Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Machines Like Me - Ian McEwan

Machines Like Me is Ian McEwan’s cautionary tale about a future that we just may not be ready for when it finally arrives. Synthetic humans (robots) are coming and they may be far smarter than we are when they get here. That may not sound like much of a problem, but what happens when the robots figure that out and become bored with us and our human limitations. Will they have the patience to put up with us or will they decide to take over for our own good?  

McEwan ventures into the alternate history genre here to explore some of the what-ifs of the accelerating pace at which we are introducing artificial intelligence and robotics into our everyday world. The novel is set in a 1980s version of the world very different from the one recorded by the history books. Margaret Thatcher is driven from office in disgrace after badly losing the Falklands War; John Lennon is alive and well and the Beatles are still a band; and the Brighton hotel bombing this time does manage to kill a British prime minister (Thatcher’s successor). Oh, and Jimmy Carter wins a second term, John Kennedy survives his trip to Dallas, and novelist Joseph Heller finds fame with a book he titles Catch-18. You get the idea.

Charlie Friend, thirty-two years old and single, takes great pride in the fact that he doesn’t have to answer to any boss. Charlie lives alone in a London apartment where he sits in front of his computer all day long buying and selling stocks, earning just enough to cover his day-to-day needs. He is not the most ambitious guy in the world, and when he learns that what he earns from day-trading stocks is just below the wage of the average Londoner, Charlie is proud that he is doing that well without having to answer to anyone. He is not the type to worry much about his future. Now, though, Charlie is falling in love with Miranda, the student who lives in the flat above his - even though she does not seem to feel the same way about him. But after blowing all the money his recently deceased mother left him on one of the world’s first synthetic humans, Charlie may have just stumbled onto a way of binding Miranda to him. He lets her help him design the personality of Adam, the near-perfect physical specimen who will now be sharing Charlie’s flat. 

Ian McEwan
Miranda, as it turns out, has secrets of her own, secrets that she can’t hide from someone like Adam who never sleeps and spends all of his spare time researching and learning about the world into which he has so suddenly been thrust. And after Adam warns Charlie that Miranda is not really who she seems to be, things begin to get tricky – especially after Adam declares his own love for Miranda.

Machines Like Me explores whether or not artificial intelligence can ever understand human emotions, motivations, and reasoning. Will it be possible for such a created consciousness to grow beyond the black and white rules it has initially been designed to follow? And if not, how will the inevitable conflict be resolved? What is to be done when our synthetic humans decide that they know what’s good for us better than we do. Which of us crosses the line first?

This quote (page 370 of the Large Print edition) should give all of us, researchers included, something to think about: “They couldn’t understand us, because we couldn’t understand ourselves. Their learning programs couldn’t accommodate us. If we didn’t know our own minds, how could we design theirs and expect them to be happy alongside us?”

Bottom Line: Machines Like Me is a bit frustrating at times because of the long, detailed digressions that McEwan strays into that do not always do much to advance the “discussion” of the potential conflict between artificial intelligence and human intelligence - but the patient reader will be well rewarded for his patience. I suppose that Machines Like Me will be most easily appreciated by science fiction and alternate reality fans, but it is a thought provoking philosophical novel as well.


  1. It seems so obvious to me that this could be a problem. Didn't Stephen Hawkings say so as well? Possibly I have read too much science fiction. But was watching a travel doc last night, the traveller exploring Japan. She was freaked out by how many robots are in every day life there now and so was I. I felt like I was watching I, Robot.

    1. I agree, Cath, it's getting spooky. And that's not to mention the economic impact that moving to robots is going to have on every country that adopts that approach. Jobs are disappearing and people without the skills to do anything else but what they have been doing all their lives will suddenly have no way to support themselves and their families.

      I've heard proposals that robots are going to have to pay income tax (via the company that owns them) in order to help with that situation.

      One interesting thing about this book is how it makes you see things through the eyes of the robots - and how easily they move into despair when they realize what a terrible world they are living in.