Automation is now a hot topic for not only Silicon Valley insiders, but also among politicians who have dubbed AI and related technologies it the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Business leaders already predict that almost a quarter of jobs will be automated in the next decade, leading to massive shifts in the structure of the world economy. Between technologies as simple as self-checkout kiosks replacing retail workers to autonomous vehicles replacing truck drivers, there are many reasons for human workers to feel anxious.
Netflix’s latest series Better Than Us goes a step further, and introduces humanoid robots into the equation. Originally created for Russian state-owned television, the series images a world where we ask ourselves, “are robots really better than us?”
Better Than Us is set in a near-future Russia, where humanoid robots serve humans in manufacturing, retail, and other routine jobs. However, they lack the ability to fully understand human emotion—essentially, Siri with a body. A Chinese company creates a bot called Arisa (Paula Andreeva), originally designed to be a perfect spouse for single men facing China’s looming gender imbalance crisis. Arisa can understand human emotion, and turns out to be vastly more intelligent than existing bots, to the point of being sentient.
Russian robotics oligarch Viktor Toropov buys the prototype Arisa, and convinces the Russian government to develop an “early retirement program” where workers get paid to retire early, and let Arisa-like robots take over their jobs There’s only one problem—Arisa escapes from Toropov’s custody into the hands of Georgy Safronov’s (Kirill Käro) family, who doesn’t know how special she is. Through her experiences with Safronov’s family, Arisa starts to learn how to be more human, while also trying to evade Toropov’s attempts to recapture her.
A central part of Better Than Us’ plot revolves around a group of Luddite extremists known as the “Liquidators.” The Liquidators kidnap and attack robots in protest against their ever-growing dominance in human society. Their fear that humans will be quickly replaced by robotic overlords is not unfounded. While most robots are otherwise unintelligent and often bug-prone, Arisa demonstrates repeatedly her prowess in myriad skills over humans, whether it’s medical diagnoses or cooking.
Arisa also makes Safronov’s estranged ex-wife Alla angry when she turns out to be quite an adept caretaker for their young daughter Sonya. She proclaims to her friend that Sonya needs a real mother, not a robot—yet Sonya seems to be indifferent, even preferring to spend time with Arisa, instead of with her biological mother.
Better Than Us excels at portraying the prejudices that humans have for anyone, or anything, that might replace their place in society. Replace “robots” with “immigrants” or “minorities,” and the premise of Better Than Us would resemble the contemporary political discourse in many countries.
In fact, Better Than Us is less sci-fi series than a conspiracy drama set in the context of a futuristic society. The conflicts between people are the focus, as Toropov tries to dupe the Russian government into giving him vast sums of money to manufacture copies of Arisa, and Safronov struggles to be an effective single father.
What Does It Mean To Be Human?
Peppered throughout Better Than Us are questions about what truly makes humans, human. Somewhat unsurprisingly, one of the first controversies around humanoid robots ends up being sex work. A televised debate in Better Than Us asks whether it’s considered cheating for a man to have sex with a robot. Toropov refutes this by saying that robots can never truly replace humans as they are not “someone you may want to die on the same day with, hold hands with on the metro, or drink coffee with in the morning.”
Arisa challenges this premise through her relationship with Sonya, as well as Safronov. Arisa makes breakfast for Safronov and Sonya, and Sonya even tries (unsuccessfully) to get Arisa to eat with them. Safronov is stuck between his growing affection for Arisa, and his notion that Arisa is just a robot, not a living human being. At the same time, Arisa struggles with her own growing feelings towards Safronov—whether this is a reflection of her initial design to be a companion for single men, or a result of her machine learning.
Better Than Us is not the first series to explore the ethics of sentient AI—British series Humans and space opera Battlestar Galactica all feature human-like sentient robots, and their struggle to make humanity accept them as living beings.
However, Better Than Us explores this topic with a less antagonistic perspective. It eschews any semblance of a robot uprising as seen in both Humans and Battlestar Galactica, and thus the Liquidators simply come across as Luddites, rather than defenders of humanity. Unlike the often violent synths in Humans or the cylons in Battlestar Galactica who wage wars on humans, in Better Than Us Arisa is hardly as a threat to humans. The series instead focuses on her humanity: the tender moments where she plays with Sonya, and her attempts to be a member of the Safronov family.
The release of Better Than Us is extremely timely given the nearing real-world automation revolution. But what makes the series truly stand out is that it offers a more hopeful view of a society where robots augment and supplement humanity, rather than simply coming in conflict with or replacing it. While Better Than Us may not have the theatrics of a space opera like Battlestar Galactica, it frames contemporary issues in a more accessible, near-future context.
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Better Than Us (Russian: Лучше, чем люди, Luchshe, chem lyudi)—Russia. Dialog in Russian. Created by Andrey Junkovsky. First released November 23rd, 2018 in Russia. Starring Paulina Andreeva, Kirill Käro, Aleksandr Ustyugov, Eldar Kalimulin, Vita Kornienko, Olga Lomonosova, Kirill Polukhin, and Pavel Vorozhtsov.