Gemma Chan is not normally a difficult interviewee, but something’s different today. While her initial greeting is cheerful, the 33-year-old actress seems distant, failing to meet my eye.
When she does reply, her answers are somehow… robotic. “Can you hear me?” she asks twice over the video call we’re sharing, but when I answer she just stares ahead, stone-faced and glassy-eyed.Frankly, she’s more like her synth character Anita in Humans than her usual self, and my inner explanations for her behaviour have begun to shift from “She’s playing a weird joke” to “The robot uprising has already begun”.
So what on earth is going on? Well, as it turns out I was half right, as moments later the real Chan bursts into the room to inform me that I was interviewing a real-life talking robot duplicate of her that was created from a full head cast, voice recognition software and 3D mapping of Chan’s facial expressions.
Why? Just to see if I was able to spot the difference! As it turns out my reaction — including leaving the room to ask someone why I was talking to a robot — was a good sign for my survival if mechanical slaves ever do gain sentience and rise against us. Good to know.
“You’re not one of the sheep who’s just going to sit there and wait,” Chan tells me later, shortly after taking me to meet her eerily lifelike robot duplicate (dubbed “Gemmabot”).
“But I think I would just sit there.” She’s too modest.
It becomes clear over the course of our conversation that Chan’s immersed herself in the ideas of artificial intelligence (AI) and technological ethics thrown up by the first series of Humans, and I get the feeling that if anyone could survive an upcoming techno-pocalypse it’s her.
“There have been several times I’ve been amazed what machines are now capable of,” she says, citing Google’s recent creation of computer programme AlphaGo (which beat a human world champion of the board game “Go” in 2016) as a particular eye-opener.
“Go is one of the oldest board games in the world,” she explains. “It’s much more complicated than chess. In Go there are more potential moves than there are atoms in the universe.
“The way that AlphaGo beat the human world champion is much more like how we would play a game. It comes up with genuinely creative solutions and that’s crazy, to think a machine can be creative, can come up with an original idea and surprise its makers.”
Later, Chan’s feelings on the subject become even stronger, with the actress telling a crowd at a Humans series two screening after our interview, that she now feels “we’re sleepwalking into our own annihilation” when it comes to the threat of artificial intelligence.
“Once we’ve created something that is superintelligent, and it can replicate and self-improve, then it’s the last invention,” she tells me.
“It’s the last invention that humankind will ever have to make.” And of course, this is a fear that Chan must feel quite keenly — because as soon as they sort out the dodgy speech responses, there’s already a synthetic Gemmabot duplicate ready to step into her shoes for a fraction of the cost.
“It did occur to me midway through that maybe I was making my own replacement,” Chan acknowledges. “Series three, I might be out of a job!