GDST Book Club: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
As Online Learning and Innovation Manager at GDST, Amy Icke regularly runs courses and workshops to educate and inspire young women about technology and AI. So it seemed fitting that we asked Amy to review Ian McEwan's latest sci-fi.
Machines Like Me explores themes of family, love, morality and what it means to be human.
Ian McEwan, lauded as a ‘modern classic’, is author of a vast and varied back catalogue and in his newest offering, he returns to the darker and more incendiary tone of his early work. Machines Like Me tells the story of Charlie, his girlfriend Miranda and their humanoid companion. Set in an alternative, super connected 1980s Britain, where Alan Turing is alive and well, Charlie invests his inheritance in, ‘a manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression’, called Adam.
Between them, Miranda and Charlie programme Adam and he becomes their (sometimes unwelcome) companion. A poignant sub-plot carefully, yet brutally, unfolds against the backdrop of this developing relationship with some disturbing and difficult consequences. As the book reaches its climax, McEwan challenges our notion of family, implores us to rethink our relationship with the justice system and unsettles our moral compass.
The book raises profound and uncomfortable questions around our relationship with our robot overlords and how we envisage this relationship in the future. Throughout its 300 pages, McEwan explores with dexterity, wit and a little intellectual smugness, what it means to be ‘human’. There is a deep contradiction and tension running beneath the whole narrative- that is, that it is through our relationships with the ‘unhuman’ that we find our humanity. One of the most uncomfortable themes of the book is the unpacking of Adam’s romantic feelings towards Miranda, who he tries to woo with over 2,000 haikus, a formulaic poetry form, ideally suited to the machine learning driven brain of a robot.
Ultimately, the book confronts the messiness of life- the contradictions, the moral dilemmas, the close-calls, the appreciation that sometimes heart rules head and in each of these situations, asks, ‘how would a robot behave when confronted with this?’
Four out of five.
The book is heavy, even bloated, with research, back stories, moral dilemmas and human afflictions and this can make it difficult to read. It is compelling and challenging but for me, the characterisation is underdeveloped and leaves the reader lacking empathy at some crucial moments. Having said this, it would be a great book to explore with sixth form students interested in the ethics of artificial intelligence and those keen to get their teeth into some of the thorniest questions of our time.
Most memorable quote
‘The point is, chess is not a representation of life….It’s a perfect information game. But life, where we apply our intelligence is an open system. Messy, full of tricks and feints and ambiguities and false friends. So is language- not a problem to be solved or a device for solving problems. It’s more like a mirror, no, a billion mirrors in a cluster like a fly’s eye, reflecting, distorting and constructing our world at different focal lengths. Simple statements need external information to be understood because language is as open a system as life…A machine would struggle.’
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...delving back in time and exploring some earlier gothic fiction, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which also explores our relationship with technology and the ‘other’.