If robots take over people’s work, what will they do with their spare time? Ian McEwan (1948) shows how artificial intelligence would influence our daily lives in his fascinating new what-if-novel Machines Like Me. The British master story teller discusses advancing technology from several angles and concludes that artificial intelligence will have many ethical and moral consequences.
Narrator Charlie Friend, not exactly an inspiring person, uses his inheritance to purchase a robot prototype that has the features of a beautiful being. To his regret, the ‘Eve’s’ are sold out so he has to make do with an ‘Adam’. When he connects Charlie to the socket, the novel comes to life as well. It takes a long time for Adam’s battery to be charged, but McEwan knows how to fuel his readers’ curiosity so that they can hardly wait to meet this artificial being.
The appealing events make this book a fascinating thought experiment. Charlie has a lunch appointment with his upstairs neighbour, Miranda, but before she arrives, Adam has analysed her digital history. When Charlie gets up to open the door, the robot whispers that the girl cannot be trusted: ‘There’s a possibility that she is a liar. A systematic, malicious liar.’
Charlie decides not to program Adam completely (it would make the robot his clone) but he asks Miranda to join forces in creating the robot’s personality. Adam becomes their common project; in fact, the robot is their digital child. McEwan contrasts this robot child with a real adopted child, to show the differences between man and machine.
It is interesting to reflect on how Charlie would have dealt with a female robot, including possible sexual implications. However, that Adam shares the bed with Miranda is psychologically even more thrilling. Especially since Miranda denies to have been unfaithful: ‘How could I cheat on you with a machine?’ Robots may not have empathy or feelings of revenge, people still have to deal with them. Adam has many parallels with the Biblical primal man. To begin with the naked Adam, who asks his ‘owner’ for clothes. After a while, McEwans Adam also rebels against his designer and tries to take his place. And this Adam is just as upset when he meets Eve for the first time.
Adam, whose thoughts are based on algorithms, holds up a moral mirror to the people around him. Even citizens with good intentions have developed a second nature for ‘little white lies’ and dodging behaviour. Adam remains neutral and unbiassed in any situation. McEwan shows that a conscience driven by algorithms is far more rational than a perverted human mind. Charlie and Miranda have to provide information about their judicial past before adopting little Mark. Adam thinks that Miranda should confess an earlier misdemeanour, even if she will end up in jail and the adoption cannot take place. So the question is whether a rational and consistent conscience is better or more pure than that of emotion-driven people.
Finally, McEwan discusses the meaning of literature. Adam knows his classics and quotes effortlessly from Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks. The robot thinks that artificial intelligence will make the art of novel writing useless, because novels are obsessed with social misunderstandings and miscommunications, and they are a record of our imperfections and a celebration of the flaws that make us humans. Meanwhile, Machines Like Me proofs that a well-written novel is more important than ever.