What It Means to Be Human

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There is a new show on TV called “Humans.” From the title it’s not readily apparent that the show features imitation humans (“synths”). These synthetic humans are robots programmed with artificial Intelligence (AI).

The premise of the show is that these robots have become more and more like the people they are modeled on to the point of having consciousness and emotions. The leading robot character Anita works as a nanny for a family with three children and two working parents. Anita was not always as subservient as she appears at the beginning. She was part of a group of robots who escaped their slave situations and lead independent lives with each other. Anita was even “in love” with the leader of the renegade robots. Then she was captured by a slave trader who sold her to be reprogrammed as a household servant.

What drew me to the show when I saw the pilot in a preview presented by the Denver Film Society was a subplot. In this part of the narrative, one of the creators of the AI robots (played by the wonderful actor William Hurt) has retained his original model. This robot serves a surrogate son and companion to the inventor.

What drew me to this storyline and moved me was its treatment of memory. The William Hurt character was married but his wife has died. The robot was with him and his wife for years, and he retains the memories of the couple’s life together. Thus, the inventor has a companion to share his memories with.

When I spoke to the writers in the Q&A after the showing, I said, “You really touched me. My wife has Alzheimer’s and has lost her memory. I cannot share memories with her anymore. I want a synth, too, so I will have someone to share memories of Molly with.”

The show is titled “Humans,” because it is truly about what it means to be human. The robots who are meant to imitate humans in as many ways as possible serve to explore what makes a human different from a machine. If robots can think and feel and make choices just like humans, then are they human, too? And, if not, what makes a human being more than or different from a machine no matter how complex the machine’s programming?

Memories of life experience would appear to be one of those areas where humans and machines ought to differ. Human memories are, for one thing, closely tied to emotions. We especially remember what made us feel really good or bad: our wedding celebration, the birth of a child or grandchild, a beloved grandparent’s dying of cancer, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. These are a few of my strongest memories, and the emotional charge associated with them helps keep them alive in my brain and my mind. They are an essential part of what I call myself; they contain my life history and mark what is important enough to keep.

Molly’s memory does not work in the same way. I doubt seriously that she can retrieve any of these memories now. Yet my answer to the perennial question “Does she remember you?” is a resounding “Yes.” She recognizes me with her eyes and her smile and her touch so that I know she does remember me. Does have labels for “husband,” “married,” “family”? Probably not, but she knows me without the categories.

Not in the way a robot would have a detailed record of events and dates and circumstances. Molly is not a machine.

Yesterday we were sitting in the lounge area of the facility where Molly lives. On the wall are some standard oil paintings of countryside landscapes. Molly pointed to one. It reminded me of a place in the North of England where we had vacationed once. I spoke to Molly about the memory. “We went to a place that looked a lot like that. We climbed the hills and saw the birds and flowers.” It wasn’t at all clear whether Molly might have some recollection of that trip and what we did together.

We were, however, connected in the present. As I rose to leave I said, “I will see you tomorrow.” Molly replied, “That would be great.” This was the longest clear sentence she has uttered in many months.

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