Almost Human: Synthetic Soul

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Created by J. H. Wyman and J. J. Abrams, Almost Human was a science fiction television show that lasted only one season on Fox—because if there is one thing Fox knows how to do, it’s cancel great sci-fi hits before their time.

The premise is as follows: In 2048, the uncontrollable evolution of science and technology has caused crime rates to rise an astounding 400%. To combat this, the overwhelmed police force has implemented a new policy that pairs every human police officer with a combat-model android.

The series follows John Kennex (Karl Urban), a police detective who lost his leg in battle and who wakes up from a coma to a world where having a robot partner is now mandatory. Extremely distrustful of robotics, including his own cybernetic leg, Kennex is first partnered with a standard issue logic-based MX robot, but after it annoys him, he kicks the MX out of a moving car and it gets smashed by a truck on the highway. Because this show is great.

After destroying the MX, Kennex is paired with an outdated, decommissioned android model called a DRN. Unlike the emotionless, logical, bleep-bloop MXs , the DRNs were designed using a program called ‘Synthetic Soul’ to be as human as possible, meaning that they are designed to feel emotion, process memory, and develop unique personalities.

The DRN paired with Kennex, Dorian (Michael Ealy), was due to be melted down for scrap, and desperately wants to be a cop.

There’s a lot to like about this series, from its sleek Iron Man-style future technology and its Blade Runner-esque world to the mere existence of Karl Urban channeling his grumpiest Bones McCoy, and to Micheal Ealy’s impossible-not-to-love portrayal of Dorian. But what I enjoyed most was the show’s inspection of Dorian’s humanity, and what that means.

Very often when artificial intelligence is brought to life in fiction, it’s as the bad guy. This is a tried and tested trope, and I am not one to argue against it, because evil robot movies are fun. But this seems to come from a place of self-loathing—the idea that if we were to create AI, it would look at the atrocities committed by humankind and decide to turn against us. This pattern stretches from Skynet to the Matrix. We have become so aware of this trope that Ultron in the new Avengers: Age of Ultron decides that the best thing to do would be to kill all humans less than twenty seconds after becoming sentient.

“You’re not like them,” is often repeated when comparing Dorian to the logic-based MX droids, and occasionally when comparing Dorian to humans. Because this is true. Dorian isn’t a human being. He doesn’t get tired or hungry, and if you prick him, he won’t bleed. Dorian has access to a huge database of information that human beings are incapable of remembering, and can run calculations with inhuman accuracy. He also threw a car once, which I am pretty sure people can’t do.

But Dorian also isn’t like the cold artificial MX droids that replaced him. He has feelings and thoughts of his own. He is capable of disobeying orders, and genuinely wants those he works with to treat him as an equal, or even as a friend, as displayed from the very beginning with Dorian taking offence at being referred to as a ’synthetic’. Dorian tells jokes. He likes to sing Lionel Richie songs. He feels awkward and uncomfortable during long stretches of silence, and constantly tries to get the grumpy detective Kennex to talk to him.

But again, Dorian is run on a program that is designed to make him behave human. Though he doesn’t seem human in the same way that you and I do, he definitely seems to be alive, and to be a person in his own right.

This is why I enjoy stories about androids that don’t become world-destroying villains. Because if you sit down with a character who is an android, and the android has a name, and it looks human and speaks like a human, and displays independent thoughts and feelings of its own… is it human? Is Dorian real? If he is programed to feel and act human, then is he truly acting and feeling human? Or is Dorian just a piece of machinery that’s following its programing? But this begs the question—is there any difference?

Dorian, and the larger theme of the self-aware android, should make us question what makes us human. What makes us alive?

Is it the fact that we are made out of flesh and blood? The fact that we are born organically? Is it the electrical signals of our brain that make us who we are? Is the famous statement I think, therefore I am the defining characteristic of life? If that’s the case, then do androids think? Or dream?  Ultimately, is there something that separates us from them, or is Dorian just as human as he seems?

These are the driving questions behind Almost Human, bringing freshness and vitality to the simple buddy cop show it would otherwise be. Give it a chance.

Also, did I mention you get thirteen episodes of Karl Urban being grumpy?

 -contributed by Ben Ghan

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