How To Tell A Fake Human

Review of the new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Klara And The Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro is a tale told by a robot living — if that is the right word — in an AI-governed dystopia  where automatons imitate humans and ambitious parents submit their children to “genetic editing” for success in the vicious meritocracy.

She (Klara) is an “AF” (artificial friend) bought like a pet for Josie, a bright teenager suffering from the possibly fatal complications of her “lifting” as the risky gene procedure is called. Klara’s objective narration creates a mood of normalcy about all this. Everyday conversations seem to be normal until the ending of this novel.

Klara is not a spy. She is not reporting to an AI Big Brother. So the political possibilities of the plot are dismissed at the outset. This is refreshing in our era of books and a recent movie obsessed with the problems of the digitalized consumer economy, as if the only culture we have is consumerism.

“The Social Dilemma,” a Netflix movie, personifies the growing  assault on free will and privacy through the testimony by former executives of Facebook, Twitter, Google et al alternating with dark shots of endless corridors of servers recording your clicks with the  intent of making you predictable. It’s scary. 

The obsession with this pragmatic issue among the popular media leaves our deeper problems, which interest Ishiguro, totally eclipsed. The Sun, a silent character in the novel, also rises and sets normally — except in the thoughts of Klara. I will not spoil the fascinating turns in the Sun-centered plot, except to discuss Ishiguro’s revival of old the mind-body, man-machine problem. 

In the 17th Century René Descartes speculated in his Discourse/Method on the possibility of a clockwork machine that, “if touched in a particular place it may demand what we wish to say to it; if in another it may cry out that it is hurt, and such like.”

Four Hundred years later such entertaining machines exist in theme parks and in movies like the Star Wars series. We know the difference between computers and us immediately. But Descartes speculated upon even higher creations. “If there were machines bearing the image of our bodies, and capable of imitating our actions as far as it is morally possible, there would still remain two most certain tests whereby to know that they were not therefore really men.”

The first test was whether the machine can talk or otherwise communicate its thoughts. The second was whether the machine can respond to novel situations for which it is not programmed in advance. 

The Cartesian tests are as dated as the definition of Man as a “rational animal.” This is the philosopher famous for Cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am” (meaning, exist as a thinking being). Thought is unique to humanity. Our soul is created and conserved by God. Machines — and animals too — absolutely lack the gift of thought. QED.

Besides, these days hundreds of devices talk responsively and demonstrate novel answers to novel problems. . . .Or is all this simply increasingly deceptive imitation?

The British mathematician Alan Turing proposed as a modern test the “Imitation Game” (adopted as the title of the movie about his code-breaking that contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany). In this thought experiment an interrogator communicates by keyboard with an unseen person and an unseen computer, imitating each other.

“I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible to program computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 percent chance of making the right identification,”  he wrote in about 1950. 

‘“I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” 

This speculation appeared in fiction in a 1968 short story by Phillip K. Dick that became the cult movie “Blade Runner” directed by Ridley Scott. The recurring violent conflict in the movie is between probable humans and probable “replicants.” 

The humans test for emotional reactions, which replicants supposedly lack.  

Ishiguro’s test is more about us than “them.” The telltale emotions are ours. In a conversation recalled by Klara, Josie’s father says, “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?”

The AF evasively responds: “‘The heart you speak of. It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’” 

But the rooms might be infinite, and in the end, the fading robot concludes the test is inside those who love her. 

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  1. Bruce Blodgett says:

    So are we seeing in this novel a post-modern rebirth of romanticism?

    It is on my list to read.

    Thanks for this, Larry.
    Well done.

  2. gussie fauntleroy says:

    Fascinating subject, thanks for the review and all the peripheral thoughts. It is indeed strange and scary territory. I’d like to read the book.

    Gussie

  3. Pat says:

    “If there were machines bearing the image of our bodies, and capable of imitating our actions as far as it is morally possible, there would still remain two most certain tests whereby to know that they were not therefore really men.” Decartes was clearly wrong.
    Josie’s father says, “Do you believe in the human heart? … Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
    Klara tells the Manager that she did all she could to learn Josie… “however hard I tried, I believe now there would have remained something beyond my grasp”. Klara was mistaken – she more than anyone else had “heart”.

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About ljcalloway

I am a writer. I love the Rocky Mountain West. For more than 50 years my primary residence has been in the upper basin of the Rio Grande.

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