Machines Like Me is a sharply intelligent novel of ideas. McEwan's writing about the creation of a robot's personality allows him to speculate on the nature of personality, and thus humanity, in general…McEwan has an interesting mind and he is nearly always good company on the page. In whichever direction he turns, he has worthwhile commentary to make.
Machines Like Me takes place in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first synthetic humans and—with Miranda's help—he designs Adam's personality. The near-perfect human that emerges is beautiful, strong, and clever. It isn't long before a love triangle soon forms, and these three beings confront a profound moral dilemma.
In his subversive new novel, Ian McEwan asks whether a machine can understand the human heart—or whether we are the ones who lack understanding.
McEwan’s thought-provoking novel (after Nutshell) is about the increasingly fraught relationship between a man, a woman, and a synthetic human. Opening in an alternate 1982 London in which technology is not dissimilar from today’s (characters text and send emails), 32-year-old Charlie spends £86,000 of his inheritance on the “first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks,” who can pass for human unless closely inspected. His name is Adam (there are 12 Adams and 13 Eves total; the Eves sell out first), and Charlie designs Adam’s personality along with his neighbor and girlfriend Miranda. Soon, Adam informs Charlie that he “should be careful of trusting her completely,” and quickly falls in love with her, thus inextricably binding their fates together. The novel’s highlight is Adam, a consistently surprising character who quickly disables his own kill switch and composes an endless stream of haiku dedicated to Miranda because, as he states, “the lapidary haiku, the still, clear perception and celebration of things as they are, will be the only necessary form” as misunderstanding is eradicated in the future. The novel loses steam when Adam’s not the focus: much page space is devoted to a thread about an orphan boy, as well as Charlie’s thoughts and feelings about Miranda. Though the reader may wish for a tighter story, this is nonetheless an intriguing novel about humans, machines, and what constitutes a self. (Apr.)
A sharply intelligent novel of ideas. McEwan’s writing about the creation of a robot’s personality allows him to speculate on the nature of personality, and thus humanity, in general . . . Beguiling.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"[A] sharp, unsettling read . . . about love, family, jealousy and deceit. Ultimately, it asks a surprisingly mournful question: If we built a machine that could look into our hearts, could we really expect it to like what it sees?"
—Jeff Giles, The New York Times Book Review
“[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. Half a century ago, Philip K. Dick asked, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,’ and now McEwan is sure those androids are pulling the wool over our eyes. McEwan’s special contribution is not to articulate the challenge of robots but to cleverly embed that challenge in the lives of two people trying to find a way to exist with purpose. That human drama makes Machines Like Me strikingly relevant even though it’s set in a world that never happened almost 40 years ago.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Witty and humane . . . a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice.”
—Julian Lucas, The New Yorker
“[A] densely allusive, mind-bending novel of ideas that plays to our acute sense of foreboding about where technology is leading us. In Machines Like Me, British literary fiction master Ian McEwan posits an alternative history . . . [it has] the feel of an intricate literary machine situated squarely on the fault lines of contemporary debates about technology.”
“A thought-provoking, well-oiled literary machine . . . [It] manages to flesh out—literally and grippingly—questions about what constitutes a person, and the troubling future of humans if the smart machines we create can overtake us."
—Heller McAlpin, NPR
“A searching, sharply intelligent, and often deeply discomfiting pass through the Black Mirror looking glass—and all the promise and peril of machine dreams.”
—Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“A ruminative mix of science fiction, romance and alternate history set in 1980s London….thought-provoking…[A] cautionary tale based on McEwan’s sharp observations of our flawed human nature.”
“Enormous fun . . . McEwan has engaged with science before [and] his world of artificial intelligence is chilly, clever and utterly credible. This bold and brilliant novel tells a consistently compelling tale but it also provides regular food for thought regarding who we are, what we feel, what we construct, and what we might become.”
–Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Reminds you of [McEwan’s] mastery of the underrated craft of storytelling. The narrative is propulsive, thanks to our uncertainties about the characters’ motives, the turning points that suddenly reconfigure our understanding of the plot, and the figure of Adam, whose ambiguous energy is both mysteriously human and mysteriously not . . . Morally complex and very disturbing, animated by a spirit of sinister and intelligent mischief that feels unique to its author.”
—Marcel Theroux, The Guardian
"Thought provoking . . . consistently surprising . . . an intriguing novel about humans, machines, and what constitutes a self."
"McEwan brings humor and considerable ethical rumination to a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence."
The British author's latest novel concerns a triangle formed by two humans and one android in an alternate version of England.
The year is 1982, the British are about to lose the Falklands War, and Alan Turing is not only still alive, but his work has helped give rise to a line of androids almost indistinguishable from humans. The narrator, Charlie Friend, an aimless 32-year-old, inherits enough money to buy one of the pricey robots. He and Miranda, the younger woman living above him, each supply half the "personality parameters" required to push Adam past his factory presets. Before long, as things between the humans seem to be getting serious, Charlie finds himself the first man "to be cuckolded by an artefact." They all survive the fling, although Charlie imagines he detects "the scent of warm electronics on her sheets," and Adam turns lovesick, composing 2,000 haiku for Miranda (namesake of the Bard's character who famously utters: "O brave new world, / That has such people in't"). Early on, the android has told Charlie that Miranda is a liar and might harm him without providing details. These statements flag a fateful backstory comprising a teenage Miranda, two schoolmates, and a death threat. Along the way to a busy and disturbing ending, Charlie makes a connection with Turing that allows for some nerd-pleasing kibble like "non-deterministic polynomial time." McEwan (Nutshell, 2016, etc.) brings humor and considerable ethical rumination to a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence. But his human characters seem unfinished, his plot a bit ragged. And why the alternate 1982 England, other than to fire a few political shots about the Falklands, Thatcher, and Tony Benn? Does the title make sense as either clause or complete sentence? Are we meant to imagine the "real" author as a present-day Adam?
McEwan is a gifted storyteller, but this one is as frustrating as it is intriguing.
In 1980s London, Charlie longs for mysterious upstairs neighbor Miranda but contents himself with spending his inheritance on one of the 24 beautiful new robotic humans, named Adam or Eve, created by Alan Turing after his World War II triumph with the Enigma code-breaking machine. Charlie's Adam figures in his courtship of Miranda, as protests against Margaret Thatcher's policies rage. Alternate history from the multi-award-winning McEwan.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
Read an Excerpt
It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holygrail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low—for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love. As soon as it was feasible, we had no choice but to follow ourdesires and hang the consequences. In loftiest terms, we aimed to escape our mortality, confront or even replace the Godhead with a perfect self. More practically, we intended to devise an improved, more modern version of ourselves and exult in the joy of invention, the thrill of mastery. In the autumn of the twentieth century, it came about at last, the first step towards the fulfilment of an ancient dream, the beginning of the long lesson we would teach ourselves that however complicated we were, however faulty and difficult to describe in even our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered. And I was there as a young man, an early and eager adopter in that chilly dawn.
But artificial humans were a cliché long before they arrived, so when they did, they seemed to some a disappointment. The imagination, fleeter than history, than technological advance, had already rehearsed this future in books, then films and TV dramas, as if human actors, walking with a certain glazed look, phony head movements, some stiffness in the lower back, could prepare us for life with our cousins from the future.
I was among the optimists, blessed by unexpected funds following my mother’s death and the sale of the family home, which turned out to be on a valuable development site. The first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression went on sale the week before the Falkland Task Force set off on its hopeless mission. Adam cost £86,000. I brought him home in a hired van to my unpleasant flat in north Clapham. I’d made a reckless decision, but I was encouraged by reports that Sir Alan Turing, war hero and presiding genius of the digital age, had taken delivery of the same model. He probably wanted to have his lab take it apart to examine its workings fully.
Twelve of this first edition were called Adam, thirteen were called Eve. Corny, everyone agreed, but commercial. Notions of biological race being scientifically discredited,the twenty-five were designed to cover a range of ethnicities. There were rumours, then complaints, that the Arab could not be told apart from the Jew. Random programming as well as life experience would grant to all complete latitude in sexual preference. By the end of the first week, all the Eves sold out. At a careless glance, I might have taken my Adam for a Turk or a Greek. He weighed 170 pounds, so I had to ask my upstairs neighbour, Miranda, to help me carry him in from the street on the disposable stretcher that came with the purchase.
While his batteries began to charge, I made us coffee, then scrolled through the 470-page online handbook. Its language was mostly clear and precise. But Adam was created across different agencies and in places the instructions had the charm of a nonsense poem. “Unreveal upside of B347k vest to gain carefree emoticon with motherboard output to attenuate mood-swing penumbra.”
At last, with cardboard and polystyrene wrapping strewn around his ankles, he sat naked at my tiny dining table, eyes closed, a black power line trailing from the entry point in his umbilicus to a thirteen-amp socket in the wall. It would take sixteen hours to fire him up. Then sessions of download updates and personal preferences. I wanted him now, and so did Miranda. Like eager young parents, we were avid for his first words. There was no loudspeaker cheaply buried in his chest. We knew from the excited publicity that he formed sounds with breath, tongue, teeth and palate. Already his lifelike skin was warm to the touch and as smooth as a child’s. Miranda claimed to see his eyelashes flicker. I was certain she was seeing vibrations from the Tube trains rolling a hundred feet below us, but I said nothing.
Adam was not a sex toy. However, he was capable of sex and possessed functional mucous membranes, in the maintenanceof which he consumed half a litre of water each day. While he sat at the table, I observed that he was uncircumcised, fairly well endowed, with copious dark pubic hair. This highly advanced model of artificial human was likely to reflect the appetites of its young creators of code. The Adams and Eves, it was thought, would be lively.
He was advertised as a companion, an intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum who could wash dishes, make beds and “think.” Every moment of his existence, everything he heard and saw, he recorded and could retrieve. He couldn’t drive as yet and was not allowed to swim or shower or go out in the rain without an umbrella, or operate a chainsaw unsupervised. As for range, thanks to breakthroughs in electrical storage, he could run seventeen kilometres in two hours without a charge or, its energy equivalent, converse non-stop for twelve days. He had a working life of twenty years. He was compactly built, square-shouldered, dark-skinned, with thick black hair swept back; narrow in the face, with a hint of hooked nose suggestive of fierce intelligence, pensively hooded eyes, tight lips that, even as we watched, were draining of their deathly yellowish-white tint and acquiring rich human colour, perhaps even relaxing a little at the corners. Miranda said he resembled “a docker from the Bosphorus.”
Before us sat the ultimate plaything, the dream of ages, the triumph of humanism—or its angel of death. Exciting beyond measure, but frustrating too. Sixteen hours was a long time to be waiting and watching. I thought that for the sum I’d handed over after lunch, Adam should have been charged up and ready to go. It was a wintry late afternoon. I made toast and we drank more coffee. Miranda, a doctoral scholar of social history, said she wished the teenage Mary Shelley was here beside us, observing closely, not a monster like Frankenstein’s, but this handsome dark-skinned young man coming to life. I said that what both creatures shared was a hunger for the animating force of electricity.
“We share it too.” She spoke as though she was referring only to herself and me, rather than all of electrochemically charged humanity.
She was twenty-two,mature for her years and ten years younger than me. From a long perspective, there was not much between us. We were gloriously young. But I considered myself at a different stage of life. My formal education was far behind me. I’d suffered a series of professional and financial and personal failures. I regarded myself as too hard-bitten,too cynical for a lovely young woman like Miranda. And though she was beautiful, with pale brown hair and a long thin face, and eyes that often appeared narrowed by suppressed mirth,and though in certain moods I looked at her in wonder, I’d decided early on to confine her in the role of kind, neighbourly friend. We shared an entrance hall and her tiny apartment was right over mine. We saw each other for a coffee now and then to talk about relationships and politics and all the rest. With pitch-perfectneutrality she gave the impression of being at ease with the possibilities. To her, it seemed, an afternoon of intimate pleasure with me would have weighed equally with a chaste and companionable chat. She was relaxed in my company and I preferred to think that sex would ruin everything. We remained good chums. But there was something alluringly secretive or restrained about her. Perhaps, without knowing it, I had been in love with her for months. Without knowing it? What a flimsy formulation that was!
Reluctantly, we agreed to turn our backs on Adam and on each other for a while. Miranda had a seminar to attend northof the river, I had emails to write. By the early seventies, digital communication had discarded its air of convenience andbecome a daily chore. Likewise the 250 mph trains—crowded and dirty. Speech-recognition software, a fifties miracle, had long turned to drudge, with entire populations sacrificing hours each day to lonely soliloquising. Brain–machine interfacing, wild fruit of sixties optimism, could barely arouse the interest of a child. What people queued the entire weekend for became, six months later, as interesting as the socks on their feet. What happened to the cognition-enhancing helmets, the speaking fridges with a sense of smell? Gone the way of the mouse pad, the Filofax, the electric carving knife, the fondue set. The future kept arriving. Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.
Would Adam become a bore? It’s not easy, to dictate while trying to ward off a bout of buyer’s remorse. Surely other people, other minds must continue to fascinate us. As artificial intelligence became more like us, than became us, then became more than us, we could never tire of them. They were bound to surprise us. They might fail us in ways that were beyond our imagining. Tragedy was a possibility, but not boredom.
What was tedious was the prospect of the user’s guide. Instructions. My prejudice was that any machine that could not tell you by its very functioning how it should be used was not worth its keep. On an old-fashioned impulse, I was printingout the manual, then looking for a folder. All the while, I continued to dictate emails.
I couldn’t think of myself as Adam’s “user.” I’d assumed there was nothing to learn about him that he could not teach me himself. But the manual in my hands had fallen open at Chapter Fourteen. Here the English was plain: preferences; personality parameters. Then a set of headings—Agreeableness. Extraversion. Openness to experience. Conscientiousness. Emotional stability. The list was familiar to me. The Five Factor model. Educated as I was in the humanities, I was suspiciousof such reductive categories, though I knew from a friend in psychology that each item had many subgroups. Glancing at the next page I saw that I was supposed to select various settings on a scale of one to ten.
I’d been expecting a friend. I was ready to treat Adam as a guest in my home, as an unknown I would come to know. I’d thought he would arrive optimally adjusted. Factory settings—a contemporary synonym for fate. My friends, family and acquaintances all had appeared in my life with fixed settings, with unalterable histories of genes and environment. I wanted my expensive new friend to do the same. Why leave it to me? But of course I knew the answer. Not many of us are optimally adjusted. Gentle Jesus? Humble Darwin? One every 1,800 years. Even if it knew the best, the least harmful parameters of personality, which it couldn’t, a worldwide corporation with a precious reputation couldn’t risk a mishap. Caveat emptor.
God had once delivered a fully formed companion for the benefit of the original Adam. I had to devise one for myself. Here was Extraversion and a graded set of childish statements. He loves to be the life and soul of the party and He knows how to entertain people and lead them. And at the bottom, He feelsuncomfortable around other people and He prefers his own company. Here in the middle was, He likes a good party but he’s always happy to come home. This was me. But should I be replicating myself? If I was to choose from the middle ofeach scale I might devise the soul of blandness. Extraversion appeared to include its antonym. There was a long adjectival list with boxes to tick: outgoing, shy, excitable, talkative, withdrawn, boastful, modest, bold, energetic, moody. I wanted none of them, not for him, not for myself.
Apart from my moments of crazed decisions, I passed most of my life, especially when alone, in a state of mood neutrality, with my personality, whatever that was, in suspension. Not bold, not withdrawn. Simply here, neither content nor morose, but carrying out tasks, thinking about dinner or sex, staring at the screen, taking a shower. Intermittent regrets about the past, occasional forebodings about the future, barely aware of the present, except in the obvious sensory realm. Psychology, once so interested in the trillion ways the mind goes awry, was now drawn to what it considered the common emotions, from grief to joy. But it had overlooked a vast domain of everyday existence: absent illness, famine, war or other stresses, a lot of life is lived in the neutral zone, a familiar garden, but a grey one, unremarkable, immediately forgotten, hard to describe.
At the time, I was not to know that these graded optionswould have little effect on Adam. The real determinant was what was known as “machine learning.” The user’s handbook merely granted an illusion of influence and control, the kind of illusion parents have in relation to their children’s personalities. It was a way of binding me to my purchase and providing legal protection for the manufacturer. “Take your time,” the manual advised. “Choose carefully. Allow yourself several weeks, if necessary.”
I let half an hour pass before I checked on him again. No change. Still at the table, arms pushed out straight before him, eyes closed. But I thought his hair, deepest black, was bulked out a little and had acquired a certain shine, as though he’d just had a shower. Stepping closer, I saw to my delight that though he wasn’t breathing, there was, by his left breast, a regular pulse, steady and calm, about one a second by my inexperienced guess. How reassuring. He had no blood to pump around, but this simulation had an effect. My doubts faded just a little. I felt protective towards Adam, even as I knew how absurd it was. I stretched out my hand and laid it over his heart and felt against my palm its calm, iambic tread. I sensed I was violating his private space. These vital signs were easy to believe in. The warmth of his skin, the firmness and yield of the muscle below it—my reason said plastic or some such, but my touch responded to flesh.
It was eerie, to be standing by this naked man, struggling between what I knew and what I felt. I walked behind him, partly to be out of range of eyes that could open at any moment and find me looming over him. He was muscular around his neck and spine. Dark hair grew along the line of his shoulders. His buttocks displayed muscular concavities. Below them, an athlete’s knotted calves. I hadn’t wanted a superman. I regretted once more that I’d been too late for an Eve.