Sunday, 30 June 2019

@amreading Ian McEwan MACHINES LIKE ME

Although McEwan’s novel is set in the 80s (probably to sneak in Turing as a character), we are somewhere in the future when you can buy a robot that looks and acts perfectly human and is a more perfect human than you. He knows his Shakespeare, he knows his manners, he knows the stock market. But of course you have to programme, or at any rate fine-tune him first.

Why leave the adjustment to me? But of course I knew the answer. The company doesn’t want o take the blame. A worldwide corporation with a precious reputation couldn’t risk a mishap. Caveat emptor. God had once delivered a fully formed companion for the benefit of the original Adam. I had to devise one for myself.

You plug him, and the thing awakens: His movement was entirely convincing in its projection of a thoughtful self…When he was facing me full on, he met my gaze and blinked, and blinked again. The mechanism was working but seemed too deliberate. He said, “Charlie, I’m pleased to meet you at last. Could you bear to arrange my downloads and prepare the various parameters?” He paused, looking at me intently, his black-flecked eyes scanning my face in quick saccades. Taking me in. “You’ll find all you need to know in the manual.”

We know where all this is going to lead. Robots will replace human workers, in which case we need a universal wage. It was a cliché and a lie that the future would invent jobs we had not yet heard of. When the majority was out of work and penniless, social collapse was certain. But with our generous state incomes, we the masses would face the luxurious problem that had preoccupied the rich for centuries: how to fill the time. Endless leisure pursuits had never much troubled the aristocracy.

But can you really teach a robot language? Chess maybe. It’s governed by rules that are consistent, unlike life, which is an open system. Messy, full of tricks and feints and ambiguities and false friends. So is language – not a problem to be solved or a device for solving problems. It’s more like a mirror, no, a billion mirrors in a cluster like a fly’s eye, reflecting, distorting and constructing our world at different focal lengths.

Yes, Adam learns to speak, and what’s more: It turns out he was sentient. He had a self. But he was also property, paid for by Charlie – so would it be a crime to kill the thing?

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