by Ethan Croft
Machines Like Me Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 2019
In 1969, as Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: Space Odyssey picked up a single dispiriting Oscar for special effects, the Harvard psychologist BF Skinner suggested a new angle in the study of artificial intelligence like the HAL 9000 of recent cinema fame. Skinner opined that 'the real question is not whether machines think, but whether men do.'
This query – more philosophical than technical – remains unanswered. Since the days of the first computer, ENIAC, the clean logic of a metal brain has bothered us; we are both inspired by its ability to overcome human folly and fallibility, and troubled by its apparent lack of the unprogrammable passions: love, pity, forgiveness.
Ian McEwan revisits Skinner’s half-century- old question in his new novel Machines Like Me, a pensive tale of human-robot relations in an alternative 1980s Britain. In this parallel timeline, technological innovation has far exceeded our own limitations thanks to Alan Turing, who miraculously survived his encounter with chemical castration and other state-sponsored cruelties.
Meanwhile, McEwan has some fun with an alternative political history where Margaret Thatcher lost the Falklands and Prime Minister Tony Benn died at the Grand Hotel – the purpose of these broad brushstrokes is hard to discern, and readers may find they offer little more than glib parallels with our current predicament: ‘more than three- quarters of a million had joined the [Labour] party’; ‘a snap election to be held in three weeks’. Nevertheless McEwan’s more intricate work provides the narrative focus of Machines Like Me, painting an unconventional ménage à trois of man, woman and robot.
For an opening epigram, McEwan seeks the assistance of a poet rather than a scientist, lifting this line from Kipling’s little remembered but ever prescient ‘The Secret of the Machines’: ‘remember, please, the law by which we live, / we are not built to comprehend a lie.’ Though such a prefatory note may be skipped over by eager readers in search of the first chapter, it provides the key to unlocking McEwan’s narrative heave. Charlie, our young tech- curious protagonist, grapples with innovation in the form of his prototype android.
This disconcertingly innocent robot, Adam (think Genesis), is confounded by the absence of rational choice models in everyday human life. For example, mere hours after Charlie begins an affair with his neighbour Miranda, Adam reveals: ‘according to my researches of these past few seconds, and to my analysis, you should be careful of trusting her completely.’
His mind of wire, oil, and fuses is of course correct, not in judgement of character, but the simple (perhaps callous) extrapolation of legal data: Miranda, it transpires, is a criminal. But just as machines cannot comprehend a lie, it seems that humans cannot always accept the truth, and Charlie avoids the revelation until it corners him. As Skinner tentatively suggested, the machine is condemned to think always while only humans may enjoy the luxury of ignorance.
When Miranda’s transgressions surface, we see again the struggle of Adam to assimilate. Charlie can forgive for the sake of love – who, with a beating heart, cannot? Our narrator convinces the reader quite effectively that Miranda’s fault is one of those difficult and uniquely human crimes – a justifiable one. But Adam is powerless to break a moral universal.
Here Kipling springs to mind once more, ‘we can neither love, nor pity, nor forgive.’ This verse, again taken from ‘The Secret of the Machines’, well illustrates the problem of Adam, though it is omitted from McEwan’s epigram. The reason for this selective editing is plainly one of tone. Kipling, writing in 1911, adopted what would later become a rather boring canard of twentieth-century science fiction – robot ruthlessness (‘If you make a slip in handling us you die! / We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings’). McEwan on the other hand wages, in the words of his friend Martin Amis, a war against such cliché.
Instead of adopting the worst side of humanity, artificial intelligence in Machines Like Me develops an entirely new emotion reserved for the troubled robots, that of ‘machine sadness’. Unable to comprehend the horror of human irrationality, various robot prototypes across the globe engineer their own destruction. This plague of robot suicide is McEwan’s greatest innovation in a novel otherwise dependent on the tropes established by earlier science fiction writers. And though we may not be able to empathise with these troubled and restrictively logical androids, we can at least sympathise with the causes of their distress: two female prototypes in Riyadh reject the scourge of sexual slavery, choosing mutual destruction instead, while another Adam in British Colombia prefers brain death to one more day watching over the destruction of the Canadian forests.
As the spectre of all-too-human robots creeps more firm-footed into our everyday existence, McEwan’s novel asks Skinner’s old question in a new way – who should we really fear, man or machine? For this reader, the answer is clear.
ETHAN CROFT reads History at Hertford. He lives behind an oil refinery, in constant fear of incineration.
Art by Abigail Hodges