Machines Like Us. Do They?

The days of the pandemic, when technology is playing an even bigger role in people’s lives and many are singing its praises, is a good time to turn to science fiction. To imagine what AI can do to our lives and our work. More importantly, to our relationships with each other.

These days, I read about how technology, especially digitization, is going to accelerate in the post-pandemic future. And companies are reporting that they have achieved a level of digitization that they had planned over several years in a matter of a few weeks.

I thought I’d read Ian McEwan’s book, Machines Like Me, that I had gifted my father for his birthday a couple of years ago. I was curious to see how an author whose oeuvre is not science fiction, would deal with the subject. The book is not science fiction in the sense, of a fictional, futuristic world composed of science and characters that are alien to us. Instead, it is an attempt to place an AI character in the midst of our usual humdrum, day-to-day existence and see what transpires.

It appears that in recent years, Ian McEwan is pushing the frontiers of what constitutes fiction, having previously explored a rather unusual theme in Nutshell, which too was not typically Ian McEwan. In Machines Like Me, a robot called Adam (obviously a jab at man trying to play God) enters the protagonist, Charlie’s, life, not by accident but when Charlie, in fact, buys him. Charlie is in the midst of wooing a young student, Miranda, who lives upstairs from him and so decides that they will both program Adam’s personality individually, not telling the other how they had each programmed him. Adam, it turns out, not only has a programmable personality which can be adjusted in “settings”, he also has a “kill switch” somewhere on the nape of his neck, which can be pressed in order to disable him.

Unfortunately, neither is Adam’s personality revealed to us through the course of the book in an engaging way, nor do we really get to know Charlie and Miranda as people. There is little or no attempt to build their characters, when one would have thought that the whole point of the book might have been the difference between people like us and Adam.

Instead, in a most predictable way, Adam becomes the third person in the Charlie-Miranda relationship and before we know it, we have a love triangle. In fact, before the first 100 pages are over Adam has jumped into bed with Miranda, when there is nothing to even tell us what attracted them to each other. It is as though the author is in a hurry to show us that Adam has agency and is ”human”. There is none of the customary McEwan flair for character-building and the subtlety with which he can let the plot unravel. Which is such a pity.

There is nothing to move the story along in terms of a plot, either. Since there are no other friends or characters, there are no incidents or events that give the story momentum. In fact, McEwan passes up two chances that present themselves as side plots, with which he could have added twists and turns to the main story about how Adam relates to the human world.

The first is early on in the book when Adam warns Charlie about getting too close to Miranda because he has discovered that she is involved in a crime. Charlie’s reaction to this news is unbelievably slow and calm, as if he doesn’t care what Miranda’s crime could possibly be. In fact, you could say that Charlie is almost Adam-like in many of his responses and actions. The love triangle is disrupted when Charlie confronts Adam and they agree that Adam will leave Miranda alone, if Charlie and she leave his “kill switch” alone.

The crime of many years ago dating back to Miranda’s childhood is only revived when Miranda finds out that Charlie knows because Adam knows. And it resurfaces again when Miranda’s father who lives in Salisbury tells Miranda that Peter Gorringe who had been falsely implicated by Miranda and had been convicted for that crime is now out of jail and will probably come for her.

Yet, there is no palpable tension in the Charlie household, no plans made for how to deal with it, not even an air of suspense that makes you wait for Peter Gorringe’s footsteps or his phone call. Since Miranda and Charlie can’t or don’t think of what to do next, Adam offers a solution, in the only way Adam knows how to deal with the situation: confront Peter Gorringe directly before he does.

The second such event is when Charlie and Miranda meet a little boy, Mark, in a park with his quarreling parents. Their friendly overtures towards Mark is misconstrued for wanting to abduct their son and the father tells Charlie and Miranda off. Months later, however, the father sends Mark to their home with a note that says, “You wanted him.”

If this was an opportunity to show us how Adam relates to children, and how Mark changes everybody’s lives, that too is ignored. Instead, the episode ends tamely with social workers visiting Charlie and Miranda a few days later to take custody of Mark. That is. until Miranda makes a confession much later in the book, that she has not been attending her seminars regularly as she has been telling Charlie, but has been busy making plans for them to adopt Mark.

This is just the cue Charlie has been waiting for. Now at last, he can declare his love for Miranda and ask her if she will marry him. Not so fast. Adam has a plan, which is to punish Miranda for the crime she committed by falsely implicating Peter Gorringe and turn her in to the police. Again, we are expected to believe that Adam is behaving in the only way known to him: the rule of law must prevail, no matter what the tangle of human emotions says or feels. And even this sudden volte-face by Adam is treated in a rather mundane and matter of fact manner by McEwan.

Coming to matters of style, the book plods along with not much by way of plot or characters or even descriptions. I wonder if McEwan’s foray into screenplay writing in recent years has affected his storytelling, because he is a masterful storyteller as we know from reading books like Amsterdam, Enduring Love, Atonement and others. Even Nutshell which had such a bizarre premise, had McEwan’s writing to match.

McEwan’s Adams and Eves can think like humans, but can’t understand them; Image: Pixabay

Here, however, much time is spent describing actions and actors’ movements rather than what they are thinking, feeling and experiencing. In fact, you don’t really know what McEwan wants even his readers to think or feel. Here is Charlie letting Adam step out of the house for the first time:

“It was just before sunset, the air was still and warm, suffused by an unreal amber light. A week had passed since our late-night exchange. I had brought him outside because his dexterity was still a matter of interest to me. I wanted to watch him handle a hoe and a rake. More generally, my plan was to introduce him to the world beyond the kitchen table. We had friendly neighbours on both sides and there was a chance that he could test his small-talk skills. If we were to travel together to Salisbury to meet Maxfield Blacke, I wanted to prepare Adam by taking him to some shops, and perhaps a pub. I was sure he could pass off as a person, but he needed to be more at ease, his machine-learning capacities needed stretching.

I was keen to see how good he was at identifying plants. Of course, he knew everything. Feverfew, wild carrot, chamomile. As he worked, he muttered the names, for his own sake rather than my benefit. I saw him put on gardening gloves to pull up nettles. Mere mimicry. Later, he straightened and looked with apparent interest towards a spectacular western sky intersected by power and telephone lines and a receding jumble of Victorian roofs. His hands were on his hips, and he leaned back, as though his lower back was giving him trouble. He took a deep breath to indicate his appreciation of the evening air. Then, out of nowhere, he said, ‘From a certain point of view, the only solution to suffering, would be the complete extinction of humankind.’”

Not only is the description of the evening outside in their garden mundane, it’s strange that Charlie doesn’t first wait to see Adam’s reaction, as they both step out. How did Adam react when he saw the spectacular sky? What was his reaction to all the plants growing in the garden? How is an AI robot’s response to nature different from ours? If McEwan was earlier trying to show us that Adam has agency and is human, here we have him describing Adam as an automaton who is there only to do Charlie’s bidding.

Alan Turing at 16; Image: Wikimedia Commons

The only bit of “science” in the fiction is that Alan Turing makes a cameo appearance when Charlie spots him in a restaurant where he and Miranda are out to dinner, and tells him about his Adam robot. Believe it or not, Alan Turing calls him weeks or months later and they have a long conversation about the As and Es (Adams and Eves) of which there are 25 in the entire world. This discussion makes such an impression on Charlie that when he finally smashes Adam’s head with a hammer at the end of the book, he feels compelled to take Adam’s body to Turing’s office in London instead of disposing the body, as a murderer in any other whodunit book might have. That leads to another conversation about AI robots when Turing tells him what the problem with the A-and-Es – many of whom have been self-destructing or committing suicide – might be:

“There’s a chance his memories are intact and he’ll be renewed or distributed. I’ve no privileged information on the suicides. Only my suspicions. I think the A-and-Es were ill-equipped to understand human decision-making, the way our principles are warped around the force-field of our emotions, our peculiar biases, our self-delusion and all the other well-charted defects of our cognition. Soon these Adams and Eves were in despair. They couldn’t understand us, because we couldn’t understand ourselves. Their learning programs couldn’t accommodate us. If we didn’t know our own minds, how could we design theirs and expect them to be happy alongside us? But that’s just my hypothesis.”

Turing then goes on to tell Charlie that he didn’t just smash a toy, but that he had committed a crime by trying to destroy a life. That Adam was sentient and had a self.

If nothing, it made me want to read more about Alan Turing on the internet, including his 1950 paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he explains his famous Imitation Game Theory, which formed the basis of much of what is considered AI today. It’s marvellous that Turing found such a fascinating way to answer the fundamental question: can machines think?

Machines Like Me is set in the Thatcher years in UK and much is made of Britain’s humiliating defeat in the Falklands’ War and the opposition to Margaret Thatcher, which is of little relevance to the main story. What might have happened to Charlie and Miranda in eighties’ Britain, if Charlie had been a banker/investor in London during the City’s boom years, when other workers were losing their jobs and unions were being broken? And if, in the process of helping Charlie in his “investment” work from home, Adam slowly but surely, takes over his work and jeopardises his career?

Would machines like Adam subvert the establishment, for their love of fairness and the law? Would that be poetic justice and would it correct the imbalance? Hmm… enticing thought, but then, that would be a different story.  

Note: The Jonathan Cape (part of Penguin Random House) edition of Machines Like Me that I bought on Amazon for my father says on its publishing details fly-leaf that Ian McEwan is an unlimited company registered in England and Wales no. 7473219. The book is printed in India by Thomson Press India Ltd.

This reminded me of the appointment letter I was given at Perfect Relations Delhi in 2006, on the company letterhead which read Perfect Relations Limited. In my entire long career in advertising, I have never thought it necessary to scrutinise company letterheads, assuming that companies – especially one claiming to be South Asia’s largest PR agency – would know how to conduct their business professionally. I noticed the deliberate mischief many months later, close to the time of my leaving the organisation. It was only one of their several transgressions, in the few months that I worked with them. I wish I had never joined them in the first place, because their mischievous meddling continues to this day. And much of it in concert with another unprofessional company, RK Swamy BBDO, whom I had the misfortune of working for twice, in Delhi and in Chennai.

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