Thursday, May 02, 2019

‘Machines Like Me’ by Ian McEwan – a flawed machinage a trois

Ian McEwan’s 'Machines Like Me' is a machinage a trois between Charlie, Miranda and Adam. Now Ian can pen a sentence and, at times, writes beautifully but this is a rather mechanical, predictable and, at times, flawed effort.
Robot Fallacy
The plot is remarkably similar to the 2015 threesome-with-a-robot movie Uncanny (also has an Adam) which is somewhat better than this novel. But the real problem is the Robot Fallacy – the idea that AI is all about robots – it’s not. AI, even robotics, is not all about creating interesting characters for second rate novels and films and is not on a quest to create anthropoid human robots as some sort of undefined companions. Art likes to think it is, as art needs characterisation and physical entities. AI is mostly bits not atoms, largely invisible and quite difficult to reveal, it is mostly online but that's difficult for authors and film makers. That’s why the film Her was also superior to this novel – it doesn’t fall into the idea that it’s all about physical robots. McEwan’s robot and plot limits any real depth of analysis as it’s stuck in the Mary Shelley Frankenstein myth, with Turing as the gratuitous Frankenstein. In fact, it is a simple retelling of that tale, yet another in a long line of dystopian views of technology. McEwan compounds the Robot Fallacy by making Adam appear, almost perfectly formed, from nowhere. In reality, AI is a long haul with tons of incremental trials and failures. Adam appears as if created by God. Then there’s the confusion of complexity with autonomy. Stephen Pinker and others have pointed out the muddle-headed nature of this line of thought in Enlightenment Now. It is easy to avoid autonomy in the engineering of such systems. It tries to introduce some pathos at the end but ultimately it’s an old tale not very well told.
Oddities and flaws
Putting that aside, there are some real oddities, even clangers, in McEwan’s text. The robot often washes the dishes by hand, as if we have invented a realistic human companion but not a dishwasher. In fact, dishwashers are around, as one pops up, oddly as an analogy, later in the book. The robot can’t drive yet (self-driving cars appeared but didn’t work because of a traffic jam!). Yet self-driving cars make an appearance later in the book.
Counterfactuals are tricky to handle as it makes suspension of disbelief that much harder and in this case it the entire edifice of losing the Falklands war and muddling up political events seems like artifice without any real justification. One counterfactual completely threw me. It’s one thing to counterfactually ‘extend’ Turing’s life, another to recalibrate someone’s birth date , taking it back a couple of decades, as in the appearance of Demis Hassabis (of Deepmind fame). Hassabis pops up as Turing’s brilliant young colleague in 1968, odd as he wasn’t born until 1976 (as stated on the final page)!
Then there’s an even odder insertion into the novel – Brexit. McEwan is a famous Leave campaigner and for no reason, other than pettifoggery, he drags the topic into the narrative. I have no idea why. It has no causality within the plot and no relevance to the story. It just comes across as an inconsequential and personal gripe.
The yarn has one other fatal flaw – the odd way the child in introduced into the story, via a manufactured incident in the park, a continuing thread in the story that is about believable as a chocolate robot. I’m not the first to spot the straight-up snobbery in his handling of this plot line  - working class people as hapless thugs.
To be fair there are some interesting ideas, such as the couple choosing personality settings for their robot in a weird form of parenting and this blurring of boundaries is the book’s strength. The robot shines through as being by far the most interesting character in the book, curiously philosophical, and there’s some exploration of loyalty, justice and self.
Did I learn anything about AI from this novel? Unfortunately not. In the end it’s a rather mechanical and, at times, petty work. It was difficult to hold suspension of disbelief, as so many points were unbelievable. McEwan seems to have lost his imaginative flair, along with his ability to surprise and transgress. His fictional progeny are more ciphers than people. In truth, AI is only software, and all of this angst around robots murdering us in our sleep is hyperbolic and doesn’t really tackle the main issues around automation and perhaps the good that come out of such technology.

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