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Better than Us

Better than Us poster

Добрый день. Меня зовут Роланд!

It just happens that in the last month I’ve discovered two mas­ter­pieces of Russian art: one is the Red Army Choir, the other one is Better than Us, a TV show about a family living in 2029, which somehow becomes the owner of a very advanced robot.

Robots are common in this world, but they are quite dumb and can’t go beyond their pro­gram­ming. As someone who works with machine learning, I find it quite puzzling that the robots have excellent natural language un­der­stand­ing skills and are able to follow human commands (both of which are very difficult to do today, just try to talk for a couple of minutes to Siri), but are unable to understand human emotions (sentiment analysis works pretty well today, both on text data and on faces) or to improvise and develop new skills (there have been successful ex­per­i­ments about this).

Arisa saving a child

Arisa diagnosing a child of a rare disease

The show starts with Viktor Toropov, the head of Kronos, one of the largest robot man­u­fac­tur­ers in Russia, buying Arisa, a new kind of robot, on the black market. She is said to have a quantum chip which enables her to have un­pre­dictable behavior and to learn. She arrives with a low battery (as all the gadgets you buy), so she seeks a charging station as soon as she is turned on. The security guard who was assigned to watch her gets too close and has his neck broken. And then Arisa slips away un­wit­ting­ly, looking for another place to charge her battery.

By co­in­ci­dence, she meets Sonya Safronov on the streets, the little daughter of Georgy Safronov, a former neu­ro­sur­geon whose life is in shambles. Arisa “adopts” this family and tries to integrate with them. Of course, Kronos wants her back and is looking for her. The Liq­uida­tors, a terrorist group who want to get rid of robots, also want to destroy her. The police are also interested in this story, because it would implicate Viktor Toropov knew about a murderous robot. And of course, the Safronovs are in the middle of all this, getting the short end of the stick, being kidnapped, shot at, bartered and generally bossed around.

Igor at gunpoint

Georgy's son, held at gunpoint

The story is quite in­ter­est­ing and there are some cool twists, such as Georgy and Viktor having a past connection, or Arisa learning to perform a surgery better than Safronov can. It ends with a happy ending for the main characters and a big plot twist in the last 5 seconds.

Besides robots, the show also features lots of drones. Every time there is an open air scene, at least 2-3 drones are seen buzzing around, high enough not to interfere, close enough to perform sur­veil­lance. Drones are used to spy on loved ones and also to deliver bombs to eliminate rivals. This part of the show seems to me like the most likely to actually happen in real life in the next 10 years. Drones are already quite cheap, you can get one with 4K cameras for 300$. The battery life is not that good, but demand for better batteries will provide break­throughs soon enough. And then people will get used to being under sur­veil­lance everywhere. Creepy thought.

The actors are amazing, both the ones who play robots and the ones who play humans. The actress for Arisa does an amazing job of showing both her robotic per­son­al­i­ty, with very ordered and strict movements, but also of showing how she learns and how she starts to respond to emotions, initially only with a very small and subtle smile. Also, the actor who plays Safronov looks a bit like Tim Roth :D

Lara hacking Arisa

Lara trying to hack into Arisa's memory

When Arisa is on screen, even the background music is more chill, showing how even her perception of time is different (better?) than that of humans.

Another thing that I love about the show is the language. I’ve had some attempts in the past to learn Russian (they failed), but watching Better than us brought back sparks. It just sounds great. Also, how Russian names are used is fas­ci­nat­ing: in direct con­ver­sa­tion, people sometimes address each other with full names. Georgy has a dozen versions, which are used by various people around him. Last names are often used directly to call people. For me, it was really great to delve a bit into the Russian language.

The show is on Netflix, where they merged two 8 episode seasons into one 16 episode season. I really hope they will make a third season. Or I have to find another Russian show to watch :D