Photo Source: Netflix
In August 2019, a Russian-made TV drama titled in English, Better Than Us came out on Netflix for American viewers. The sixteen-part, near-future sci-fi series touches on the complex and evolving relationships between people and robots and a future of increasing automation.
Better Than Us centers on the relationship between a very advanced prototype android named Arisa and the broken family she adopts. In some respects, the drama contains typical elements, including a family with a teenage boy named Egor, a very young girl, Sonya with surprisingly complex insights, and the divorced father, Dr. Georgy Safronov, a fallen neurosurgeon forced to become a coroner. Georgy must deal with his ex-wife threatening to leave the country with their children, a teenage son who, while pursuing a girl, gets caught up in an anti-robot terrorist group, and an evil corporate CEO directly connected to the surgeon and the robot, Arisa.
The series succeeds in part by not just using another killer robot theme but putting a different twist on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws found in the short story “Runaround,” published in 1942 state:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
In Better Than Us, the robot Arisa, played by Paulina Andreeva, does not follow the general rules of robotics; instead, Aimov’s rules only apply to the family with which she imprints, leaving her capable of killing anyone that threatens her family. Moreover, she will only answer to the commands of her family and no one else. Arisa appears as a one of a kind prototype for a next generation robot programmed with full empathic range and designed to serve a family as a mother and wife. In the series, a Russian robotics company, CRONOS Corp., purchases Arisa on the black market. The robot had been initially designed and built in China to fulfill the role of wife and mother to adopted children for the millions of Chinese men that cannot find wives as a result of China’s one-child policy that had created an imbalance in the ratio of males to females there. Viktor Toropov, the CEO of CRONOS Corp. describes Arisa when she first gets activated, “Her behavioral protocol is maintained by a separate quantum processor. She has an imitation of free will, right up to unpredictable behavior.” Her combination of empathy, free will, high intelligence, and self-awareness make the robot a great example of artificial general intelligence, which challenges the audience to consider what constitutes the threshold of consciousness.
In the first episode, by chance, Sonya, the young daughter of Georgy, activates Arisa’s imprinting function, permanently tying Arisa to the family. Because of the complexity of Arisa’s construction, the imprinting cannot be reversed, and she becomes part of the Safronov family. The story, in part, deals with trials and challenges posed by Arisa trying to integrate with the family. However, because of her demonstrated ability to kill and a public struggling with the implications of widespread automation, she poses a massive problem for CRONOS Corp. and its villainous CEO. CRONOS Corp., whose reputation depends on the safety of their products, must try to conceal at any cost that they have released a killer robot into the public. As a result, blackmail and treachery figure strongly through the show in relation to the corporation and the Safronov family.
Better Than Us, takes place in the year 2029 where many things look the same as today with cars from various years, makes, and models, a mix of old and new architecture, and normal looking people with the exception of the presence of many androids performing various jobs such as housekeeping, medical assistance, and companionship. However, none of the other robots exhibit artificial general intelligence that would make them less distinguishable from people. That’s what makes Arisa unique and adds complexity to the show. The CRONOS CEO, Toropov, in a debate states, “A robot is a household appliance, like a coffee maker.” But the idealized android with superhuman strength, intelligence, and emotional capability forces the viewer to confront the ethics of humanizing machines. The young daughter deeply bonds with Arisa as a friend and motherlike figure, forcing her dad to explain that Arisa is not human. By humanizing androids, the characters form bonds with machines, highlighting the natural reaction to connect with others or even human looking machines. Over-humanizing robots can further drive apart the people that they were designed to serve.
Better Than Us, ranks as must-see-TV for people interested in sci-fi and the future challenges of robotics and artificial intelligence. The show handles a number of storylines very well with some unexpected surprises and complications that Arisa brings as a complex, maybe-sentient robot focused on the health of her family. Additionally, it is interesting to see a show produced in Russia. Many of the shots have an interesting architectural feel, and the weather being almost continuously grey (not a sunny shot in the series) makes the future feel lightly dystopian. Definitely check it out.
Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.
You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.