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Ian McEwan confronts the biggest mysteries of life in Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan. Photo/Getty Images

Ian McEwan’s tale of human-robot love links emotional and artificial intelligence in intriguing ways, writes Charlotte Grimshaw.

It’s 1980s London, but not as we knew it. Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, takes place during an alternative past. Britain has suffered a disastrous defeat in the Falklands War, a weakened Margaret Thatcher is vying for power with Tony Benn and technology has moved so far ahead it has overtaken our present reality.

Significant events, such as the Brighton hotel bombing, occur in an altered form. The social landscape is familiar and yet not; history is undone, reversed, uncoupled. The effect is subtly disorientating.

Charlie is an aimless drifter with an interest in robotics. When he inherits some money, he decides to buy a robot, Adam, one of a range of highly sophisticated “synthetic humans”, designed after a series of breakthroughs in artificial intelligence by the scientist Alan Turing.

Charlie is in love with his upstairs neighbour, Miranda, and he invites her to help him program the robot’s settings. In the course of formatting Adam’s mind, they import aspects of their own personalities into him, establishing the first set of conflicts and impasses explored in the novel.

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The robot embarks on a process of machine learning, absorbing experiences and blending them with the data given him by his owner. Soon he becomes fixated on Miranda, following her about and writing her love poems in the form of haikus. (Presumably, given time, his algorithmic skill as a poet would develop exponentially, from the haiku to the epic.)

Charlie is naturally disconcerted, but should he even be jealous? He has to confront the conundrum: if the robot is not human, what is it? At what point can artificial intelligence constitute awareness as we understand it? Meanwhile, ominously, Adam has learnt to disable his kill switch.

The tone in the early chapters is an entertaining blend of dark comedy tinged with a vague sense of threat. But this is much more than a comic story about a love triangle between two people and a robot. It’s a debate on mind and consciousness, raising fascinating questions about anthropology, society and epistemic trust.

As Adam evolves into an entity that’s increasingly alive and present (and yet not), and as Charlie and Miranda grapple with the conceptual riddle Adam poses, McEwan complicates the picture, setting up a series of dilemmas involving morality and legality, human behaviour and social codes.

As is often the case with McEwan’s writing, the plot is a barely disguised vehicle for an intellectual proposition. But the subject is so interesting it’s possible to forgive the implausibility that comes with putting ideas first. Placing a sophisticated robot in a human household allows McEwan to explore the intricate interaction between our emotions, laws, ethics and social mores.

Each plot twist creates a new layer of complication. There is a crime, a secret, an abandoned child. There is an ethical and legal problem involving a court case, and an act of revenge complicated by jurisprudential and moral factors. There is pathos and despair as the robots confront the reality of the human mind. Logic clashes with evolutionary psychology, the mechanical comes up against the biological.

Presenting us with some really difficult human issues, McEwan envisages the ways artificial intelligence would confront them. It’s a novel clever enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief required, an absorbing interplay of ideas that are satisfactorily examined, without arriving at fixed conclusions. McEwan affirms, in an oblique way, the superiority (so far) of evolved human mental complexity – of emotional intelligence.

Machines Like Me is an audacious engagement with the biggest mysteries of life: What is consciousness? What makes us human? What is a mind?

MACHINES LIKE ME, by Ian McEwan (Penguin Random House, $48)

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.