Machines Like Us?

I’ve often been a keen reader of historical fiction – a great way to learn history and enjoy a story at the same time. But Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me was the first ‘ahistorical’ (if there is such a genre) novel that I have come across.

It is set in 1982 and Britain has just lost the Falklands War… yeah… I thought they won it too! I had to check but once I did I realised I was reading a novel that was going to bend and contort history at will (important if you are considering it!)

The novel centres around Charlie Friend, a fairly hopeless and aimless day trader who has just used his inheritance to purchase one of the first batch of ‘synthetic humans’ loaded up with the latest in artificial intelligence capabilities. The key player in the creation of these ‘robots’ is Alan Turing, who (in this story) did not suicide but went on to use his genius in the development of these creatures.

So we have a semi-sci-fi story set in an alternate history which is more technologically advanced than we currently are.

The story revolves around the relationship between ‘Adam’ the Android and Charlie and his girlfriend Miranda. Adam was one of 25 of the first batch of Androids created – 12 male, 13 female and of varying ethnicities. Charlie is able to ‘program ‘ Adam’s personality to some degree, however he chooses to only do half of what is required and leaves the rest to Miranda.

Without giving away too much of the plot, what we see developing is a robot with AI who learns as he interacts, who ‘learns’ feelings and develops a conscience. Of course Miranda uses him for sex – which confuses both Adam and Charlie. She compares him to sex toy, but somehow Charlie can’t live with that explanation. And it turns out Adam finds it equally confusing.

An intriguing aspect of the story is the ‘suicide’ of 4 of the robots, who after learning about human existence with all of its faults and complexities decide that logically ‘non-existence’ is a better option. In one sense it’s a dark commentary on life as we know it. Yet the fact that many of us choose to continue despite the darkness says there must be joy in life that is found beyond sheer intellectual processes – that AI simply can’t grasp the depth of what it means to be human.

As Adam grows he learns and he becomes more human each day. He is physically indistinguishable from other people and it’s only his slightly awkward (autistic like) interactions that occasionally give him away. His redemption and means of avoiding his own demise is that he falls in love with Miranda and he learns to write poetry – haikus, both of which embue him with a level of humanity that resists self destruction.

I’ll stop there before I give too much of the plot away, but if you want a novel that is a little mind bending then this one is certainly worth a read. And it would make you think twice before allowing any AI into your life!

4 thoughts on “Machines Like Us?

  1. The problem with a story like this, rather like Jules Verne writing about space travel or discovering dinosaurs, is that people don’t really understand the nature of the thing they’re writing about. We want to believe that AI will eventually learn to become human, but that’s not how it works (right now – possibly never).

    I’d recommend reading the article I linked. I struggle a bit with modern fiction that goes all anthropomorphic over computers, because there’s a lot that makes people, people, and it’s more than just a big database and a bit of neural networking with learned responses.

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