Humans Star Sonya Cassidy on Attending "Synth School" and the Pros and Cons of AI

TV Features Humans
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<i>Humans</i> Star Sonya Cassidy on Attending "Synth School" and the Pros and Cons of AI

Recently, TV series like Black Mirror and Westworld have given us plenty to think about when it comes to AI and how it fits into our sense of morality. Unsurprisingly, the scenarios depicted don’t usually end on a positive note (think Black Mirror’s “White Christmas”). AMC’s Humans, on the other hand, explores a futuristic world through the eyes of synths: robots with a strikingly human appearance and, in some cases, a conscience. The series’ second season offers an in-depth exploration of the relationship between conscious synths and their human “handlers,” and the questions of morality these relationships raise. Introducing a host of new characters, including Sonya Cassidy’s Hester, Humans asks audiences what it means to be a synth in a human world void of ethical responsibility.

Unlike Hester, Sonya Cassidy, the British actress best known for her role as the Oracle of Gaia on Olympus, is a true advocate for human rights, especially women’s rights. With her “Msfilmmaker” Instagram account, she aims to shine a spotlight on all the amazing women in action behind the scenes—the directors, cinematographers, camera operators and drivers who make Sonya’s work in front of the lens possible. She’s the first to admit she’s no Annie Leibovitz, but in her own way, she hopes to echo the motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: “If she can see it, she can be it.”

Paste caught up with Sonya to discuss “synth school” (movement and language training), Hester’s experiences as a conscious synth and how AI should form a part of our socio-political conversation.

Paste: How did synth school prepare you for the role of Hester?

Sonya Cassidy: Synth school was invaluable, I’m very glad I had it. I had a one-on-one session with Dan O’Neill, our movement coordinator, and was made aware of just how sophisticated and detailed the synths’ movement actually is. There is a beautiful economy to their movement, everything is effortless. And their physicality does sort of inform their thinking process—when they’re sentient, at least. Little touches, like their eyes—their peripherals are narrower than ours so their eyes move ever so slightly before they move their head and their body. They don’t carry any tension anywhere; their center of gravity is slightly forward, so when they move or stop it’s a very definite movement. These very un-human physical traits were a nice challenge to iron out.

Paste: How did you tap into Hester’s story and her suddenly becoming sentient?

Cassidy: I basically treated Hester like a damaged child in that, when she awakens, she has no idea what’s going on, but she’s acutely aware of the danger she’s in. What I liked was the idea that for synths to suddenly be aware of the fact that they can be destroyed is even more terrifying because it doesn’t make sense and it’s not something they have a programmed answer to. We as human beings find the frailty of our own existence pretty all-consuming; to the synths, it’s unfathomable. Although Hester’s not been able to process any day up to the point that she becomes sentient, everything she’s experienced is stored as memory, and her only memory of humans and being in a human environment is one that is very negative and filled with mistreatment, so that very much fuels who Hester becomes.

Paste: How does Hester’s character evolve throughout the second season?

Cassidy: In many ways, because she’s a synth, she evolves very quickly. She’s effectively ten steps ahead of Leo [Colin Morgan] in terms of, in her mind, finding the correct solution to their problem, which I think is fascinating. At the same time, she’s very young and naïve emotionally, but her intentions are right. This season raises wonderful challenges and questions for Hester. The questions she asks are very real, ethical problems that will make us go, “Actually, you’ve got a point there; I don’t agree with how you’re going about it but you do have a point, and you are raising questions we have not been able to really find a clean answer to throughout history.” There’s a lovely kind of contradiction to her development. She has all the data there, she has the ability to process so much. But now that she has all this wonderful emotional baggage that comes with being conscious, it hinders an open-minded clarity of thought, I suppose.

Paste: Sophie Hawkins’ [Pixie Davis] story is also taking an interesting turn, starting to identify with the synths around her. What do you think of this development?

Cassidy: I think that’s part of the appeal of the show. It’s so relatable. It’s set in the future, in a kind of parallel world, if you will, but it centers a lot on a very normal family. They’re going through a very difficult time in their marriage and, of course, children pick up on that. And what are the coping mechanisms that children and adults will tap into in times of difficulty? I think in the same way we rightly look at how trauma can affect children, it’s a clever way of looking at how AIs would affect us and our future generations. There’s a lot that’s very attractive about a synth’s life: As a young person navigating adolescence, and the things that we’re bombarded with emotionally and intellectually, there’s great solace in tapping into a very simple, logical, clear-cut way of life.

And that’s also what I like about the show. It shows the pros and cons of AI. I think too often we get the kind of Terminator, “It’s the end of the world, everything’s awful” view—which, if Hester were running things might be the case [laughs]—but there’s a lot to be gained from AI and I think the more the general public gets to hear about it, the more we’ll think about those things and discuss them. The more we are having a conversation about AI politically, the better, because it is happening. It cannot or should not necessarily be stopped, but there are many areas whereby just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should.

Paste: This season has a stronger focus on the possibility of immortality. How has this affected your personal view on the subject?

Cassidy: Whilst I understand the allure of immortality in some ways, I think there’s something very precious about the chance of being here as we are now. Being able to experience this world, in this very moment in time, is an incredible honor. It’s exciting and humbling, and I think it’s made more so for the fact that it will end one day. I’ve been looking into cryonics recently—not, I should say, for myself [laughs]. It’s not something I’d be into, but I am fascinated by it as a concept. Whilst I think there are many hurdles to overcome in terms of being able to, essentially, defrost bodies down the line, personally, it’s not something I see myself doing. There’s something galvanizing in the fact that our only certainty in life is death and it’s often talked about in a very fearful way. Of course, it’s only our human instinct to fear and avoid it, but I think looking at death makes us value our own lives far more highly.

Season Two of Humans premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on AMC.

Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.