Human and machine morality tale

In a 1980s Britain where the train of history has jumped tracks ever so slightly, Margaret Thatcher is unseated as prime minister, computer science pioneer Alan Turing survived the 1950s and helped invent the Internet and 25 artificial humans - 12 male Adams, 13 female Eves - come onto the market.

British novelist Ian McEwan, acclaimed for his grasp of the intimate human drama, zeroes in on artificial intelligence in his latest novel, a cerebral, urbane work that eschews speculative grandeur for a tight focus on tiny domestic upheavals.

The narrator is Charlie, a feckless 32-year-old Londoner who trades stocks online with little success and has decided to blow his inheritance on an Adam out of sheer curiosity.

Charlie fancies his neighbour Miranda, a social history doctoral scholar 10 years his junior. As a romantic overture, he offers to let her decide half of Adam's personality.

As Adam comes online and begins to learn about humanity at a vast, exponential rate, he also becomes enmeshed in Charlie and Miranda's relationship. He falls in love with Miranda - or says he has, but can an artificial consciousness have a concept of love? Is Charlie Adam's owner or his rapidly outclassed rival?

Further complicating this is Miranda's desire to adopt a young boy from an abusive family, as well as her fear that a man she accused of rape has been released from prison and will seek her out for vengeance.

Machines Like Me gives McEwan free rein to philosophise and he does so at length, sometimes brilliantly and even humorously, as his characters try hopelessly to rationalise the ineffable

  • FICTION

  • MACHINES LIKE ME

    By Ian McEwan

    Jonathan Cape/Paperback/ 307 pages/ $29.95/ Books Kinokuniya

    4 stars

.

"Might she resemble a counter-intuitive Euclidean proof?" muses Charlie of Miranda, trying to parse the unknowable feminine as a mathematical expression. "Her psyche, her desires and motives were inexorable, like prime numbers, simply and unpredictably there. More old hat, dressed as logic. I was in knots."

Adam posits at one point that all literature - except the "lapidary haiku" - is founded on the failures of human understanding. This novel certainly does not exempt itself and extends that failure to a fundamental dissonance between human and machine morality.

In a conversation with the elderly Turing, Charlie is told that the Adams and Eves, rational and well-disposed as they are, cannot process a world that wilfully allows poverty, injustice and environmental degradation in order that some of it may continue to exist in contentment. "There's nothing in all their beautiful code that could prepare Adam and Eve for Auschwitz," says Turing.

As a treatise of ideas, Machines Like Me is terribly clever. As a plotted novel, it is sleekly tidy. As an emotional drama, it does not stir very much - if anything, one feels for the fates of minor characters such as some of the Eves, which are mentioned only in passing.

McEwan has disavowed this novel as science fiction, but, in fact, its retro-futurism achieves the opposite: It reminds us that some strains of science fiction are not so much prescient as practically present.

If you like this, read: Goodnight, Melancholy by Xia Jia, a short story in Broken Stars, translated and edited by Ken Liu (Head Of Zeus, 2019, $29.95, Books Kinokuniya) in which the narrator brings home a therapy robot called Lindy. In another narrative strand, Alan Turing builds and converses with a machine he calls Christopher in the last days of his life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2019, with the headline 'Human and machine morality tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe