Sidharth Vardhan

Robots with an existential crisis – a review of ‘Machines Like Me’

Machines Like Me Sidharth Vardhan review anlysis Ian McEwan
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Published: 2019
Machines Like Me occurs 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 batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral…

(A review of 'Machines Like Me'
A novel by Ian McEwan
Review first written on May 20, 2019)

"there are tears in the nature of things."


Turing Test Ian McEwan Sidharth Vardhan review analysis machines like me
Turing Test

Alan Turing, one of biggest names in field of artificial intelligence world, devised a test known as Turing test. To pass the test, the machine will have to fool a human (who won't know whether he or she is talking to human or machine) into believing that he or she is talking to a human being. This mechanical art of talking or acting like humans is only a simulation, the machine might act like humans but it is still not motivated by the same forces. This genius was accused of "gross indecency" because of his homosexuality and committed suicide at around 42 years of age. In the book, a few events of his last days are changed and he survives to bring forth an alternative history in which first Androids hit the market in the 1970s which is when the events of the book happen. A good part of the book goes to developing the alternative history - of robotics, politics and social. The plot itself is rather simple.

In 'Do androids dream of electronic sheep', the Andys have been so successful at simulation that they fool humans into believing that they are capable of love and other emotions as well as sex without ever feeling anything of the sort themselves (there is a human-android having sex cliche in 'Machine Like Me' too - but it is never fully developed). These make them very good psychopaths. And the one trait that identifies them is also the trait that identifies psychopaths too - the lack of compassion and cruelty toward animals.

But in 'Machines like me', this simulation goes a step further. The machines (or androids) do not only fool human beings but they are themselves fooled by the simulated emotions. 'Adam' the android believes that he is love with a woman. And he (or it) genuinely thinks he is in love, is anguished, even writes poems. This raises the question of whether such a machine can actually be called alive? - literature to me personally is something only humans can create. A machine can take photographs and turn them into paintings, join sounds to create something lie music, but writing a poem? A poem needs the consciousness of an emotion. The outward simulation is not enough.

One more important observation is the existential crisis these machines go through. They often get depressed and are running away, going mad (by intentionally lowering their intelligence) and committing suicide.

"That Adam in Vancouver was bought by a man who heads an international logging corporation. He’s often in battles with local people who want to prevent him stripping out virgin forest in northern British Columbia. We know for certain that his Adam was taken on regular helicopter journeys north. We don’t know if what he saw there caused him to destroy his own mind. We can only speculate. The two suicidal Eves in Riyadh lived in extremely restricted circumstances. They may have despaired of their minimal mental space. It might give the writers of the affect code some consolation to learn that they died in each other’s arms. I could tell you similar stories of machine sadness.
‘But there’s the other side. I wish I could demonstrate to you the true splendour of reasoning, of the exquisite logic, beauty and elegance of the P versus NP solution, and the inspired work of thousands of good and clever and devoted men and women that’s gone into making these new minds. It would make you hopeful about humanity. But there’s nothing in all their beautiful code that could prepare Adam and Eve for Auschwitz."

Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me)

Carl Jung says that our consciousness is a recent invention of evolution (or something to effect) and we are still getting over the initial shock. First microbes and then Plants have nothing like minds, only animals do. And even animals are most, of their actions, instinctive. The thoughtful self-aware consciousness holds driving seat only in human minds. That is a good way of explaining existential problems - we just don't know what to do with all the knowledge and self-awareness we have gained, the famous lack of meaning in life; all suicides are either an instinctive response to an actual bad event or result of overthinking. Nevertheless, we have a built-in stubbornness for life, despite all the tragedies and evil of the world we go on living. This stubbornness must be illogical and that must be why, it is one thing the androids in this book fail to develop - once they come across all the violence, evil, stupidity, etc of the world, they kill themselves or go crazy. A Purely rational mind with none of the opt-in ignorance won't survive long, the rationalists in Dostovesky's books are often killing themselves or doing something stupid. The androids here do the same:

"these twenty-five artificial men and women released into the world are not thriving. We may be confronting a boundary condition, a limitation we’ve imposed upon ourselves. We create a machine with intelligence and self-awareness and push it out into our imperfect world. Devised along generally rational lines, well disposed to others, such a mind soon finds itself in a hurricane of contradictions. We’ve lived with them and the list wearies us. Millions dying of diseases we know how to cure. Millions living in poverty when there’s enough to go around. We degrade the biosphere when we know it’s our only home. We threaten each other with nuclear weapons when we know where it could lead. We love living things but we permit a mass extinction of species. And all the rest – genocide, torture, enslavement, domestic murder, child abuse, school shootings, rape and scores of daily outrages. We live alongside this torment and aren’t amazed when we still find happiness, even love. Artificial minds are not so well defended."

Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me)

Alan Turing Machines like Ian McEwan Sidharth Vardhan review analysis
Alan Turing

Alan Turing (the book character, based on a real-life person, not the real-life person) thinks this will be a lesson for us though:

"At best, they or their succeeding generations will be driven by their anguish and astonishment to hold up a mirror to us. In it, we’ll see a familiar monster through the fresh eyes that we ourselves designed. We might be shocked into doing something about ourselves."

Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me)

But androids might mean an existential crisis for humans too. A speculative question to the effect is raised as to what will happen when machines take over all the work and people can do whatever they want. Beckett asks 'What to do now that we are happy?". In one of Asterix comics, an illusion to same is made by newly freed slaves "What to do now that we are free?". McEwan asks the same question. The actual freedom - from needing to earn one's living can be as good a shock as the consciousness was. we could be clueless what to do with it. :

"We could become slaves of time without purpose. Then what? A general renaissance, a liberation into love, friendship and philosophy, art and science, nature worship, sports and hobbies, invention and the pursuit of meaning? But genteel recreations wouldn’t be for everyone. Violent crime had its attractions too, so did bare-knuckle cage-fighting, VR pornography, gambling, drink and drugs, even boredom and depression. We wouldn’t be in control of our choices."

Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me)

This is why I like it when good literary authors write science fiction. The prose quality - just look at this one:

"Adam was retreating into his version of sleep. He had described it to me variously; he didn’t dream, he ‘wandered’. He sorted and rearranged his files, reclassified memories from short to long term, played out internal conflicts in disguised form, usually without resolving them, reanimated old material in order to refresh it, and moved, so he put it once, in a trance through the garden of his thoughts. In such a state he conducted in relatively slow motion his researches, formulated tentative decisions, and even wrote new haikus or discarded or reimagined old ones. He also practised what he called the art of feeling, allowing himself the luxury of the entire spectrum, from grief to joy so that all emotion remained accessible to him when fully charged. It was, above all else, he insisted, a process of repair and consolidation from which he emerged daily, delighted to find himself to be, once again, self-aware, in a state of grace – his word – and to reclaim the consciousness that the very nature of matter permitted."

Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me)

… and …

"Adam took in Miranda’s news and nodded. But he pressed on into our silence. ‘Nearly everything I’ve read in the world’s literature describes varieties of human failure – of understanding, of reason, of wisdom, of proper sympathies. Failures of cognition, honesty, kindness, self-awareness; superb depictions of murder, cruelty, greed, stupidity, self-delusion, above all, profound misunderstanding of others. Of course, goodness is on show too, and heroism, grace, wisdom, truth. Out of this rich tangle have come literary traditions, flourishing, like the wild flowers in Darwin’s famous hedgerow. Novels ripe with tension, concealment and violence as well as moments of love and perfect formal resolution. But when the marriage of men and women to machines is complete, this literature will be redundant because we’ll understand each other too well. We’ll inhabit a community of minds to which we have immediate access. Connectivity will be such that individual nodes of the subjective will merge into an ocean of thought, of which our Internet is the crude precursor. As we come to inhabit each other’s minds, we’ll be incapable of deceit. Our narratives will no longer record endless misunderstanding. Our literatures will lose their unwholesome nourishment. The lapidary haiku, the still, clear perception and celebration of things as they are, will be the only necessary form. I’m sure we’ll treasure the literature of the past, even as it horrifies us. We’ll look back and marvel at how well the people of long ago depicted their own shortcomings, how they wove brilliant, even optimistic fables out of their conflicts and monstrous inadequacies and mutual incomprehension.’"

Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me)

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