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Your visual cortex does two incredible things, thousands of times a second.
First, it takes all the information streaming in through your retinas and passes it through a series of steps – looking first for patches of dark and light, then for features such as lines and edges, then for simple recognisable shapes like this letter ‘A’, working up to household objects like a toaster or kettle, or individual faces, like your grandmother, or the person who you used to see every day at the bus stop on the way to work.
The second incredible thing it does is to completely forget that it’s done any of that at all. The inner workings of our minds are not accessible to us – and that is one of the things that will always separate us from artificially intelligent machines like the ones depicted in Klara and the Sun, the new novel from British author Kazuo Ishiguro.
The book is set in a near-future where robotic humanoids called ‘Artificial Friends’ or ‘AFs’ are the purchase of choice for wealthy teenagers, who – for unspecified reasons – are taught remotely, and rarely get the opportunity to interact with their peers face to face. AFs are promoted as the cure for loneliness, but they live in a lonely world themselves.
At the start of the book, we meet Klara, an AF on display at a store in a New York-like American city, who spends her days chatting to the other AFs and waiting to be chosen by a customer. Although she appears almost entirely human – she walks, talks and looks like a person – Klara sees the world in a very different way.
Her machine brain breaks everything she sees down into constantly shifting boxes – a grid of squares, like the bounding boxes used by image processing algorithms, which draw red squares around potential threats. When she looks out of the window at the street scene outside, she sometimes sees a fractured picture of the world – an angry face fragments into shards like a reflection in a broken mirror, a couple embracing under an umbrella becomes a single, massive creature with eight limbs and two heads, before resolving into something decipherable. “It was almost as if I were watching passing traffic in a busy street, and when I managed to throw my gaze over to the further side, I found it had been partitioned into numerous boxes of uneven dimensions.”
It’s a reminder of the otherness of AI – the idea, explored for decades in less ‘literary’ forms of science-fiction, that machines don’t work according to the same assumptions that humans do, and that projecting human desires and motivations on to them is a dangerous fallacy.
Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s eight novel, and his first book since he won the Nobel Prize. It has thematic similarities to his previous works – particularly Never Let Me Go, which is about the lives of human clones being raised as future organ donors. It strikes many of the same notes – the naive, somewhat childish narrator, the seemingly normal life under which a creeping horror lies.
Ishiguro seems to be obsessed with the stratification of society via class systems – perhaps unsurprising, given that he was born in Japan and moved to Britain as a child – and that shows up again in Klara and the Sun, where the children of the wealthy have the opportunity to have their intelligence ‘lifted’ via genetic engineering, with places at the best universities closed off to those who have not gone through the procedure. AFs occupy one of the lower rungs of the ladder – they follow their owners around like loyal puppies until they’re no longer wanted.
Klara is eventually selected by a customer and taken to a new home where she’s flung headfirst into the complexities of human relationships. Although Klara sees the world like a machine, this isn’t the all-knowing, world-destroying artificial intelligence of so many dystopian movies. AFs learn by observing the world around them, and although they see the world quite differently, end up muddling cause and effect in the same way that we do.
When faced with a confusing, uncontrollable situation involving her new owner, the solar-powered Klara develops a superstitious fixation on the sun – which she could see crossing the sky from her position in the AF store, and which she imbues with a God-like power, in the same way that civilisations throughout history have dreamt up deities to make sense of the unexplainable.
We’re still a long way from having convincing Artificial Friends in the real world – but AI is creeping into every aspect of society, from job applications to dating algorithms. Klara and the Sun may be optimistic in projecting traits like love, loyalty and friendship onto an artificially intelligent being that sees the world in a completely different way.
But in the way she uses ideas she can grasp as a lens through which to view things she doesn’t, Klara’s own journey through the book mirrors our own as we try to understand the opaque workings of a technology that’s going to become a huge feature of our lives.
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