In 2001, a film called A.I. Artificial Intelligence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.I._Artificial_Intelligence) was released. A.I. is unique in that it’s one of the few films directed by the illustrious Steven Spielberg to have received a mixed reception. I would argue that the film’s polarizing effect is in large part due to the subject matter. A.I. is the story of a robotic boy, named David. David has been programmed to love. In order to test his capabilities, David is adopted by a couple whose biological son is very ill and has a poor prognosis. There are hiccups along the way, but David in time becomes a part of the family, establishing a particularly strong bond with the mother.
Unfortunately, good times don’t last. Unforeseen events and misunderstandings, eventually pull David away from his adopted family, and force him on a journey to find true acceptance and unconditional love. A.I. is an examination of human nature. Our limitations and fallbacks. The film is also a reminder that there are mysteries in the world that may never be solved, and we must come to terms with that. In my opinion, it’s a wonderful film.
Shifting focus to the realities of present-day, there are countless examples of how we interact with and rely on artificial intelligence in our daily lives. From roombas and social media algorithms, to self-driving cars and virtual assistants, AI technology has had a massive cultural impact. And as we look towards the future, it is easy to visualize a gradual evolution from AI machines with purely robotic presentations (metallic hardware, stiff movements, computerized voices) to mechanisms possessing human-like qualities, walking among us, indecipherable from real people. The idea of it is both fascinating and slightly unsettling. I’m sure some would view the introduction of humanoid machines as an exciting advancement and would rejoice at the technological possibilities. While in others, such innovation would arouse fear and suspicion for very legitimate reasons. It’s dicey territory. Yet it’s a possibility we may be inching closer towards.
That rather long preface leads us to a discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant novel, Klara and The Sun. Similar to the film, A.I., this story is told from the perspective of the artificially- intelligent machine, Klara. Klara’s official title is “AF” or “artificial friend.” When the reader is first introduced to Klara, she is among other AFs, housed in a store awaiting purchase. At times, she’s on display in the front window. And from this prized position, Klara is able to exert her exceptional observational skills. She takes note of her surroundings. The nourishing Sun, as it makes its daily trek through the sky, shifting light and shadow. The taxis crowding the streets. The people milling about on the sidewalks and in the store itself. As Klara observes, her knowledge of the world increases, as does her understanding of human behavior.
Later, Klara develops a connection with a young girl who often watches her through the window of the store. Klara is warned against such attachments, as human children can be fickle in their preferences. But in this case, the sentiment is genuine, and Klara is eventually purchased by the smitten young girl and her less-than-enthused mother. Klara is programmed to provide comfort, support, and companionship to her human friend. However, as family secrets unravel, Klara’s ultimate purpose becomes more complicated and fraught. In time, circumstances will require that Klara access abilities that lie far beyond those she has been programmed with. And in the end, this experience will teach Klara what it means to truly sacrifice for those we love.
Klara and The Sun is a beautiful novel. It explores the concepts of faith, duty, and sacrifice in a unique way. Ishiguro expertly creates an unusual coming-of-age story involving a robot learning to navigate the often thorny landscape of human relationships and behaviors. We witness these scenes of misunderstandings and false steps that occur as Klara acclimates to the outside world. These stumbles are at times met with frustration and anger by her human counterparts. As a result, it’s hard not to sympathize with Klara. From the readers’ vantage point, we understand that no matter how confounding the situation is, Klara’s intentions are always pure and are in service to her human friend.
This novel also brings to mind the ways in which we assign worth to machines, or for that matter, any consumer product. We buy things (sometimes as a symbol of status). And once that object is no longer of use to us, we toss it, and upgrade to the newest model. What does that, if anything, say about us? I guess at the end of the day, it’s your money. You can do what you want with it. But in a scenario, like the one presented in Klara and The Sun, the answers become more slippery. Ishiguro posits a near future in which humanoid machines exist with advanced degrees of emotional intelligence, even possessing what one might describe as a “soul.” Is that a machine you could just toss out with the rest of the trash, when you’re done with it?
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers. I remember years ago reading Remains Of The Day (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Remains_of_the_Day), and just being in complete awe of his use of language, as well as his profound understanding of the human condition. The same can be said of my experience with Klara and The Sun. Ishiguro creates these incredible moments of truth. Moments that are startling and poignant. And although the truth may not be pretty, he still somehow manages to leave enough room for grace. Ishiguro is a true master of his craft.
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