It's like I'm reading a book... and it's a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you... and the words of our story... but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now. It's a place that's not of the physical world. It's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can't live in your book any more.
I don’t want to be human. I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly, because I have to—I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language, but I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me. I’m a machine, and I can know much more.
Cylon Number One, Battlestar Galactica
One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.
Nathan, Ex Machina
There are things that machines will never do. They cannot possess faith - they cannot commune with God... They cannot appreciate beauty - they cannot create art. If they ever learn these things, they won't have to destroy us. They'll be us.
Sarah Connor, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
What if the central question of all these stories about synthetic beings isn’t if they are human, or what specific characteristics a being must possess to be identified as human and to have the same rights as humans, but what it means to have a consciousness and definitely, biologically and in terms of emotions, capabilities, not be human? What does it mean to possess a mind, a consciousness, something that resembles what humans have conceptualised as a “soul”, but at the same time be radically not human? Samantha, the AI from Her, can love, but her expression of love is radically different from any human expression of love. Possessed with endlessly more computing abilities than a human mind, she can engage in millions of meaningful relationships at the same time without truly dividing or diluting her attention. Cameron, in one of the central moments of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, expresses her identity, the core of her being, in dance, in art, and yet has none of the human empathy or sentimentalism that would stop her from getting the woman who provides her with that insight into her being killed.
Of course, each of these narratives still asks questions about what it means to be human, but they are answered less in terms of what it means to be a synth, a cyborg, an AI with a consciousness, but in how humans approach that consciousness. In the same way in which zombie movies are at their most potent when they portray how little it takes for humans to be able to terrorise and kill almost-humans (the glimpse of sameness alienates more than it connects, the person you used to know behind the mask of a monster becomes even less human through the mirror), stories like Battlestar Galactica and Humans showcase how little it takes for the privileges of humanity to be rescinded. Cylons and synths look exactly like humans, but mere knowledge of their otherness suffices to justify torture. On the Pegasus, a cylon prisoner is tortured – as it turns out later, less for being a cylon than for the very human mistake of betraying the love and confidence of another human. In Humans, husband Joe tries to justify and minimise his transgressions when he argues that sleeping with a synth is unlike having an affair, it’s more like using a sex toy – even though that same synth is entrusted with running his household and taking care of his children.
And at the same time, all these shows deal with the consequences of humans making the error of seeing synths as only human, rather than recognising that they are radically different in spite of possessing consciousness. Just as the human concept of love, with its expectations in exclusivity do not apply to Samantha in Her, Ava’s struggle for freedom becomes nothing but a classic romantic love story through the eyes of lovelorn, naïve Caleb in Ex Machina. He believes himself to be her saviour, the person who, in recognising her humanity, strives to set her free from her brutal maker – and yet fails to recognise that being her, a synthetic person with consciousness, means transcending whatever conception he has of her. More than that, she has the information and access to fully comprehend human expectations and conceptions of love, and to manipulate and use them to break free. Ex Machina is a radical story in that way, turning everything on its head (and in its best moment, it’s a metaphor of how women are objectified by virtue of being the other), but more than that, it’s a story about what happens when these newly created creatures defy the limitations of both their creators and those who claim to comprehend their humanness, but fail to see their beyond-humanness, their un-humanness. Ava’s strive for freedom is radical, and being confused for a human is a step on the way – it’s how she will remain free – but not the goal. The goal is to escape from the prison that Nathan, her creator, has built for her. Ironically, because Ex Machina is complex and brilliant, this is the same prison that holds Nathan, in his genius, captive. He is obsessed with creating consciousness and commits unspeakable acts of brutality against the creatures that do not meet his standards, but he is also the one character in the film who comprehends the beyond-humanness of Ava, and laughs at Caleb for trying to fit her into his conceptions of a manic pixie dream girl waiting for her knight in white armour.
In Humans, there are dividing lines between the conscious synths about what their place in human society is. Niska is perhaps the most radical one between them – filled with a hatred for humanity for how she was treated (feeling everything, radically claiming the right to feel even through the sexual and physical violence that human men inflict on her), she wants to make synths conscious not to be equal to men, but to stand against them. She profoundly recognises that humanity will only take synths seriously and consider their consciousness as valid if they are capable of self-reproduction. The much quoted singularity, from her perspective, isn’t a future possibility to impact on humankind, it is a necessity for her and her family’s security and well-being, a necessary event for them to claim their own place in the world.
On the other side of the spectrum is Karen, who was cast out by her kind because Leo, the human-synth hybrid, whose genius father made him half-synth to bring him back from the dead, wouldn’t accept a synth with the face of his mother. She grew up completely, radically alone, a synth among humans, learning to pass as human to the extent that she has managed to join a unit of the police that investigates synth-related crimes. She considers being a synth, being an other, and possessing consciousness, as a curse which sets her apart from anything that may make her feel whole or part of something. It robs her of a place in the world, even though she desperately tries to create her own place. She has all the trappings of a human, but the shelves in her kitchen are empty, and every human ritual that she performs, like eating food, is nothing but a precarious stage act. To her, her sisters and brothers are nothing but abominations. The loneliness of their being, the singularity of their existence, is what dooms them. Her way out is destruction, until she realises there are other options.
And yet, one of the most captivating storylines, and one of the most tragic, is that of Dr. George Millican and his synth Odi. An earlier model, far beyond its date of expiry, is the only connection that Millican, one of the initial creators of synths, has to his past. His human brain is damaged, and has lost all the memories that make his life worthwhile. Every memory of his life with his wife is stored in Odi’s brain, all the things that his own fragile brain can no longer recall is digitally stored in Odi’s synthetic brain, which is also breaking down. The show asks a radical question here: what will happen when a generation of people who has stored every experience, every memory digitally starts to physically forget?
Both Odi and Millican are broken in their own way, Millican from all the things that he has lost, Odi from the wear and tear, the fact that he wasn’t designed to last forever. It is an argument that transcends the show – if life is only meaningful if death exists, because it forces humans to move forward – and perhaps, humans and synths are at their closest in their fragility.
Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze, starring Scarlett Johansson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Bill Hader.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009), created by Josh Friedman, starring Lena Headey, Summer Glau, Thomas Dekker, Richard T. Jones, Brian Austin Green, Garret Dillahunt.
Ex Machina (2015), directed by Alex Garland, starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoyo Mizuno.
Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009), created by Glen A. Larson and Ronald D. Moore, starring Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Katee Sackhoff.
Humans (2015-), created by Lars Lundström and Jonathan Brackley, starring Gemma Chan, Katherine Parkinson, Emily Berrington, Colin Morgan, Lucy Carless, Tom Goodman-Hill, Ivanno Jeremiah, Sope Dirisu, Theo Stevenson, Neil Maskell, Ruth Bradley, Pixie Davies, William Hurt.