Following the story of servile androids and their human owners, Humans is set in the present day, as Wax said that he and his team felt the technology they show on screen was in the very near future. “This revolution is happening already around us. They are beginning to displace workers, operating in hospitals and building planes. We wanted to tap into that and say ‘this is an acceleration of where we are now’. It is actually not a futuristic world. It is grounded in the real and relatable present,” he said.
The action principally follows the Hawkins family - a busy mother and an overwhelmed father who buys a “synth” to help with chores and childcare. One of the issues the Humans team wanted to explore was displacement. The mother immediately feels sidelined, as her youngest daughter prefers her stories and sandwiches to be read and made by Anita, the synth.
The eldest daughter, who had aspirations of being a surgeon, feels her future is threatened by the development of synths in general. Wax said this character Mattie represents the fear of technology.
However, they wanted to present a balanced view and show the “incredible” benefits of anthropomorphic helper robots as well.
Wax said the aim of writers Sam Vincent and John Brackley was to get some viewers to respond positively to synths and want to have one in their home, while getting others to think it would be the worst thing possible. This dichotomy is represented by the husband and wife, Joe and Laura.
Another issue the team looked at was how we relate to each other in society. George is a retired AI scientist with an emotional attachment to his first-generation synth - the keeper of his late wife’s memories. The writers wanted viewers to ask themselves if this attachment was a positive or healthy thing. At this very moment, robots that counter loneliness among elderly people are being developed.
From the start - but in season two especially - the show explores the issue of consciousness. Wax explained the backstory that synths have been around for 15 years and a few were developed by a “brilliant maverick creator” to be sentient and conscious. “We then examine what that consciousness means. If a synth can think, feel pain and pleasure and do absolutely everything a human can do, why should they not be accorded human, or legal rights,” asked Wax.
He said that he always wanted to explore the most complex and tricky, moral and ethical areas. In series two, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur develops a programme to create synth children. These synths would be replaced and upgraded every few years in line with the growth phases of human children. “It raises ethical issues of genetics,” said Wax. “If the parents discover they carry a particular gene, this is a way of having a child that will never become sick.”
With so many important questions raised and in a setting almost identical to our own, the show is certainly captivating. Nearly seven million viewers watched the first episode and two million tuned in for the finale. It has won a British Screenwriters’ Award, a BAFTA and has been nominated for many others.
In spite of the praise and accolades, Wax presents himself as just a storyteller. “It’s the idea of what makes us human. We don’t make any comments on this. We simply present it.”