Klara and Adam In The Garden of Aiden: My take of “Machines Like Me’ and “Klara And The Sun”
I believe literature heralds paradigmatic change. Two books by contemporary masters -McEwan and Ishiguro — portend, I believe, the dawning of the Age of AI. Today’s post on my blog is my take on these two books — “Machines Like Me” (2019) by Ian McEwan and “Klara And The Sun” (2021) by Kazuo Ishiguro
Literature at its best is at the vanguard of paradigmatic changes in human civilization.
Dicken’s “Hard Times” portends both the misery and the promise of the Industrial Age’s right at its onset in the early nineteenth century.
Even a poet like Wordsworth voiced a shudder at the rise of the machines.
In the early 1990s, Neal Stephenson single-handedly invented the cyberpunk genre with his “Snow Crash” and later in the decade with “Cryptonomicon”. Both books glimpse the opportunity, challenges and threat that would arise out of the Information Age and the Internet.
With his 2013 book “The Circle”, Dave Eggers anticipated the immense challenges that the age of social media and surveillance capitalism posed.
Many are now anticipating that a new age is about to dawn — the Age of Artificial Intelligence.
For decades science fiction writers have been incorporating AI into their plots. The most famous one being the somewhat villainous computer HAL in Arthur C Clarke’s 1964 book “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which passed into popular lore with Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie of the same name. However, with due apologies to Clarke and his fellow science fiction writers, nobody, including, I suspect, themselves, would categorize their efforts as literature.
For the debut of AI in serious literature, we will instead have to look to the past few years as AI begins to make its tentative debut in everyday life with Siri, Alexa etc.
I believe I have detected the debut of AI in two books of high literary value. One published in 2019 by Ian McEwan, and the other by Kazuro Ishiguro launched in 2021.
I am a fan of Ian McEwan and Kazuro Ishiguro, two writers of fiction who would rank as living masters of English literature.
The oeuvre of each defies categorization in terms of genre. Every book of the two stands on its own, each offering a startling new perspective that is all it’s own.
McEwan can swing from a ruminative novel on the nature of writing (some classify it as meta-fiction) in “Atonement” (2001) to a novella “Nutshell” (2015), a noir thriller that has added a unique voice to the pantheon of narraters, an unborn baby!
However, McEwan and Ishiguro have distinctive styles as different from each other as chalk and cheese.
McEwan’s voice is all exteriority. It crystalizes and captures the gestalt with sentences that leap off the page.
Ishiguro, on the other hand, is all interiority. His quiet sentences inveigle and tantalize, and the context and the plot is a slow revelation. In an Ishiguro book, only Ishiguro knows what motivates the protagonist and where the story heads. Much like, for people who believe in Him (Her?), only God knows what we are thinking and where our lives lead.
In “The Remains of The Day” (1989), Ishiguro slow-reveals an English butler Stevens’s interiority. A man whose stiff upper lip exterior hides a storm of suppressed emotions of regrets and unexpressed love. “Remains of The Day” has also passed on to popular lore with its movie version of the same name, directed by James Ivory and released in 1993.
With “Never Let Me Go” (2005), Ishiguro takes his first look at the near future. The premise of the book could have made for a good science fiction book. “Never Let Me Go” is set in a society that creates clones who live an everyday life — good schooling, friends, a profession — until the time comes to harvest their organs to extend or save the life of a “real” human.
It seems like a plot just right for a regular science-fiction potboiler. However, in the hands of Ishiguro, the result is a moving masterpiece. Kathy H, the protagonist, is a clone who is unaware that she is a clone, and thinks of herself as an excellent caregiver and reminisces fondly about her past and the friends she made at a school. Until, of course, the tragic end that catches her unaware. Under Ishiguro’s touch, this dystopian setting yields a timeless question — what is it to be human?
There are parallels from “Never Let Me Go” in Ishiguro’s latest book — “Kalra And The Sun”.
The geographical and socio-economic setting “Klara And The Sun” is left to the reader to interpret and colour from sly hints scattered through the book. In this respect, the book is “Ishiguroish” to the max. This vagueness of the context springs from the central narrative ploy. The book is a first-person account from Klara, an “Artificial Friend” (AF) that affluent parents buy for their child. AFs are not toys, but so are they not powerful AI entities. For one in a world that probably has the Internet, they cannot connect to it, and so they probably know less about the world than the child who owns them. However, they can interpret the world of human speech and emotions and navigate human relationships’ complexity. The AFs are solar-powered. Klara belongs to a sick child, Josie, who might be dying when her single mother buys Klara for her. As the plot slowly unfolds, the reader realizes that the mother chose Klara for a particular purpose. And because Klara is unusually compassionate and imaginative for an AF. Klara’s creative abilities lead her to accord the Sun a mythic, God-like status. And her compassion leads, at the climax of the book, to make a sacrifice that could only be possible for a being whose emotive faculty overrules her cognitive ability.
The interpretation of the context in which the plotline of “Klara and The Sun” unfolds are all mine. Ishiguro makes nothing explicit. Someone else could interpret both the context and the plot very differently. And that is at the heart of Ishiguro’s oeuvre’s uniqueness and what puts him at the top-of-the-ladder of contemporary writers.
Another personal takeaway from “Klara and The Sun” for me was that Ishiguro imagines AI and its place in human civilization similar to fire. In essence, the discovery of fire enabled man to reach a higher level of existence. AI will also do so. Of course, like fire AI could also be destructive, but unlike fire, AI and its progress are under man’s control, and if we take care, its beneficial avatar could be the only one that takes hold. As an enabler of everyday human activity, AI is an issue I have also written about in an earlier post — “Concierge Intelligence & The Fulfilment of The Promise of The Digital Age.”
And if AI goes the benign route, in time, AI will evolve as a species with emotional lives and relationship concerns. Concerns that “Klara And The Sun” bring to the fore masterfully. The issue facing humankind in AI may not be the singularity but building a code of behaviour for humans in their interaction with sentient AIs.
Asimov’s “Three Laws Of Robotics” were all about protecting humans from robots. Instead, we might have to evolve a code that ensures humane treatment of sentient AIs.
Ian McEwan’s book “Machines Like Me” offers a startlingly different view of AI’s evolution as a companion to humans.
In “Machines Like Me”, McEwan meticulously reimagines the past. Alan Turing does not commit suicide, and thus, computer sciences evolution progresses faster, and by the eighties, AI entities as human companions are on the market. They come in two models — Adam and Eve — and are pricey. They have a body that is human-like in all respects. Beautiful and well-formed, they are even capable of sex. They are connected to the Internet and collect and process information at speed, making them cognitively superior to their human owners. The owner can give them a personality by choosing from various available templates. The protagonist of “Machines Like Me” is one such AI entity — Adam — bought by an impoverished day trader, Charlie Friend, who splurges a small inheritance on buying Adam. Charlies is in love with a young woman who is an upstairs neighbour. The plot progresses with Adam also falling in love with Charlie’s girlfriend while also discovering unsavoury stuff about her. Charlie uses Adam to trade on his behalf, and because of Adam’s unique ability, he makes a lot of money. The plot’s climax is dark and ends up with Charlie bankrupt, the girlfriend in jail and Charlie deactivating Adam and taking him to Alan Turing to complain about what Turing’s brilliance has wrought.
Both Adam and Klara are AI entities whose main function is to act as companions to human beings. Both Adam and Klara develop human fallibilities but at the opposite end of the spectrum. If the future goes the Klara way, we will need to learn to treat our future AI companions compassionately. On the other hand, if they go the Adam way, we will need some version of Asimov’s Three Law of Robotics to protect us from them.
In reality, we will probably end up with both poles and everything in between. The “Garden of Aiden” (excuse the pun), first populated by Klara and Adam in the imagination of Ishiguro and McEwan, will likely produce a world as complex as the mythical Garden of Eden did,