In this version of 1982 Britain loses in the Falklands, JFK survived his attempted assassination, Carter beat Reagan, Tony Benn becomes PM but is assassinated by a bomb and most notably, Alan Turing lives to make a massive contribution to neural networks and the IT industry. This last has enabled the early progression to a tech savvy world that exceeds our present reality. Driverless cars are common and a firm has sold the first human-like robots: 12 Adams and 13 Eves (the Eves sold out straight away). Our hapless hero, trained in anthropology and law, now makes a meagre living trading from his bedroom. He blows an inheritance on an Adam and invites Sarah, his upstairs neighbour to help create the parameters of Adam’s personality. It’s not long before he and Sarah are an item but when Adam comes to life he warns our hero not to trust her. With access to all sorts of internet files it’s a warning that must be taken seriously and indeed, it does turn out that Sarah has lied in a court case and sent a man to prison. However, when she finally confesses why she did it we are on her side. This is one of the many moral issues the book confronts.
Like many sf books before it, this one considers the many issues surrounding artificial intelligence. When a machines are sentient, are they alive like us? What kind of consciousness will they have? How should we treat them and they us? When we build them to learn what they want how they want they’ll surpass us in intelligence. Will they come to the conclusion that humans should be exterminated for the benefit of the Earth? Or themselves? Turing becomes concerned for robots that - faced with unpleasant realities - find their lives impossible. Our hero’s Adam, having made lots of money on the market, sticks to a code of honesty and honour that is disastrous for his two closest humans. This is complicated by the fact that it’s equally disastrous for an abandoned little boy Sarah is hoping to adopt. It’s bound to end in tears.
McEwan gives us many disquisitions in the voice of the hero/narrator which involve a suspension of disbelief given the narrator’s self-confessed ignorance of Shakespeare and other cultural matters. There’s an amusing episode where Sarah’s ailing but very cultured father mistakes Adam for the human boyfriend. (His name, somewhat ironically, is Charlie Friend.) In real life, scientists say we’re a long way off such human-like robots but these issues need to be thoroughly assessed now, before we create something over which we have no control. No doubt many would argue that robots like this Adam would make a better job of running the world than we do, given what a stuff up we’re making of it.
The topic had the potential to develop an intersting thought. Rather, aside from the distraction of the human to human relationships the man machine relation had no insight and could be summed up in a paragraph or two. Disappointing. I had hoped for more from a writer of this quality.
Moving and stunnningly crafted is McEwan’s take on AI, the meanings of love and sentience, and his fascinating counterfactual history of a London familiar and non-existent. Can his earlier works all be this beautiful? One way to find out....
This author of 15 adult novels, 2 children novels, 4 short story collections, 2 children’s novels, 2 plays, 5 screenplays, an oratorio, a libretto, and 12 film adaptations resides in the highest pantheon of English literature. He has collected prizes and awards too numerous to mention—the Whitbread, the Booker and an Oscar among them—so it’s a big deal when he puts out a new novel. Here, McEwan takes a well worn trope of speculative futurism—lifelike human robots powered by artificial intelligence—and places them in the recent past, specifically Thatcher’s London at the time of the Falklands War. Spoiler alert: The Brits lost in this version. Alan Turing is still alive too, and is a tech messiah. It is a well-paced first person narrative by the protagonist, a thirty-something lawyer struck off for inside trading who has frittered away a sizeable inheritance and spends his days trying to keep himself afloat by day trading on the share, currency, and commodities markets. He’s not fussy which. He indulges himself one last time by purchasing one of the 50 autonomous and extremely life-like human robots so far invented: a male called Adam (No prizes for guessing the name of the females, which sold out very quickly, particularly in Riyadh Mr McEwan tells us.) At the same time as he takes possession of his android, our boy starts up a relationship with his younger female upstairs neighbour, as you would. McEwan poses the question: How does a machine built on logic and rationality cope with real humans and their foibles? Whether or how well he answers it is a matter of opinion. Readers must decide for themselves. Machines Like Me is not the finest work produced by this author. I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn, but the book was worth reading for the quality of the prose. 3.5 stars