Humans series two: A thought-provoking show which explores the concept of humanity

Warning: This post contains spoilers for series two of Channel 4’s Humans. Please do not read this if you have not yet watched up to the series finale, which aired on December 18, 2016.

Humanity’s fear of robots and artificial intelligence is formed from a variety of different concerns, but one of the most interesting points which makes up this fear is the idea that AI reflects humanity right back at us. Robots are mirrors and voids. Whilst we assign meaning to them, they prompt us to question our very own purpose and behaviour. What makes us human? Well, it’s a question the Channel 4 drama Humans continues to try and answer in its second series, which appeared on our screens in October.

From left: Laura (Katherine Parkinson), Mia (Gemma Chan), Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), Toby (Theo Stevenson) and Sophie (Pixie Davies). Photo: Channel 4 Press.
One of the other concerns society has about AI is the idea of them making our human roles redundant. It’s something we saw in the first series of the show (for example, Anita getting in the way of Laura’s responsibilities as a mother) and this was developed in series two when Joe lost his job due to the synthetics. Similarly, as well as looking into the idea of humans losing some of their responsibilities or jobs in life, the new set of episodes also asks what would happen when a synth loses its original purpose.

When Odi (Will Tudor) is brought back to life thanks to the consciousness program, he decides that it isn’t a life for him and restores himself back to ‘setup mode’. In his final scene in the series, he says: “I long for the past. I felt nothing then but I had a purpose. A place in the world.” It’s a tragic subplot which offers a pleasant – albeit sad – break from the intensity of the main plot.

Unfortunately, unlike the first series (which you can read my analysis and review of here), I felt that there were fewer scenes in this series which prompted a deep discussion about existentialism, artificial intelligence or humanity. That being said, the show did touch upon some interesting ideas.

Niska (played by Emily Berrington, centre), is by far one of the most interesting characters in the show and it was great to see her become one of the key characters in series two. Photo: Channel 4 Press.
Earlier on in the series, we saw a synth in the role of a marriage counsellor, aiming to heal the damage done to Joe and Laura’s relationship which we saw in series one. It poses an interesting question though: could artificial intelligence be the key to true impartiality in situations which demand it? After all, a human counsellor must remain impartial, so they have to conceal any opinions or views they have. Yet, when it comes to a robot, they cannot possess a concealed bias towards one party. It’s an unanswerable question, but is still an intriguing one to consider.

However, the most interesting plot point in this series was Niska’s consciousness tests. If the synth was found to be conscious, then she would stand trial as a human for the murder of a character she killed in the first series. Yet, when it came to the verdict on whether or not she was conscious, Niska stood up and dismissed the legal process as corrupt and working against her. Her lawyer, Laura, told her that this was her ‘chance’ to be given the same rights as a human, to which Niska replied that it wasn’t her chance, it was humanity’s chance.

What does this mean exactly? It means that the consciousness tests had a secret purpose to Niska. The ‘chance’ she was referring to was whether or not human beings would be willing to accept artificially intelligent robots as their equals. Unfortunately, for those conducting the tests, the possibility of something inhuman gaining the rights of a human threatened the hegemony humankind possesses, so they stopped it and hijacked the legal procedure. For us, any circumstance which requires us to explore the definition of humanity is an awkward one. Yet, for Channel 4’s Humans, the writers chose to bite the bullet and raise this question – with the help of some artificially intelligent robots, of course.

Katherine Parkinson plays Laura Hawkins, who is Niska’s defence lawyer during the tests to prove if the synth is conscious. Photo: Channel 4 Press.
Niska’s interest in whether synths could be treated the same as humans tapped into an even bigger idea. That is, whilst Homo sapiens are a species, humanity is a concept to which any conscious and intelligent entity can subscribe – and that also forms part of our fear of AI.

Once again, Humans explores deep existential questions whilst keeping the programme as entertaining and gripping as possible. The show really got interesting in the second half of the series, with Sophie’s personality disorder being a curious subplot. However, the suspense came with the death of Pete Strummond (played by Neil Maskell) – something I didn’t see coming. In the final episode, with Mia, Leo, Hester and Karen all facing the risk of dying, it all felt too much. Thankfully, the powering down of Hester and the possible death of Leo were the only two things which occurred. If any more main characters were killed, then the programme would really struggle should a third series be commissioned.

Then the series ended the way it should have begun, with all synths becoming conscious and roaming the streets. The writers’ decision to cause the program to only ‘wake up’ some robots at the start of series two was a disappointment. Thankfully, series three should finally explore a parallel present we have all thought about (and hopefully tell us, at last, what happened to Fred, one of the first conscious synths we last saw at the end of series one). Series one and two presented a world where subservient robots lived among us, but now that all these synths are conscious? We could see a clash between humans and robots, and the return of the ‘We Are People’ movement which we saw in the first series. Series three should be very interesting indeed.

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A Fictional Reality: Thankful

Channel 4’s Humans left me with a sense of euphoria. Excitement combined with robotic thought processes forced me to sit down by my laptop and convert my opinions into computer code. Ideas were released without restraint and I ended up with three pages of commentary.

It was a chain reaction. A nuclear fission of engagement occurred on my computer screen. An idea on a blog was shared across social media. A thought-provoking programme led to new opinions on a blog post, and now these thoughts travelled all over the country into the minds of others. Then came a new wave of excitement in the form of success. People had enjoyed what I had written. My excitement and enthusiasm were contagious.

An opportunity presents itself. A chance for my work to be recognised at an awards ceremony and read by more people. I fill in the entry form, and click submit…

*

I shuffled uncomfortably at the back of an auditorium, a small programme resting on my lap but keen to fall to the floor at regular intervals. I am underdressed, sporting a smart-casual look when fellow students don suits and dresses. It’s clear that I’m not used to awards ceremonies just yet; it’s my first event in a while, and after browsing the other nominees, I was surprised to have even been on the shortlist.

Never compare yourself to others. It’s a mantra we hear all the time and are told to adopt, but it brewed and fizzled in my mind as I waited for the Blogger/Vlogger category to come next. My mind was an essay. One thousand words flooded the blog post on my website and filled my head as I waited, before it dwindled down to two.

Highly Commended.

*

Now, as the second series of Humans airs on Channel 4 tonight, I always look back on this post with fondness. I remember the Colin Morgan fan accounts who retweeted my post and left kind comments. I was fearful that the fact it spanned three pages and was around 1,000 pages in length had me worried that no one would read all of it. Yet, the post was Highly Commended at the Midlands Student Media Awards, it’s the tenth most popular post on my blog of all-time, and over 360 people have read some or all of the article.

It’s inspired me to not hold back on my enthusiasm and talking about big topics. I like to think it’s influenced my writing when it comes my Friday Articles too.

You can read the post in question here, and you can expect me to write a follow-up post or review once the series has finished.

I decided to try something different for this post and write a story from my life in a fictional narrative style. I’m not too sure if I’m a fan of this just yet, but if you liked it, let me know in the comments below.

Liam

Rio, embargo, and Pokémon GO | A Week in Review

Throughout the week I’ve struggled to come up with an idea for today’s post. In the end, I’ve settled for writing about what’s happened in the news and to me over the past seven days. Whilst some of these would have been news stories I could talk about in a Friday Article, I doubt it would be something which would make for a long post. By combining it into one big post, I’ll have a lot to talk about.

Photo: Dafne Cholet on Flickr (changes have been made).
Photo: Dafne Cholet on Flickr (changes have been made). Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

First of all, I should start with how my week has been. In particular, I have to talk about the two posts I’ve been waiting to write and publish for weeks. Since June 14, I couldn’t wait until this week to finally tell everyone that I met Jess Glynne at the top of The Shard, and share my thoughts on On the Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher. I managed to keep them both secret, but now I can’t wait to tell everyone I know about both of these things.

In other news, Channel 4 released their video for their coverage of this year’s Paralympic Games in Rio, and it is simply brilliant. I was tempted to write a whole blog post about this, but the fact that it goes against the traditional style of having the BSL interpreter in the corner of the screen is simply brilliant. Hats off to Channel 4 for doing a lot of things to help with the accessibility of their programmes lately.

Staying with disability news, and Justin Tomlinson MP has left the government as Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions. I met the Minister at the Conservative Party Conference last year to discuss issues affecting deaf people and it was really great to meet him. His departure came as a surprise this morning and I’m interested to find out his replacement.

Me meeting Justin Tomlinson last year at the Conservative Party Conference. It's a surprise to see him go.
Me meeting Justin Tomlinson last year at the Conservative Party Conference. It’s a surprise to see him go.

Lastly, I thought I’d end with some thoughts on Pokemon Go! and World Emoji Day – two things I simply do not understand. When it comes to Pokemon, I have never seen an episode, nor have I bought a single game, so I have yet to download Pokemon Go! and probably never will – we’ll see.

As for World Emoji Day, those who know me will know that I don’t use emojis and prefer to use emoticons (which, for those who don’t know, are when you use a colon and a bracket to make a smiley face, for example). I am still stuck in the days of MSN shortcuts, and I’d like to stay that way.

Have you downloaded Pokémon Go? Have you seen the Rio Paralympics advert by Channel 4? Comment below!

Liam

Frequency Festival: What are our digital rights?

Yesterday the first night of Lincoln’s Frequency Festival opened with an interesting discussion into our digital rights and freedom. With the city celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year, the festival’s first event asked: what would the digital Magna Carta would look like?

Speakers at the debate included Professor Raul Espejo (Director-General of the World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics), Wendy Grossman (a writer, folksinger and journalist) and Richard Barbrook (senior lecturer at the University of Westminster). The event also saw contributions from the audience.

Admittedly, I was under the impression that the event would be a debate, when it was more a series of three lectures from the main speakers. All three of them – Professor Espejo, Dr Barbrook and Ms Grossman – all presented different views on the proposed digital bill of rights. Whilst it was interesting to see three different perspectives, I was particularly interested in Professor Espejo’s talk about Cyberfolk and Algedonic Meters.

Basically, the discussion was around a data loop between the people and the state. The meter itself was for an ‘inclusive democracy’ and enabled the public to “[respond] to what policy makers were doing” (Espejo, 2015). In particular, this would be the public saying that they liked a particular debate or proposal.

At the same time, government discussions were being broadcast to the masses. However, at the top of this loop (or dichotomy, if you will), the state are overwhelmed with public data and are unable to handle the data correctly or ethically. According to Espejo (2015), the “extreme proliferation of data today is misunderstood” and proposed that “digital abuses of freedom and privacy […] need to be replaced by a society and individually fair ‘variety engineering” – the term variety referring to Ashby’s law of requisite variety.

This abuse of freedom and privacy at the top is something which I discussed previously in my post about the Channel 4 series, Hunted. After writing this post, one of the key questions I raised, which I wanted to explore further, was whether we as individuals have the right to complain about breaches of privacy when – through social media sites for example – we publicly and freely volunteer that information?

It’s a question I still don’t think that I have the answer to. But, having said that, one of the points raised about this issue was the fact that, alongside the state not knowing how to handle the mass amounts of data, the individual does not know how to properly volunteer data. In particular, someone does not know how that data could be used to benefit themselves, or others in the future. An example which Wendy Grossman gave was the first college-goers at Harvard who used the early version of Facebook, without knowing that what they post may one day be available on Google.

In that respect, I think we, as individuals, need to learn about digital footprints in detail. But in terms of a Digital Bill of Rights, perhaps it would be wise to place regulations on the individual to prevent them from volunteering certain data. If not that, then we should be made aware of what that data could mean in the future, or where it could be made available (like a Harvard student’s Facebook post being visible on Google, for instance – as mentioned above).

Once again, it comes back to the line between public and private in terms of technology. If a Digital Bill of Rights were to be drafted, then it’s likely that the main defence for an accusation of a privacy breach would be that the data in question is readily available to the public. An interesting example of this is a piece of work by Liz Sterry called ‘Kay’s Blog’. This, which was part of a Furtherfield exhibition entitled ‘Being Social’, was a project which saw Sterry reconstruct the bedroom of a blogger (named Kay) – with the information being obtained solely from her blog posts.

Admittedly, I myself would find this a rather large invasion of privacy, especially when it goes on to appear in a public exhibition. But as mentioned beforehand, if this information has been made public, then there is no defence. To be honest, should the terms and conditions of social media platforms not cover this already, then a Digital Bill of Rights should include an agreement. This agreement would state that as much as an individual would consider information published online as private, everyone who uses the Internet today knows that it is a public hub for creativity and information. For that reason, the Digital Bill should remind individuals that information obtained about them from social media cannot be seen as a breach of privacy. However, I do think that there are some exceptions when it comes to state surveillance (see my Hunted post for more information).

Similarly, this can be an issue when it comes to copyright and intellectual property. Yes, whilst most cases are easily identified and breaches of copyright can often be dealt with, it’s a piece of legislation which tries cover as much of the ever-expanding Internet as possible.

In a somewhat similar example, the music industry has been impacted by illegal downloading for a while now. Admittedly, the problem has escalated to the point that enforcing a legislation would simply not work, but that just demonstrates how hard it is to place laws on a rapidly changing entity such as the Internet. In terms of intellectual property, how can we stop the majority from breaching copyright, rather than the few?

Finally, if we were to consider the web as being this massive creative pool for the public, then who owns the Internet? This was a question raised by an audience member and it certainly was an interesting one. In the past, control over the Internet has turned into a bizarre free-for-all, with companies and the government both being eager to regulate or control aspects of technology. For example, a recent campaign to promote net neutrality talked about stopping Internet Service Providers from restricting Internet access to certain sites or content. A more recent example is Home Secretary Theresa May’s Draft Communications Data Bill (dubbed ‘the snooper’s charter’), where the government plans to gain more powers in terms of investigation and surveillance.

However, what we don’t have is rules or laws put in place by the public. If a Digital Bill of Rights was to be introduced, then how could it be made law? Who would enforce it? How could it be maintained, updated and enforced on every single online citizen?

Whilst governments and companies may be trying to control certain aspects of technology and the web, the Internet will always belong to ‘the people’. In a sense, the Internet is a Marxist hub. If we are to call it that, then of course one of the main issues is that the promotion of Marxism is contradictory – in order to enforce Marxism you need a leader.

So, in that case, how can a Digital Bill of Rights for the digital citizen and ‘the people’ be enforced – and by whom? How could the bill be maintained and updated?

Liam

The University Atmosphere: Encouraging Detailed Thinking


One of the many things I love about studying at university is how it encourages debate and discussion on important issues from those with expertise or a big interest in the topic itself.

Over the next few weeks, I will be attending a lot of guest lectures and debates at the University of Lincoln – including talks by professional journalists, YouTubers (in particular Thomas ‘TomSka’ Ridgewell) and discussions about digital rights and the criminal justice system.

I love analysing and thinking about current affairs and issues. As regular readers of this blog will know, I wrote a three-page essay all about the rise of artificial intelligence to coincide with the TV show Humans. I also recently wrote an article about surveillance to tie in with ‘the snooper’s charter’ and Hunted on Channel 4.

I love this style of writing and something I want to do more of on this blog.

I first set up The Life of a Thinker as a place to practice my journalism. It has since evolved into a lifestyle blog, but I hope to have more of a balance in the future.

Mondays will continue to be Musical Discovery posts, Fridays will always be journalistic articles and Sundays will either be writing or life updates. As for Wednesdays, they will probably be journalistic articles too to get a greater balance.

What do you think? Would you like to see more journalistic and analytical articles on the blog? Comment below and let me know!

Liam

Channel 4’s Hunted: A worrying insight into surveillance

“Everything you do now ends up in your permanent record. The best plan is to overload Google with a long tail of good stuff and to always act as if you’re on Candid Camera, because you are.” – Seth Godin

First it was Humans, which offered a slightly concerning, but mainly thought-provoking, insight into the rise of artificial intelligence. Now, the six-part, real-life series Hunted – which concluded last night – sheds a light onto the complex and powerful world of surveillance.

The show comes at a time when Home Secretary Theresa May’s new, proposed surveillance bill – dubbed ‘the snooper’s charter’ – raises questions about the ethics of spying on members of the public.

The real-life thriller, where 14 individuals go on the run, saw the country’s top detectives and analysts use high levels of surveillance to track them down.

In the first episode, ‘fugitives’ have their social media profiles scanned by detectives. Whilst some consider this an invasion of privacy, we can’t really complain when we volunteer this data ourselves.

With technological advancements leading to us placing so much of our private lives online, one of the questions we have to ask ourselves is how much of our private life actually is private? The answer: not much. Technology has become the main way to store data and communicate. If anything, the way to prevent our privacy from being breached is through going offline. But with technology being such a huge part of all of our lives, it’s become something we all have to accept – the small-print when it comes to signing up to email services and social networks.

Aside from how to best protect your privacy, Hunted shows the somewhat unethical methods the state can use to get information. In the third episode, we see the ‘hunters’ impersonate Ricky Allen in an attempt to get his friends and family to reveal information about his location. Similarly, later on in the series, we see the investigators use a phishing technique to gain access to someone’s iCloud so they can clone their iPhone. This type of impersonation (when the hunters sent texts pretending to be Ricky) must be illegal, surely? Whilst that may be a grey area, we all know that phishing – along with when the hunters hack a fugitive’s Facebook to display a wanted poster – are both illegal if a member of the public were to do these actions. This of course raises the debate of our country’s surveillance services using unethical means to protect our national security or for ‘the greater good’.

Another ethical question which is raised from the show is how the hunters place certain amounts of psychological pressure on the fugitives. Surely this raises questions from a human rights perspective – being almost like a form of psychological torture – as well as from an ethical perspective?

Lastly, another issue for discussion is the use of recording devices. In the world of journalism, the undercover news reports that use covert cameras can only be used when it is in ‘the public interest’. Two main ethical codes (Ofcom and IPSO) prohibit journalists from using covert recordings if it is not for that reason. Whilst this isn’t journalism, but surveillance, surely similar rules must apply to this too?

On the whole, it’s fair to say that the best way to protect yourself is by being offline, but with almost everyone having a smartphone these days, that is near enough impossible.

In terms of ethics, questions need to be asked as to how many rules can be broken by the state where it may be illegal for a member of the public to do the same thing. In particular, with this new ‘snooper’s charter’ bill, we need to ask what new powers this gives the state.

What do you think about the so-called ‘snooper’s charter’? Have you been watching Hunted? Comment below!

Liam

Thoughts on Channel 4’s ‘Humans’ (SPOILERS)

At a time when our society is constantly expanding and changing, questions are being asked about the speed of our technological advances. In the latest Channel 4 drama Humans, which concluded last Sunday, the exploration of the ultimate technological breakthrough – artificial intelligence – is investigated in a way which addresses the advantages and disadvantages of introducing robotic appliances into our everyday lives.

Photo: © Kudos
Photo: © Kudos

For the first half of the series, through the troubled Hawkins family, we see different attitudes to Anita’s role in their family life. Sophie has a ‘human’ relationship with Anita, Joe sees the synthetics as nothing more than obedient robots (at least, at first) and Laura struggles to understand Anita, fearing that some of her familial roles have been made redundant thanks to the robot.

Then, throughout the series, the relationship between Joe and Laura crumbles as they realise that they both have different views on synthetic appliances. But in fact, synths are nothing more than obedient ‘voids’ which we all assign different meanings to. Whilst George has a friendly relationship with Odi, Pete’s suspicious of his wife’s robotic physiotherapist, Simon. Even in numerous interviews before the show’s launch, the actors explained that it is up to the viewers to determine how much of a threat artificial intelligence and robots are to humanity, and which ‘side’ people take.

But as well as the human characters assigning different opinions to the synths, they all react differently to the task of understanding how the synthetics work. For example, people like Mattie only understood the robots as lines of computer code at first, whilst Laura was desperate to find out more about Anita’s thought processes. As for the characters who initially fear the synths, one of the possible reasons for this is the fact that the robots allow the humans to understand themselves more. With the introduction of a ‘species’ which are outside the human race and treated as servants, they try to understand the complexity of human nature. At one point, Karen/Beatrice even explains that to give consciousness to other synthetics would lead to ‘suffering’. Although, whilst the synths learn more about humans, this often leads to a ‘mirror’ effect, as the humans begin to learn more about themselves. For some characters, the idea of robots defining something as extraordinary, complex and mysterious as human nature itself is terrifying. Whilst some of us would love to explore humanity, others would rather live their lives without contemplating deep topics such as the definition of human nature.

This brings me on to the introduction of the We Are People movement which we see towards the end of the series. Upon seeing and listening to their speeches as seen on the show, it’s clear that their fear of artificial intelligence comes down to three main reasons: being unable to understand robots (comprehension), losing our roles as humans (redundancy) and the idea that they will take over the world (uprising).