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Ghost in the machine
A thought-provoking tale of friendship and robots
Klara and the Sun made me think about what life with super intelligent machines might look like.
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Most fiction about robots seems to fall into one of two categories: stories about how they’re going to kill us all or stories about how robots become an integral part of our lives. Although I enjoy the former—the first two Terminator movies are classics for a reason, and there are some terrific episodes of Black Mirror that tackle the subject—I’m drawn more to books and movies that paint robots in a positive light.

Robots are going to play a huge role in our future, and fiction is a great way to explore what exactly that might mean. So, when I found out that Kazuo Ishiguro had written a new novel about robots called Klara and the Sun, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. I read Remains of the Day years ago and thought it was brilliant. His latest is just as thoughtful and beautifully written as you’d expect from him.

The Klara in the title is an “artificial friend” who provides companionship to a sick 14-year-old girl named Josie. The story takes place in a dystopian future where children have been genetically “lifted’ to be smarter. The process of lifting is risky, and it’s the cause of Josie’s illness. Children only attend school online, so many kids have robot friends like Klara to try and make up for the lack of socialization. We don’t find out much about the world outside of Josie’s home, but there are references to frequent terrorism and environmental catastrophe.

Klara is programmed to be deeply empathetic and curious about the world. Because the book is told in the first person, we see everything from her perspective, which is both fascinating and odd. There are long stretches where you’ll almost forget that she isn’t human.

One of the most striking things about the book is Ishiguro’s depiction of Klara’s vision. Instead of having one large field of vision, she seems to see the world through a series of pixel-like boxes. This results in some pretty wild descriptions, like this one when Klara looks at an adult woman she meets: “In one box she was visible only from her waist to the upper part of her neck, while the box beside it was almost entirely taken up by her eyes.” I found it a bit confusing, although it was a good reminder that Klara isn’t like us no matter how human she may seem at times.

As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think about which parts of it paint a picture of our likely future—and which parts were pure fiction. I believe we’ll someday have both companion and utilitarian robots in our lives. Klara is mostly a companion. She’s not doing much of what you’d expect from a utilitarian robot, like bringing you things or preparing your meals. Her purpose is almost entirely social, and although I don’t know if we’ll ever have robots as emotionally sophisticated as she is, we might see pretty good companion robots emerge in the next decade.

There’s a lot of work going on in this space, especially around companion robots for older people. Loneliness is a real health problem in old age that increases your risk of premature death—a fact that has been made more evident by social isolation many seniors experienced during the pandemic. Research shows that having a pet can significantly ease this burden. Companion robots like Klara would be the next step up from that.

I’m curious to see whether people will treat these kinds of robots as pieces of technology or as something more. A lot of robot stories explore what happens when we start to see them as human. In Klara and the Sun, Josie seems to understand that her companion is artificial, but there are some uncomfortable scenes where Josie’s mom starts to treat Klara as another daughter. (The movie Her is about an artificial intelligence rather than a robot, but it deals with a similar scenario where a human develops complicated feelings.)

I’m inclined to think like Josie and see robots as machines, no matter how intelligent and human-like they become. In A Thousand Brains, Jeff Hawkins explores at length what moral obligation we have to our machines. Should we feel bad about pulling the plug on an artificial intelligence if it’s as human-like as Klara? Hawkins concludes that the answer is no. I agree with him, although I can imagine a future where other people might not.

Ishiguro certainly makes you think about what life with super intelligent robots might look like. He never claims to be a technologist or a futurist, but his perspective on artificial life is provocative nonetheless. At the end of the book, when someone asks Klara if she thinks she succeeded at her objective, she says, “Yes, I believe I gave good service and prevented Josie from becoming lonely.” In a world filled with stories about killer machines, it was refreshing to read about a future where robots make our lives better—even if they complicate things along the way.

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