’t have anything else to do until she has to power up again that evening.

The show, which is called HUMANS, with the A upside down, is an adventure show too because some tech genius David Elster, has begun secretly producing “special” Synths who have something like a “self” and who desire autonomy. And then there is a cop who is trying to chase down these special “deviant” Synths. But these are spectacular problems. The problems I find more engaging are that we would need to find a way to be adequate human beings in a world full of non-human beings who are better at everything than we are. They perform compassion better than we perform compassion. And if you think that the truly human job is to seem compassionate when and only when you feel compassion, I say welcome to the world of parenthood.

These problems are not at all unrealistic and they are not very far away either. Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together is a wonderful introduction to the issue. Having interactive robots around divides the world of your own feelings and responses right down the middle. We want to criticize them because their actions are not “authentic.”

Knowing all the while how many of our own actions are not authentic and wondering whether that is a distinction we can afford to make. Or afford not to make.

[1] No one has used that term yet. People refer to them as “Synths.” The Synths themselves refer to themselves as “appliances.”
[2] Since it is a British show, I have decided to call all the ads, “adverts.”


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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