Ian McEwan’s new novel is set in an alternate version of the late 20th century, when many things we hope for and fear have already happened. Electric cars are commonplace, and so is rising unemployment, thanks to the increasing presence of artificial intelligence in the workplace.
Into this world, much like our own but subtly different, comes Adam, a highly intelligent android, by all appearances a handsome young man except for a slight problem with his blink. Purchased by Charlie Friend, a feckless London day trader, Adam becomes the third point in a love triangle between Charlie and his girlfriend Miranda. Before the story is done Adam will test everyone’s limits, including his own.
“Machines Like Me” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) is a novel of ideas. It’s a love story. It’s a cautionary tale. It’s frightening, and moving, and funny. In a Washington Post review, book critic Ron Charles wrote that 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.” A British author who has been awarded just about every available literary honor, including the Man Booker Prize for 1998’s “Amsterdam,” McEwan comes to Seattle on May 6 to discuss “Machines Like Me” — sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Company, he will appear at the Summit on Pike, where I’ll interview him.
In advance of that conversation, he answered some questions via email. They’re reprinted here, edited slightly for length:
In the world of “Machines Like Me,” artificial intelligence has advanced beyond our current experience and understanding of it, but the story is set in the past. Why did you choose to set the book in an alternative past, instead of the future?
As the narrator, Charlie, comments, the present is the frailest and most improbable of constructs. Our present looks and feels overwhelmingly self-evident, but we know how easily it could have been otherwise. Our science and technology could be at a different stage of development, our social and political worlds could have taken another turn. Often the smallest of events trigger large outcomes.
Once I’d decided to extend the life of the real Alan Turing, the great computer scientist and polymath who [died by] suicide in 1954, I thought I’d tweak the politics and much else. In the spirit of playfulness, I altered a world that I hoped would be faintly familiar.
You raise the question of whether a creature of artificial intelligence can ever truly understand a human being, since we are dominated by our emotions: love, hate, fear. Among people involved in AI and android design, has that issue been seriously addressed?
We have a very long way to go yet with these matters. The history of AI has, in part, been the discovery of how complex our brains are. We are just beginning to explore models for general intelligence. The human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons with an average of 7,000 connecting axons. Its capacity is just over one liter. It doesn’t overheat and it runs on 25 watts, the power of a dim light bulb. We are nowhere near copying that. But evolution has had a few billion years to develop such a wonder as our brains. AI has had 80 years.
In “Machines Like Me,” Charlie and Miranda have a role in creating Adam’s personality. If you could design your own Adam, name one attribute you would be sure to include, and one you would be sure to leave out.
Well, to reshape your question, what is the most admirable general purpose human quality? I would say kindness. I’d make sure my artificial human had plenty of that, and could do us no harm. As for the opposite: Personally, I’ve always thought that a lack of curiosity is something I would dread in myself. It’s one of the hazards of growing older. To be incurious is a form of mental death, an abuse of the gift of consciousness. My Adam would never be allowed to suffer from it.
Alan Turing is a key figure in this book. You’ve written about him before — why did you include him as a main character in this book? What models did you use to create Turing’s alternative life?
I’ve always admired Alan Turing’s immense spread of interests. We think of him as a computer scientist and code breaker, but he had a passion for biology and also for physics. He read literature widely. He was a long-distance runner.
As for a model, I would name my friend Graeme Mitchison, who died last year and to whom “Machines Like Me” is dedicated. He was a mathematician, physicist and biologist, living in a time when the pressure on scientists is to be highly specialized. Graeme loved literature, paragliding, scrambling, drawing, painting. He was brilliant at the art of friendship. He was also a superb pianist and gave many concerts in The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He was my ideal of a Renaissance figure.
Can an android ever experience love as we understand it?
One day, perhaps. To know love is to have a self, to be sentient, and in possession of a full consciousness. Whether we could actually build such a consciousness is an open question. We might find that imitating a human sort of subjective mind is irrelevant. Remember how the first automobiles resembled horse-drawn carriages. Future androids might develop minds of their own that will be profoundly alien to ours. Whatever happens, we will be thrown back on ourselves to wonder exactly what it is to be human.
“Machines Like Me” by Ian McEwan, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 352 pp., $26.95
Author appearance: Ian McEwan will appear in conversation with Mary Ann Gwinn at 7 p.m. Monday, May 6, at The Summit on Pike, 420 E. Pike St., Seattle. Sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. Tickets are $32 and admit one person and include a copy of “Machines Like Me”; elliottbaybook.com.