As far back as 1940, Isaac Asimov was wrestling with the moral implications of artificial intelligence. Now the game has moved on in terms of production but the big philosophical questions remain. That is one of our major problems in contemporary society, that our ability to produce new technology vastly outstrips our ability to deal with the legal or moral implications of using it. And no-one is in charge.
When one of the characters in Klara and the Sun is questioned about the ethical issues of a drone invention he is working on, he replies:
“I’m sure, Sir, there are all kinds of ethical issues. But in the end its for legislators to decide how these things get regulated, not people like me.”
In other words, there is no ethical oversight of robotics or tech generally. I think we already know this. And the ‘regulators’ don’t understand the inventions that they are attempting to regulate. Nor often do they have the vision to imagine how things can go so badly wrong. We have seen evidence of that in the UK only this year with the fiasco over computer assessed exam results for GCSE and A level students unable to attend school because of coronavirus. Elsewhere there has been Russian interference in elections, the uncontrollability of FB and Twitter, mass surveillance and indiscriminate collection of data on private citizens.
In Klara the central concern of whether AI will become like us or even replace us altogether seems rather quaint given the actual carnage being wrought by technology and the problems that we face here and now. Why is an author of Ishiguro’s calibre wasting time worrying about emotional empathy in robots? I find this quite frustrating. In fact it makes me want to grind my teeth. If anyone out there is working on an AI version of me they will need to teach it to grind its teeth. Does Klara have teeth? Who knows. They are not mentioned.
Have a look round in 2021 and see what is available to a would be home user of robots. Unless you include a voice in a box calling itself Alexa and turning the lights and TV on and off like some malcontent spirit, or a spying fridge, I am limited to a vacuum cleaner that can map the shape of my rooms and remember which bit of the carpet it has already cleaned. (In this it greatly exceeds my own cognitive abilities some days I admit).
Given the state of the planet if someone were to produce kindly robots that could manage things better then us, bring it on I say but I’m sorry my friends it’s not going to happen. No electronic K9 will follow you faithfully round the house – sans poo collection duties – although I believe there is some such thing in Japan – and no kindly housekeeper will make your late night drinking chocolate. Yet here we are worrying about – or rather being asked to worry about – a relationship between an artificial friend, and a human child. Given what the planet is facing, is that our go to philosophical issue for one of our greatest writers? Admittedly Klara is set in some unspecified time in the future but there are still cars and pollution, so perhaps not that far.
This is Ishiguro’s first literary outing since he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. Wiki tells us that Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 but that he has lived in the UK since the age of 5. Listed among his notable works are An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day, When we were Orphans and Never let Me Go. To that might be added his first major work A Pale View of Hills, The Unconsoled (did anyone manage to finish it) and a book I personally loved The Buried Giant. Some optimist has added this latest work, Klara and the Sun to the notable list.
Yet I remain unconvinced about the notability of Klara. Diana at Thoughts on Papyrus has described this book as ‘young adult-ish’. She also described it as ‘Toy Story meets Never Let me Go‘. I can only agree.
As far as the story goes, Klara is a robot whose job is to be companion to a child named Josie. During the course of the story we find that there are occasionally some sinister goings on but the main questions which the book addresses is summed up here:
“Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing. Something that makes each of us special and individual.”
Will AI give us a Montaigne? A Mandela? An Ikeda? I very much doubt it. Will music produced by a synthesiser equal that of Beethoven? Deep Blue may have beaten Kasparov but chess moves, even if unfathomable in number, are mathematical, ultimately finite. Learnable. A very different skill to walking through a field. Klara seems to have difficulty negotiating her way across a field as her vision divides into boxes. Ultimately computerised vision divides everything into boxes, into a series of noughts and ones.
What should have been a potential firecracker of a book is not a firecracker. What should have been the AI equivalent of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin, instead turns out to be Gone with the Wind. Not a gamechanger, but a sentimental fantasy.
What a shame that the maestro didn’t take on Big Tech in his book. What a shame he didn’t write about Facebook’s content moderators who spend their lives looking at horrific images to the extent that most of them suffer from PTSD. Because this is the swamp into which our technology has led us, whether intentionally or as a result of unbridled capitalism it hardly matters. Algorithms now make choices for us. Job applications. Visa applications. Mortgage applications.
Empathetic and compassionate robots are the least of our problems.