Humans and the post-Asimov twist

Following on my discussion of the Asimov’s Three Laws after Episode 2 of Channel 4’s Humans, I want to bring to attention something that has become a new common trope of science fiction that looks at robots. (I hesitate to say ‘cliché’, because that sounds harsh in this context, though one might be forgiven for such criticism.)

Rotwang, the mad scientist from Metropolis

Rotwang, the mad scientist from Metropolis

Asimov, we might recall from the last review, was tired of the consistent portrayal of robotic monsters, and of the Faustian archetype of the mad, narcissistic scientist who creates a dangerous progeny that goes out of control. Asimov wanted to show that robots were simply tools, and could be rationally, predictably programmed, and used to the benefit of humanity; he wanted to show that the engineers and scientists that created them were merely rational, predictable human beings engaged in a specific job, like any other, and not at all interested in world domination.

Despite these noble intentions, and without wishing to overlook that this was actually a radical departure for science-fiction writing seventy years ago, Asimov success has created another trope that has become all too familiar in recent years. For while we are presented with much more sympathetic scientists — good, noble men and women that operate with the best intentions – we are still being victimised by monstrous, genocidal robots. But if scientists are so well-intentioned, how is it that their creations are still causing such bother?

On the one hand, it is because of the whole ‘man was not meant to meddle medley’, as it is described by Tony Stark in the Avengers: Age of Ultron (a full review of which should be forthcoming on these pages, but for now, check out this preview); this story tells us that we shouldn’t play around with forces beyond our control (such as creating life or artificial intelligence), whatever our intentions. That scientists, though not necessarily evil, should spend less time trying to figure out whether they can do something, and more time asking themselves whether they should, a question raised by Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in the first Jurassic Park film (best described as Westworld-with-Dinosaurs).

Much more ubiquitous, however, is the rise of a new villain. Instead of the mad scientist,  Faust, Frankenstein, Rotwang and the like, the new enemy of humanity unleashing the rampaging robotic menace upon the world are those that seek to control the scientists; these are, almost without exception, either the military or the corporate overlords that pay the scientists’ wages.

(To what extent, then, the capitalist mode of production can be cast as the ultimate evil I’ll leave for other sentimental Marxists to speculate. [Or I might do some other time, being a bit of a sentimental old Marxist myself…])

For it is these figures – sometimes left as faceless institutions, sometimes personified in the figure of the warmongering general or the heartless CEO – that are inevitably responsible for unleashing the monsters upon the world, either by stealing their employee’s work (usually before it’s ready), or by deceiving the scientists in some other underhanded way.

We couldn’t offer you spoilers if we wanted to, not sure ourselves how things will pan out in Humans, but it will be interesting, given some of the developments and foreshadowing over the last couple of weeks, to see if or how this post-Asimov theme develops in the show.


And what did we make of last week’s other revelation, Niska having a copy of The Ghost in the Machine, inscribed with the saying Primum Non Nocere?

Just a couple of ideas to ponder as we get ready for Episode 4.