Science fiction has always been one of the leading ways for our culture to process and project the changes that science and technology will introduce into our lives, going back to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, perhaps the first work of sci-fi from one of modern science’s founding fathers. Fox took up the Baconian baton this week when it launched its new show “Almost Human” about a broken down cop returning to the field alongside his administratively imposed, but likewise retrieved from the scrap heap, android partner.
In her initial recap, Christine Rosen, a senior editor at The New Atlantis (the magazine) and fellow at the New America Foundation, notes that “Fear and loathing of robots is a trope of long standing in science fiction,” but that “fear and loathing might be giving way to grudging acceptance.” Robots after all, are creeping ever further into every facet of our everyday life, whether deploying in the place of citizen soldiers in the distribution of lethal force, or offering comfort to the lonely and aged in Japan’s great greying. Machines have replaced men in factories for doing the heavy labor, and are being adapted to supplement the remaining human workforce elsewhere. Even cars, the symbol of American liberation from constricting locality, are seen to have an automated future when it might very well be unethical or illegal for an unreliable and precious member of our species to be wielding the wheel unaided.
Rosen notes previous cop-machine pairings in popular culture, like KITT and Michael in Knight Rider:
KITT the computerized talking car was a reliable and sympathetic friend to Michael (played by David Hasselhoff). But although the Hoff was always thankful for KITT, he rarely ended an episode of Knight Rider without securing a new girlfriend. The ineffable pleasure that relationships with other human beings bring was something earlier shows took for granted.
Rosen sees “Almost Human” to suggest, in line with techno-utopian tendencies currently lurking in some prominent corners of Silicon Valley, that robots can replace or substitute for human intimacy, emotional or otherwise. After all Dorian, the outdated android partner, is programmed with an empathetic circuitry that seems to exceed the wetware of his grizzled human companion, John Kennex. And the second episode centered around breakthroughs in “sex-bot” technology that replace significant chunks of demand for human prostitutes by offering attractive and attentive androids for rent. To Rosen, “Almost Human” ”is normalizing the notion that we can create technologies that can teach us how to be better human beings.”
From my first watching, of the first two episodes that have so far aired, however, “Almost Human” may be susceptible to a more generous reading. First, the sex bots. The particular crime that grounds the episode is the kidnapping of innocent women in order to harvest their skin. Synthetic skin, it is said, still has miles to go before it matches the real thing. In a very literal sense, “Almost Human” suggests that there is no replacement for the “human touch.” Moreover, it is mentioned relatively off-hand that combining human DNA with androids is strictly banned by law, so conceivable techniques projecting from today’s science, such as generating skin or other organic prosthetics for the robotic frames using stem cells, would be off the table. John Kennex has a synthetic limb that replaces a leg he lost in an explosion, however, suggesting a double standard where humans can partake of technology, but androids cannot partake of human biology.
Second, and briefly, as uber-empathetic as Dorian may appear next to John’s gruff cop persona, he is constantly being educated by John in the lived experience of personhood, including how people deal with mortality. He may have empathetic programming, and have monitors to be able to detect elevated heart rates when suspects are lying or when, well, his partner is “backed up.” (As Rosen rightly notes, “don’t scan my balls again… ever” ranks right up there among the most cringeworthy moments in television.) But the phenomenology of personhood apparently can’t be pre-programmed.
The show mainly sticks to tropes, so expectations for intellectual rigor have to be tempered, but at the outset there are at least indications that Fox may explore the limits of technology as much as its potential.