Artificial Intelligence (AI) is in fashion. In the last decade the subject has come to grip the popular imagination as reflected by fictional stories and films about AI. Recently, even two giants of contemporary literature have been dra...[see more]
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is in fashion. In the last decade the subject has come to grip the popular imagination as reflected by fictional stories and films about AI. Recently, even two giants of contemporary literature have been drawn to the subject. Booker prize-winning author Ian McEwan and 2017 Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, both have written novels with AI at the centre of the action, albeit with very different literary approaches. While McEwan’s novel appeared in 2019, Ishiguro’s book has been published this year (and its Catalan and Spanish translations were available at the beginning of March). Here, I would like to comment on both novels without spoiling the conclusions for future readers.
The action in McEwan’s Machines Like Me happens in 1982 in London, but the city’s history is not as we know it today: the United Kingdom loses the Malvinas Islands to Argentina and the father of AI, Alan Turing, is alive and well, and has proven the knotty Computer Science problem P=NP, although the novel does not give details about the actual proof (much to the despair of computer scientists). Also, the first generation of synthetic humans are on the market; a total of twelve “Adams” and thirteen “Eves”, as they are referred to. In this world or uchrony, which means an imagined changed history, is where McEwan sets his novel. Charlie, the techie protagonist, spends his parents’ inheritance buying one of these artificial beings. Initially he wants an Eve, but in the end settles for an Adam worth 86.000 pounds. After the purchase, life continues for Charlie with his new companion in his flat. Miranda, his girlfriend, who lives in the same building, is also a key character. Living together with Adam has some unexpected consequences, of course. Charlie also meets Alan Turing, there are a number of other twists and the novel ends after 350 pages of intense plot.
This novel does have a technical issue: it includes a number of elements that are common today, but did not exist in 1982. For instance, mobile phones, Internet and autonomous cars all form part of this imagined London. The story proposes that Turing helped to develop the World Wide Web, autonomous cars had by 1970 already appeared experimentally and mobile phones are used without any prior explanation. But because the novel is an uchrony no anachronistic problems arise. Some readers though, especially if they lived during the 70´s and 80´s, might not be sufficiently convinced. Nevertheless, McEwan performs these literary tricks with such incredible mastery, that the reader accepts them and willingly suspends his disbelief. But, to my technical eyes, not everything is convincing.
Alan Turing's character is bestowed with amazing scientific contributions: in addition of proving P=NP —a crucial problem in Computer Science formulated 50 years ago that is still waiting to be solved—, he designed a winning software to play the Go game, helped to develop synthetic humans, and conducted research on both protein structure and X-ray cristallography. He also contributed to new neural networks (deep learning and a new kind of neural network of DNA are mentioned). In addition, he is wealthy and donates large quantities to humanitarian projects. He is presented as a singular genius. And while he was 3 indeed an extraordinary scientist, no doubt about that, his figure is overly glorified in the novel in what is perhaps an attempt by McEwan to grant a measure of poetic justice to a man we know was pursued by the State for being homosexual in the early 50’s, before dying (almost surely by suicide) in 1954.
Charlie narrates the novel. We, as readers, only have access to his point of view. Neither are we allowed a peak at Adam’s mind. The author is well documented on AI issues. Mentioned are the complexity classes P, NP, PSPACE-complete; explained too is the Travelling Salesman Problem; he addresses the game of Go; he considers a number of AI ethical issues and reflects on autonomous vehicles. Turing’s historical contributions in breaking the Enigma code in Bletchley and his work on morphogenesis are also remarked. Incredibly, McEwan has managed to contribute to the dissemination of science itself in a novel.
Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is a very different novel to Machines Like Me. The plot occurs in the future in no set period of time. The action develops in an unnamed city relatively close to the countryside —probably in the United Kingdom or in the United States, but other countries are possible too. Three generations of artificial beings or "friends" have already been developed, but elements such as shops, cars, buildings, a barn, townhouses are described as they would be today. Some current modes of communication do not appear: neither the Internet nor social networks. In such an environment, the artificial being Klara —a B2 model, the predecessor of the very last B3— is exhibited in a shop, where she spends some days at the window display. More observant than other artificial friends, her perceptive skills emerge to the reader when she describes a fight between two cab drivers or other daily ongoings in the street, such as those of a beggar and his dog. One day a family purchases Klara to be friend to Josie, their ill teenage daughter. Klara also meets other characters, and when she is confronted with the possibility of Josie’s death, she comes up with ways to help her.
The novel’s narrative voice is Klara. As readers, we have access to her interpretations of reality and her thoughts —and I was very excited about that (after reading Jesús Cerquides’s message announcing its publication, I rushed to the bookstore). However, Klara’s mind fell short of my expectations. I did not find she held any conflictive goals or criticisms. Neither did she provide any analysis 4 about the human race. On the contrary, I found Klara’s mind corresponding to that of a very educated person, politically correct, but at the same time not very interesting. Her thinking was flat and unexciting. Perhaps, this “mindful ordinariness” is a good characterization of how the mentality of a domestic human-like robot could be. Indeed, Ishiguro is well-known for his extraordinary ability in rendering subtle interior descriptions of human characters.
The butler in The Remains of the Day, a previous Ishiguro’s novel which won the Booker prize, is considered a masterpiece of such human interiors. The author also emphasizes Klara’s artificial nature in a number of ways: how she speaks or how places in her thoughts are written. Her knowledge evolves from her direct interaction with humans. This novel does not contain any technical material on AI, which is a perfectly acceptable option, but it does limit what the author can say, and so the action focuses on the behavior of the characters. Which novel do I prefer? They are somehow complementary: the technicalities that overload Machines Like Me are missing in Klara and the Sun. Probably because of my own scientific background I feel closer to McEwan’s novel, which contains more science than Ishiguro’s book. However, I find problematic some of the anachronisms mentioned above. In Ishiguro´s novel, the subtlety of it makes me feel like I should revisit it for a second reading. But I miss not seeing the use of the Web in Ishiguro’s imagined future world, especially because the Internet seems such a natural way for Klara to acquire knowledge. Anyway, these are my two cents on two novels I throughly enjoyed and recommend to anyone interested in AI.