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