The ro­bot revolution is com­ing: Any room left for us?

The Prince George Citizen - - A&e - Ron CHARLES

Machines Like Me

Half a cen­tury ago, Philip K. Dick asked, Do An­droids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep?, and now Ian McE­wan is sure those an­droids are pulling the wool over our eyes.

His new novel, Machines Like Me, takes place in Eng­land in the 1980s, but it’s an un­canny vari­a­tion of the past we re­mem­ber. Just the slight­est fluc­tu­a­tions have al­tered the vec­tors of his­tory. Eng­land lost the Falk­lands War. Un­em­ploy­ment is at De­pres­sion­era lev­els. Per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, in McE­wan’s retelling, Alan Tur­ing didn’t com­mit suicide af­ter the Bri­tish govern­ment con­victed him of gross in­de­cency. In­stead, the bril­liant math­e­ma­ti­cian re­jected the of­fer of chem­i­cal cas­tra­tion and went to prison, where, in bliss­ful soli­tude, he laid down the the­o­ret­i­cal prin­ci­ples that have en­abled the cre­ation of re­mark­ably hu­man­like ro­bots.

“It was re­li­gious yearn­ing granted hope, it was the holy grail of sci­ence,” the novel begins. “Our am­bi­tions ran high and low – for a cre­ation myth made real, for a mon­strous act of self-love. As soon as it was fea­si­ble, we had no choice but to fol­low our de­sires and hang the con­se­quences.”

That nar­ra­tor is Char­lie Friend, a lazy day-trader in Lon­don who vac­il­lates be­tween bouts of grandios­ity and worth­less­ness. The ul­ti­mate early adopter, Char­lie uses a re­cent in­her­i­tance to buy “the first truly vi­able man­u­fac­tured hu­man with plau­si­ble in­tel­li­gence and looks, be­liev­able mo­tion and shifts of ex­pres­sion.”

The ro­bot’s name is Adam, which sug­gests what the cre­ators must think of them­selves. He – it? – is one of 25 an­droids sold around the world in a va­ri­ety of eth­nic­i­ties, 12 male and 13 fe­male ver­sions. Adam’s af­fect may be slightly odd (he doesn’t blink quite right), but to the ca­sual ob­server, he’s a hand­some, mus­cu­lar man – “fairly well en­dowed,” Char­lie ad­mits while has­ten­ing to add, “Adam was not a sex toy.”

But sex is cer­tainly cen­tral to this care­fully con­structed com­edy of ter­rors. As the novel opens, Char­lie is woo­ing Mi­randa, a some­what un­re­spon­sive younger woman who lives in his apart­ment build­ing. He hopes that they can pro­gram Adam’s per­son­al­ity to­gether, as a kind of bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“He would be like our child,” Char­lie says. “What we were sep­a­rately would be merged in him. Mi­randa would be drawn into the ad­ven­ture. We would be part­ners, and Adam would be our joint con­cern, our cre­ation. We would be a fam­ily. There was noth­ing un­der­hand in my plan. I was sure to see more of her. We’d have fun.”

Char­lie is a well-ed­u­cated guy, but he seems not to have read enough sci­ence fic­tion to know that “fun” is the last thing he’s go­ing to have. He gets an inkling of the com­pli­ca­tions ahead, though, when he spends an evening lis­ten­ing to Adam loudly mak­ing love to Mi­randa in the up­stairs apart­ment. It’s grim sat­is­fac­tion to re­al­ize he’s the “first to be cuck­olded by an arte­fact.” What man could com­pete with that stamina, those hy­draulics? Char­lie should have known: re­sis­tance is fu­tile. Crawl­ing into Mi­randa’s bed sev­eral days later, he imag­ines he can still de­tect “the scent of warm elec­tron­ics on her sheets.”

McE­wan, who won the 1998 Booker Prize for Amsterdam, is a mas­ter at cere­bral silli­ness. His pre­vi­ous novel, Nut­shell, was a mod­ern-day retelling of Ham­let from the point of view of an in­de­ci­sive fe­tus. In that book and in this new one, McE­wan knows just how to ex­plore the most com­plex is­sues in the con­fines of the most ridiculous sit­u­a­tions.

Trapped in an apart­ment-size ver­sion of West­world, Char­lie and Adam de­bate the es­sen­tial na­ture of con­scious­ness while vy­ing for Mi­randa’s af­fec­tions. Char­lie is sure that his android cares for Mi­randa only “as a dish­washer cares for its dishes,” but Adam, who has per­fect com­mand of the world’s re­li­gious and philo­soph­i­cal writ­ings, claims, “I’ve a very pow­er­ful sense of self and I’m cer­tain that it’s real.” He’s earnest and lovesick – his ro­man­tic haiku would make Lt. Cmdr. Data blush – but he’s charged by a crys­tal-clear sense of right­eous­ness that may not in­te­grate well with the eth­i­cal morass of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

How ex­actly would you dis­man­tle Adam’s claim to con­scious­ness? Try cling­ing to the pri­macy of bi­ol­ogy and you’ll slip on the com­edy of Terry Bis­son’s “think­ing meat.” As count­less fic­tion and non­fic­tion writ­ers have pointed out, we have lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of what our own con­scious­ness is; we’re in no po­si­tion to deny it to a per­fect sim­u­lacrum.

McE­wan is not only one of the most el­e­gant writ­ers alive, he is one of the most as­tute at craft­ing moral dilem­mas within the drama of everyday life. True, con­tend­ing with an at­trac­tive syn­thetic ri­val is a prob­lem most of us won’t have to deal with any­time soon (sorry, Alexa), but fig­ur­ing out how to treat each other, how to do some good in the world, how to cre­ate a sense of value in our lives, these are prob­lems no ro­bot will ever solve for us.

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