Devs is the weird TV sci-fi romp you need in your life right now

BBC/FX Networks

Devs throws a lot at you. The first ten minutes of the BBC’s new sci-fi drama are like reading a copy of WIRED that someone has put through a blender: there are nematodes, neural networks, quantum computers, artificial intelligence and more.

In the opening scenes, we meet Sergei and Lily, a young couple who work at Amaya – a quantum computing startup based in a leafy campus somewhere on the US west coast. The company’s charismatic tech bro leader is known only as Forest, and is played by Nick Offerman – best known for his role as gruff boss Ron Swanson in the sitcom Parks & Recreation.

Here, Offerman leans into the big tech-archetype, with an unkempt beard, shoulder-length hair, and gratuitous quirks: in episode one, we see him eating salad straight out of the box with his fingers. Think Jack Dorsey after three months of self-isolation and you’re somewhere close.

The eight-part series is written and directed by Alex Garland, who rose to fame as the author of Thai party novel The Beach, but has since spent most of his time in the science-fiction section, from 28 Days Later, via adaptations of Never Let Me Go and Annihilation, through to 2014’s Ex Machina, where a talented programmer is invited into the home of an eccentric tech CEO to perform an elaborate Turing test on one of his robotic creations.

Devs is essentially Ex Machina but with quantum computing Command-F’d in to replace AI. In the first episode, Sergei impresses Forest during a demonstration, and is recruited to the mysterious ‘Devs’ unit, which is based in a secure, vacuum-sealed compound in the middle of the woods (because state-of-the-art machinery and loose soil are such natural bedfellows).

Inside the unit, Sergei encounters “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever seen – a quantum computer. And this is where Devs begins to lose its apparent grounding in science and float away into something closer to religious reverie.

Like Ex Machina, Devs is a musing on the nature of free will and determinism – the central premise is that Amara has developed a technology that can use the power of quantum computing to predict what people are going to do, before they do it.

When Sergei disappears after his first shift in the Devs unit, it’s left to his girlfriend Lily to try and find out what really happened to him – but she’s up against a machine that seems to be able to predict the future.

The quantum computer inside the Devs unit has all the gold wiring and tubing you would expect – it looks suitably impressive. But instead of being housed in an opaque metal canister (vital to shield the quantum chip from interference), it’s in a glass box like a historical artefact – you half expect the characters to prostrate themselves at the feet of the all-powerful machine.

That impression is heightened by the soundtrack and set design. As well as the usual discordant synthesiser music accompanying long shots of people walking down sparse corridors (a sci-fi staple), there are also warmer touches such as organs and choirs. The room that houses the quantum computer isn’t white and sterile as it ought to be to prevent contamination. Instead, it’s burnished in glimmering gold – like the altar of some fancy church.

Of course, you can grant a sci-fi show a degree of creative licence, but the fact is that quantum computers are a long way from being able to simulate the present, let alone the future. The best quantum computer in the world, at Google’s research lab in Santa Barbara, is just about capable of outperforming a supercomputer in an arbitrary task, but it could be years before it can do anything useful. The same goes for AI – yes, smart algorithms are changing our lives in lots of ways, but they still have the potential to be incredibly dumb, too.

Devs is a clever play on our tendency to give technologies that we don’t understand too much credit – to imbue them with god-like powers, the same way our ancestors did with natural phenomena that they couldn’t explain. Even the name of the show hammers this point home, if you brush off your Latin and change the ‘v’ to a ‘u’.

In turbulent times, the idea that some supreme technology – some deus ex machina – will swoop in and save us is comforting. But, as Devs demonstrates, our inventions can never be all-seeing, all-knowing, or all-powerful. They’re too messy, too fragile, and too human for that.

Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala

Coronavirus coverage from WIRED

😓 How did coronavirus start and what happens next?

❓ The UK’s job retention furlough scheme, explained

💲 Can Universal Basic Income help fight coronavirus?

🎲 Best video and board games for self-isolating couples

👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment

Why You Need A Website