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Machines like me - a review

Machines like me

Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 2019, ISBN 978 1 787 33167 9, 306pp reviewed by Trevor Moore

Last Saturday there appeared in the on-line version of The Guardian an article entitled The 100 best books of the 21st century. Only a week before I had been thrilled to find an article in the very same ornament of journalistic endeavour that promised The 100 best albums of the 21st century. This latter article did at least qualify its enthusiasm in its subtitle, saying that its authors set out to “rank the definitive LPs of the 21st century so far.” The phrase “so far” is important. The list of the best 100 books was not so qualified. Could this be? I asked myself. Is it really the case that no better books will appear in the next 80 years than have appeared over the last 20? I have sent my granddaughter a note, as she will be alive in 2099, asking her to check and see which of the 2019 year list survive in the 2099 list. If she can communicate with the spirit world then I shall be interested to know.

No matter. The 100 best books is a motley collection and there is no indication of how this list has been compiled or against what criteria. I am quite sure that the Congolese novel Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou (2005), translated by Helen Stevenson (2009), is a fine read though quite how I was supposed to have heard of it I cannot say, though perhaps I should have paid more attention to the 2015 Man Booker finalists. I have added it to my wish-list and when I have read it I will review it for you. Whatever criteria were used must have been pretty comprehensive and well-applied. It is surprising to see a list of books that contains both The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006) and Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018). I have read both and they are as far apart on subject and emotional content as you can imagine. The Sally Rooney book is nothing short of brilliant (it weighs in at number 25 on the list) and I shall review it for you next time. Or perhaps the time after.

But I recently read Ian McEwan’s well-written and thought-provoking Machines like me and looked in vain for its position on the list. Ah, well, perhaps it was number 101 and just failed to make the cut. McEwan’s book is relevant today because it deals with artificial intelligence. Today’s press loves artificial intelligence, which they confuse with machine learning. The algorithms are coming, they would have us believe, and they will carry us away. This is utter drivel of course. I was writing programs in the 1970s and – guess what – they had algorithms in them. Quelle surprise! But I digress.

McEwan’s book is set in an alternative England to the one that happened. In Machines like me Britain has lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher has been forced from office, and Alan Turing is still alive. Counter-factual histories frequently don’t work but McEwan has made it work here and it works well. In the novel, Alan Turing has made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence and as a result an artificial human is available for sale for the bargain price of £86,000. These artificial humans are available as Adams and Eves. The novel’s hero, Charlie Friend, is a robot fanatic and buys one with an inheritance from his mother. He gets an Adam because all the Eves have been sold. The equipment, if I can call it that because to all intents and purposes it is indistinguishable from a real human, has a programmable personality. Charlie shares the programming of this personality with his upstairs neighbour, Miranda. The result is predictable: the robot is a trifle mixed up. But he (or they? or it? what pronoun do you use for a robot?) is an engaging character which is more than can be said for the main human characters. Charlie seems to be a bit out there and Miranda has a dark secret. Charlie and Miranda become an item and a sort of love triangle forms with Adam. At one-point Charlie says he is the first man “to be cuckolded by an artefact.” Adam is a key participant in the unfolding moral dilemma, adding logical confusion to chaos.

On the whole the other reviews I have read were less than kind to McEwan’s book. It’s true that the main plot is the moral tale but on the other hand it may well be important for us to be reading about robots. We have come a long way since Isaac Asimov’s 1940s imagineering. We should be having a conversation about our relationship with automated things, even if those automated things are not properly artificially intelligent. I enjoyed this book now and, provided you are not a book critic, then look out for it. And when you find it, read it. I am sure that I saw a copy in Moruya Books.

Post script: In case you need reminding here are Asimov’s three laws:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.