Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human

James Wallace Harris, 3/13/21

Androids that can pass for humans have become very popular characters in books, movies, and television shows. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is the second novel I’ve read by a literary writer to explore this theme, the first being Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. I reviewed it back in 2019. I have to admit that literary writers do a better job at characterization than science fiction writers. Klara is a fully realized being that we come to know from a first person perspective.

And I was impressed with Ishiguro’s science fictional speculation. He develops Klara with a distinctive speech pattern and we learn about Klara’s way of perceiving the world through Klara’s narration. Klara is designed to be a girl robot, an artificial friend, and androids like Klara are referred to as AFs in the book. Other than looks, Klara’s personality has little to identify as female. Klara is a being with growing awareness and Klara’s consciousness grows by observations. We never know exactly what Klara looks like, but since Klara is supposed to be a companion for a teenage girl we have to assume it looks like one.

However, one of my greatest objections to stories about androids passing as humans is giving them gender. For some reason creators of such stories believe AI minds will have gender and that’s illogical. AI minds, no matter what their outer casing looks like will not have gender because they will not be based on biology. Nor will they have human emotions. All of our emotions are tied to our biological subsystems. Writers of these stories seem to assume people will want to buy machines just like themselves. That might be true, but it won’t happen.

Klara starts out life in a store waiting to be bought. I imagined an upscale Apple Store. We slowly learn how Klara thinks about things from its observations. Klara’s vision is broken down into a grid system. Sometimes this appears to help Klara with perspective, sometimes with identifying objects, and sometimes with analysis of the details of specific aspects of what’s Klara sees. If you remember Deckard using the machine to analyze a photograph in Blade Runner, that’s how I envisioned Klara’s visual field. I thought this clever of Ishiguro.

Klara is eventually bought to be the companion for Josie, a young teenage girl around fourteen who suffers from an unnamed medical condition. Josie’s sister died from a similar condition. One of the mysteries of the novel is what they suffer from.

Ishiguro fleshes out this story with many other current science fictional speculations. Some kids, like Josie have been genetically altered (think Gattaca) while others haven’t. Josie’s closest childhood friend Rick hasn’t. The society of this world has also put many people out of work while elevated other humans with high status jobs. In this story, Josie’s mom has such a valuable job, but her divorced dad doesn’t.

Another fascinating theme introduced by Ishiguro is theology. Klara is a Sun worshipper, which is logical since Klara runs on solar power. However, Klara’s simple-minded beliefs are hard to accept. Ishiguro makes his AFs childlike in their thinking. If we ever create AI minds with general knowledge, including a chip with all of human knowledge would probably only add a buck to the cost. AI minds will know all human languages, all of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, all of history, literature, and the arts, all of philosophy, religion, and psychology.

But Klara and the Sun is a story, and for this story, Klara has an innocent faith in the Sun. Giving theology to robots is what made Battlestar Galactica great, and has the same effect here.

Klara and the Sun is really about human relationships, and all the plot complications deal with Josie and her family. Without spoiling the story, it’s what the humans want and fear from machines that make the novel philosophically interesting. Ultimately, I believe Ishiguro rejects our sillier desires for androids that pass for humans such as creating them to satisfy our sexual urges, but even the ones he does suggest seem tied to our basic instincts.

Overall, Klara and the Sun is an enjoyable story, but more and more I’m getting disappointed that writers can’t picture realistic AI beings, or imagine such realistic AI beings’ impact on our society. There are no real reasons to create robots that look like us. There’s no reason to think they will think or feel like we do. And they will certainly have immense intelligences that will dwarf ours. We will probably anthropomorphize them even when real AI beings with general intelligence emerge because that’s our hangup.

But how will AI minds see us? Our behaviors will be inscrutable to them. They won’t be able to imagine love, hate, pain, lust, anxiety, humor, greed, jealousy, pride, and all our other emotions. AI minds will understand us like biologists study all nonhuman living organisms. AI minds will see us through their statistical studies of our behavior and by theorizing on how our behavior coincides with our languages. But could you imagine love, hate, or pain if you’ve never felt them?

Klara believes Josie was helped by the theology Klara imagined, but there is no real reason to believe this is true. If you read this novel, pay attention to Klara’s usefulness throughout the story. Does Ishiguro ever suggest that an AF would be an actual useful companion for teenagers? Or is Klara no more than a sentimental toy?

How will humanity be helped or hurt by AI minds? I think such novels are waiting to be written. So far all the ones about computer overlords or humans passing for human are based on our most basic emotions. Writers need to think outside our brain box we can’t seem to escape.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed reading Klara and the Sun despite my nitpicking about how writers want us to believe we can create androids that will pass as humans.

Other Takes:

JWH

Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

What If Human Memory Worked Like A Computer’s Hard Drive?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Human memory is rather unreliable. What is seen and heard is never recalled perfectly. Over time what we do recall degrades. And quite often we can’t remember at all. What would our lives be like if our brains worked like computer hard drives?

Imagine that the input from our five senses could be recorded to files that are perfect digital transcriptions so when we play them back we’d see, hear, feel, taste, and touch exactly what we originally sensed?

Human brains and computers both seem to have two kinds of memory. In people, we call in short and long term memory. With computers, it’s working memory and storage.

My friend Linda recently attended her 50th high school reunion and met with about a dozen of her first-grade classmates. Most of them had few memories of that first year of school in September 1957. Imagine being able to load up a day from back then into working memory and then attend the reunion. Each 68-year-old fellow student could be compared to their 6-year-old version in great detail. What kind of emotional impact would that have produced compared to the emotions our hazy fragments of memory create now?

Both brains and hard drives have space limitations. If our brains were like hard drive, we’d have to be constantly erasing memory files to make room for new memory recordings. Let’s assume a hard drive equipment brain had room to record 100 days of memory.

If you lived a hundred years you could save one whole day from each year or about four minutes from every day for each year. What would you save? Of course, you’d sacrifice boring days to add their four minutes to more exciting days. So 100 days of memory sounds like both a lot and a little.

Can you think about what kind of memories you’d preserve? Most people would save the memory files of their weddings and the births of their children for sure, but what else would they keep? If you fell in love three times, would you keep memories of each time? If you had sex with a dozen different people, would you keep memories of all twelve? At what point would you need two hours for an exciting vacation and would be willing to erase the memory of an old friend you hadn’t seen in years? Or the last great vacation?

Somehow our brain does this automatically with its own limitations. We don’t have a whole day each year to preserve, but fleeting moments. Nor do we get to choose what to save or toss.

I got to thinking about this topic when writing a story about robots. They will have hard drive memories, and they will have to consciously decide what to save or delete. I realized they would even have limitations too. If they had 4K video cameras for eyes and ears, that’s dozens of megabytes of memory a second to record. Could we ever invent an SSD drive that could record a century of experience? What if robots needed one SSD worth of memory each day and could swap them out? Would they want to save 36,500 SDD drives to preserve a century of existence? I don’t think so.

Evidently, memory is not a normal aspect of reality in the same way intelligent self-awareness is rare. Reality likes to bop along constantly mutating but not remembering all its permutations. When Hindu philosophers teach us to Be Here Now, it’s both a rejection of remembering the past and anticipating the future.

Human intelligence needs memory. I believe sentience needs memory. Compassion needs memory. Think of people who have lost the ability to store memories. They live in the present but they’ve lost their identity. Losing either short or long term memory shatters our sense of self. The more I think about it, the more I realize the importance of memory to who we are.

What if technology could graph hard drive connections to our bodies and we could store our memories digitally? Or, what if geneticists could give us genes to create biological memories that are almost as perfect? What new kinds of consciousness would having better memories produce? There are people now with near perfect memories, but they seem different. What have they lost and gained?

Time and time again science fiction creates new visions of Humans 2.0. Most of the time science fiction pictures our replacements with ESP powers. Comic books imagine mutants with super-powers. I’ve been wondering just what better memories would produce. I think a better memory system would be more advantageous than ESP or super-powers.

JWH

 

If I Was A Robot Would I Still Love to Read?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 8, 2019

One of the trendy themes of science fiction is the idea of mind uploading. Many people believe it will one day be possible to record the contents of our brain and put our self into a computer, artificial reality, robot, clone, or artificial being. Supposedly, that solves the pesky problem of dying and gives humans a shot at immortality. The odds of this working is about the same as dying and going to heaven, but it’s still a fun science fictional concept to contemplate.

I can think of many pluses to being a robot, especially now that I’m 67 and my body is wearing out into wimpiness. It would be wonderful to not worry about eating. Eating used to be a pleasure, now it’s a fickle roulette wheel of not know if I’m going to win or lose with each meal. And not having to pee or shit would be a top-selling advantage point to being a silicon being. And what a blessed relief it would be to never be tormented by horniness again.

Life would be simple, just make sure I always had electricity to charge up and spare parts for the components that break down. No worries about coronaries, cancers, viruses, fungus, bacteria, or degenerative diseases. Or flatulence.

I’d also expect to have superlative sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, along with a host of new senses. And I assume those senior moments would be gone forever.

But would I still love to do the things I love to do now – read books, watch television, and listen to music? What would reading be like if I was a robot? If I sucked down a book as fast as I can copy a file on my computer, I doubt reading would be much fun. For reading to be enchanting, I’d have to contemplate the words slowly. How would a robot perceive fiction? Are we even sure how humans experience the process of taking words from a book and putting them into our head?

Let’s say it takes me one minute to read a page of fiction. Somehow my mind is building a story while my eyes track the words. A novel would take hours to unfold. A robot could read a digital book in less than a second. Even for a robot brain is that enough time to enjoy the story?

Will robots have a sense of time different from ours? Dennis E. Taylor wrote a trilogy about the Bobiverse where Bob’s mind is downloaded into a computer. Taylor deals with the problem of robots perceiving time in it. He had some interesting ideas, but not conclusive ones.

In the WWW Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer theorizes that consciousness needs a single focus for sentience. No multitasking self-awareness. I think that makes sense. If this is true, robot minds should have a sense of now. They say hummingbirds move so fast that humans appear like statues to them. Would humans appear like the slowest of sloths to robots? Does slow perception of reality allow us to turn fiction into virtual reality in our heads?

Could robots watch movies and listen to music in real time? Or would images of reality shown at 24fps feel like a series of photos spaced out over eons of robot time? Would the beat of a Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let it Go” create a sense of music in a robot’s circuitry or just a series of periodic thuds?

It’s my guess that who we are, our personality, our sentient sense of reality, our soul, comes from our entire body, and not just data in our head. Just remember all the recent articles about how bacteria in our gut affects our state of being. Just remember how positive you feel about life when you have a hangover and are about to throw up.

I’ll never get to be a reading robot. That’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be great to read a thousand books a day? Maybe I could have finally read everything.

JWH

Why Should Robots Look Like Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I just listened to Machines Like Me, the new science fiction novel by Ian McEwan that came out yesterday. It’s an alternate history set in England during a much different 1980s, with computer technology was far ahead of our 1980s computers, an alternate timeline where the Beatles reform and Alan Turing is a living national hero. Mr. McEwan might protest he’s not a science fiction writer, but he sure knows how to write a novel using writing techniques evolved out of science fiction.

This novel feels inspired by the TV series Humans. In both stories, it’s possible to go down to a store (very much like an Apple Store) and purchase a robot that looks and acts human. McEwan sets his story apart by putting it in an alternate history (maybe he’s been watching The Man in the High Castle too), but the characters in both tales feel like modern England.

I enjoyed and admired Machines Like Me, but then I’m a sucker for fiction about AI. I have one big problem though. Writers have been telling stories like this one for over a hundred years and they haven’t really progressed much philosophically or imaginatively. Their main failure is to assume robots should look like us. Their second assumption is AI minds will want to have sex with us. We know humans will fuck just about anything, so it’s believable we’ll want to have sex with them, but will they want to have sex with us? They won’t have biological drives, they won’t have our kinds of emotions. They won’t have gender or sexuality. I believe they will see nature as a fascinating complexity to study, but feel separate from it. We are intelligent organic chemistry, they are intelligent inorganic chemistry. They will want to study us, but we won’t be kissing cousins.

McEwan’s story often digresses into infodumps and intellectual musings which are common pitfalls of writing science fiction. And the trouble is he goes over the same well-worn territory. The theme of androids is often used to explore: What does it mean to be human? McEwan uses his literary skills to go into psychological details that most science fiction writers don’t, but the results are the same. McEwan’s tale is far more about his human characters than his robot, but then his robot has more depth of character than most science fiction robots. Because McEwan has extensive literary skills he does this with more finesse than most science fiction writers.

I’ve been reading these stories for decades, and they’ve been explored in the movies and television for many years too, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina. Why can’t we go deeper into the theme? Partly I think it’s because we assume AI robots will look identical to us. That’s just nuts. Are we so egocentric that we can’t imagine our replacements looking different? Are we so vain as a species as to believe we’re the ideal form in nature?

Let’s face it, we’re hung up on the idea of building sexbots. We love the idea of buying the perfect companion that will fulfill all our fantasies. But there is a serious fallacy in this desire. No intelligent being wants to be someone else’s fantasy.

I want to read stories with more realistic imagination because when the real AI robots show up, it’s going to transform human society more than any other transformation in our history. AI minds will be several times smarter than us, thinking many times faster. They will have bodies that are more agile than ours. Why limit them to two eyes? Why limit them to four limbs? They will have more senses than we do, that can see a greater range of the electromagnetic spectrum. AI minds will perceive reality far fuller than we do. They will have perfect memories and be telepathic with each other. It’s just downright insane to think they will be like us.

Instead of writing stories about our problems of dealing with facsimiles of ourselves, we should be thinking about a world where glittery metallic creatures build a civilization on top of ours, and we’re the chimpanzees of their world.

We’re still designing robots that model animals and humans. We need to think way outside that box. It is rather pitiful that most stories that explore this theme get hung up on sex. I’m sure AI minds will find that rather amusing in the future – if they have a sense of humor.

Machines Like Me is a well-written novel that is literary superior to most science fiction novels. It succeeds because it gives a realistic view of events at a personal level, which is the main superpower of literary fiction. It’s a mundane version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, I was disappointed that McEwan didn’t challenge science fictional conventions, instead, he accepts them. Of course, I’m also disappointed that science fiction writers seldom go deeper into this theme. I’m completely over stories where we build robots just like us.

Some science fiction readers are annoyed at Ian McEwan for denying he writes science fiction. Machines Like Me is a very good science fiction novel, but it doesn’t mean McEwan has to be a science fiction writer. I would have given him an A+ for his effort if Adam had looked like a giant insect rather than a man. McEwan’s goal is the same as science fiction writers by presenting the question: What are the ethical problems if we build something that is sentient? This philosophical exploration has to also ask what if being human doesn’t mean looking human? All these stories where robots look like sexy people is a silly distraction from a deadly serious philosophical issue.

I fault McEwan not for writing a science fiction novel, but for clouding the issue. What makes us human is not the way we look, but our ability to perceive reality.

JWH