How Does the “Humans” Pilot Explore the Balance Between Artificial Intelligence and Sentience?

The date was February 13, 1989. The show was Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). The episode was “The Measure of a Man,” and Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) was tasked with proving his sentience to avoid being disabled by a Starfleet cyberneticist. The episode was one of television’s first lengthy, calculated examinations of the exact boundary between technology and life - between artificial intelligence and sentience. Data has to prove that he is a man, not the technological property of Starfleet. He has to prove that his sentience - that is, his ability to make his own decisions, form his own relationships, and operate of his own volition without instructional programming from a third party - renders him more than another piece of equipment that can be dismantled without his permission. But he’s also forced to present as evidence all the ways in which he’s clearly not human - including his super strength, his mental calculation capacity, and his ability to be disabled with the flick of a switch. The episode teetered back and forth on the cusp of humanity and technology, providing solid convincing arguments in each direction.

In a great speech, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) argues that just because Data is a man-constructed being, he is not the property of Starfleet. He is a man in his own right. “Children are created from the building blocks of their parents’ DNA,” he says. “Are they property?”

In a turning point for the case, someone presents Data’s box of collectibles from his time in Starfleet, including his medals, a book given to him by Picard, and a holocube portrait of a deceased crew member with whom he had been intimate. Data says they serve no purpose to him other than reminders of his friends and service. He shows hesitation and discomfort, but more importantly, displays intelligence and self-awareness - the very foundations of sentience. A mere robot would not have nostalgic tendencies. The court rules in his favor, saying “Does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have! But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose.”

All of this is directly relevant to what we see in the pilot episode of AMC’s Humans (2015), which deals with artificial intelligence constructs that resemble humans and are designed to make human life easier.

Various characters have already voiced opposing perceptions of what the Synths are - one called them slaves, as their only intended function is human servitude. Yet others are eager to attribute human qualities to them, namely the Hawkins family’s youngest daughter, Sophie (Pixie Davies), who doesn’t see the family Synth, Anita (Gemma Chan), as a tool, but an instant friend. “What if she’s not pretty?” Anita asks when her father is making the purchase. Her concerns are quickly dissolved.

Similarly, the dementia-suffering George Millican (William Hurt) owns an outdated Synth who isn’t just a household robot, but a storage vessel full of memories of George’s late wife. Apparently Synth memories can’t be dumped from one unit to another, and George avoids legal requirements that force him to acquire an upgraded Synth. “I need him,” he says, not wanting the Synth and, subsequently himself, to lose all those memories.

We also learn of a number of “rogue” Synths who have developed a form of sentience - Anita is one of them, though she may not know it - and these Synths are hiding out among the others to avoid detection. They’re being hunted, caught, and analyzed. Their sentience is as fascinating as it is disturbing, and will no doubt result in similar examinations to those of Lieutenant Commander Data illustrated above. If they are truly sentient, can we ethically capture, detain and analyze them? Or is sentience the border between life and technology?

The relevance of this discussion is increasingly real in modern society as technology inches closer to this level of artificial intelligence being possible. The judge in Data’s courtroom says this discussion deals “with metaphysics, with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent, nor qualified, to answer those.” But they are questions humanity will inevitably have to try and answer if we continue down the path of creating advanced technologies.