Ian McEwan tells android tale in ‘Machines Like Me’
Booker Prize-winning author’s latest book explores societal impact of AI and robotics.
LONDON – Ian McEwan is fascinated by artificial intelligence. His new novel, “Machines Like Me,” features a lifelike android with access to all human knowledge who writes haiku poetry.
In real life, the Booker Prize-winning author is conflicted. He’d be wary of owning a driverless car – “I don’t even like cruise control” – and he’s grown suspicious of his household digital assistant since the revelation that staff at Amazon listened to recordings of people speaking to their Alexa devices.
“Actual humans transcribing, and some lady singing in the shower being laughed at,” he shudders. “I think we’re going to unplug it.”
The messy relationship between human minds and artificial ones is the focus of “Machines Like Me,” published in the U.S. on Tuesday by Doubleday.
Narrator Charlie Friend, a smart but directionless thirtysomething, spends his inheritance on Adam, one of the first “truly viable manufactured human(s) with plausible intelligence and looks.”
Adam, Charlie and Charlie’s neighbour/girlfriend Miranda form an unorthodox household. They soon confront profound questions: Can a machine feel emotions? Is Adam a lodger, a servant or a highly intelligent household appliance? Does cheating on your partner with a robot count as adultery?
“I wanted the reader to be in Charlie’s situation of half the time, at least at first, thinking he’s just playing a computer game – an elaborate, rather spooky computer game – but then feeling very upset when Adam goes and has a night of shame with his girlfriend,” McEwan said.
“It’s really only a betrayal if we regard Adam as a kind of human, and (Charlie) can’t help himself but feel that.”
McEwan describes the novel as a sort of anti-”Frankenstein.” In Mary Shelley’s story, a scientist’s creation becomes a killer.
“I’m writing somewhat against that grain, wanting to think about, what if we gave our new cousins our best selves, or we tried to?” McEwan said during an interview at his sun-filled London mews house.
In the novel, Adam is a moral paragon. It’s the humans who are compromised.
McEwan’s menage a trois unfolds in a divided Britain: Roiled by protests, uncertain about its place in Europe and the world.
That sounds a lot like the present, but it’s the past – an alternative version of the 1980s.
The novel opens as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher takes Britain to war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands. In real life the U.K. won the war and Thatcher spent a tumultuous decade in office. In McEwan’s version, the war is lost and Thatcher faces a crisis that brings a left-wing Labor government to the verge of power.
In McEwan’s alternate ’80s the internet is long-established and work on artificial intelligence is advanced, thanks to Alan Turing, a real-life World War II codebreaker and computing pioneer.
After the war, Turing was prosecuted for having sex with a man, forcibly treated with female hormones and died aged 41 in 1954. McEwan gives Turing the life he deserved. In the novel he lives into old age, honoured and revered, and his work has created technological wonders.
It has not cured society’s ills, though. The 250-mph (400-kph) bullet trains are grubby and the streets littered with garbage. Mass unemployment fuels anti-immigrant anger, although automation is the bigger culprit.
McEwan said he has often been struck by how quickly new technology becomes mundane. He recalled, a few years ago, seeing a line of people snaking down a street in Manhattan.
“I thought it was maybe some kind of rock concert,” he said. “And they said no, people are sleeping out on the pavement to be first with an iPhone 5.
“Where are those 5s now? I think they’re in the nation’s sock drawers or they are being used by grandchildren. The speed with which something that people are prepared and sleep out on the pavement before becomes two years later just a piece of outmoded junk – that interests me.”
At 70, McEwan is one of Britain’s most critically and commercially successful novelists. He has been a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize five times and won in 1998 for “Amsterdam.”
Several of his novels have been made into movies, including the multimillion-selling “Atonement” and “On Chesil Beach.”
Not everyone is a fan. McEwan angered some science fiction readers and writers by insisting that “Machines Like Me” is not a sci-fi book. He calls it “an old-fashioned novel about an ethical problem pushed on us by technology” – a phrase that could, arguably, describe many avowedly sci-fi works.
McEwan says the leaps in artificial intelligence that are surely coming fill him with “fascination and dread.”
“Even technologies that we fear, we can’t collectively stop ourselves,” he said. “And nor can we guess the consequences of our inventions.”
Already, he says, we are giving driverless automobiles the power to make ethical decisions: “Do I swerve to avoid this car but risk hitting that child?
“It is a strange moment when we are letting a machine, a computer, take a split second-decision on our behalf.”
McEwan says he’s not an “issues novelist,” although his books often touch on major social problems: climate change in “Solar,” the Iraq War in “Saturday.”
These days, like many in Britain, McEwan is obsessed with the political psychodrama of Brexit. But he’s not planning a Brexit novel.
“For a novel, I think you have to let things settle,” he said. “We’re still too much in the middle of the story, and I don’t fully understand it. I read masses on it, but it’s a bit like reading about quantum mechanics: However many books you read on it, you sneeze and it’s all gone.
“Now, my mind’s a complete blank, which is quite agreeable. It’s like a smooth piece of wax waiting for the next thing to come along.”