If you’re of a certain generation, you might remember the Tamagotchi; the Japanese pocket-sized “pet simulation game” that became the chief obsession of 90s kids bored of yo-yos and other fleeting trends. The Tamagotchi lived mostly in the grubby hands or lint-filled pockets of its owners but, for social currency, could be paraded before envious or competitive enthusiasts.
Oddly, these oviparous virtual critters weren’t remotely animallike in their appearance, and could be intolerably demanding at times. Neglect to feed them, clean up after them, or tend to them when sick and — as many of us found out — very soon you’d be left with nothing but a dead LCD blob. But even the best cared-for Tamagotchi(s?) had certain obsolescence looming in their futures, once their needlessly complex lifecycle was complete: egg, baby, child, teen, adult, death.
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and The Sun, we jump forward to an imagined near-future and consider the lifecycle of a rather more advanced type of “artificial friend” (AF). A companion that acts as a carer to its young ward, rather than the reverse, and plays a momentary but not insignificant role in their transition to adulthood.
By taking the perspective of Klara, one very special AF, Ishiguro is able to deal with themes spanning personhood, friendship, loyalty, replacement, end of life, and the role of nature.
For those interested in the intersection of technology and society, perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of familiar questions permeate the narrative — here are five:
What distinguishes the artificial from the natural?
“I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me”, claims AF Klara. And yet the reader may have cause to quibble. Ishiguro’s characters inhabit a sort of posthuman world in which understanding of the natural condition is reduced to a set of functions and features that can be replicated in silicon.
It’s jarring, but also forces us to try to articulate what truly distinguishes the human from the artificial when both are capable of sophisticated thought and action.
At a climatic point in the narrative, Klara is asked if she might become Josie, her sickly child companion, should the latter fall victim to her unspecified illness. Science has apparently eliminated any barriers to this metamorphosis. The proposer explains to Josie’s mother:
“Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now… Nothing inside Josie that’s beyond the Klara’s of this world to continue. It’s not faith you need. Only rationality.”
The problem is a familiar one: if biological systems like the brain can be replicated by AI then might we find ourselves with a kind of emergent consciousness? Perhaps even the conscious mind of a particular human being, if desired (like in this case)? If not, what is the magic fairy dust that distinguishes who we are (our character or essence) from what we are (physical, material, and observable biological processes)?
A soul? Intervention from a god?
It is difficult to use the stepping stones of rational thought to arrive at the idea that there’s “something unique that won’t transfer”, and yet we’re usually convinced of it by our own subjective experiences. Ishiguro skillfully leads us to think about why AF Klara cannot simply replace or subsume Josie at a later date, and question what underpins our strong moral repulsion to this suggestion.
Are “advanced” and “better” synonymous?
Ishiguro’s near future is one in which both humans and AFs are strongly stratified based on ability. Yet in both cases we’re invited to prefer the inferior party — Klara (a “previous series” AF) and Rick (a rare “unlifted” teenager whose parents resisted genetic modification to improve his intelligence). Ishiguro is forcing us to better understand the difference between “advanced” and “better”, or “good”.
Klara is a better AF because despite not having the latest whizzy features, she is observant and intuitive. Rick is a better than the “lifted” children because he has natural intelligence and morally robustness.
Certainly in today’s never-ending bombardment of tech launches, amped memory and intelligence, and “next generation” gadgets, there is something to reflect upon here around what we want and need — and should therefore value — versus what is made available to us.
Where should convincing, intelligent artificial beings stand in the social hierarchy?
Though Ishiguro never really draws Klara as enjoying a fully-realized, humanlike character, we’re certainly expected to understand her as charming, polite, and broadly intelligent. It’s hard not to feel a level of pity when we read of AFs having to walk several steps behind their child masters, and when Klara is relegated to the utility room and then to the ambiguous “yard” (junk yard?). ,
Artificially intelligent friends may not be human friends, but it seems like we must still afford them some dignity. But why? And where does this dignity begin and end? Is a robot a moral subject?
The philosopher Robert Sparrow has argued that: “As soon as AIs begin to possess consciousness, desires and projects then it seems as though they deserve some sort of moral standing.” This certainly seems to be true of Klara, and yet if we concede that she should be subject to moral consideration, and capable of being harmed, we start to view her second class treatment as a kind of abuse.
Ishiguro wants us to cast ahead to what feels like an inevitable future of increasingly intelligent companions and assistants, and ask whether we should agree to grant them “robot rights.”
When our friends are disposable, what does this do to loyalty and appreciation?
An extension of this thought must also lead us to ask: “What are the human psychological consequences of owning disposable friends?”
Klara and Josie become very close, sharing bonds of friendship so tight that Josie’s own parents believe that Klara could capably mimic Josie in perpetuity. And yet Klara ends up in the yard, i.e. discarded among other items deemed “surplus to requirement”. Once subject to trust and appreciation, she is ultimately regarded as a thing.
This seems to complicate our understanding of relationships as reciprocal. Could normalizing a dynamic where “love” and loyalty are received but not given condition young people to transfer such thinking over to their human relationships? Might we end up with self-serving generations that consider their own happiness the objective of any companionship?
When some friends are expendable, are affection and human kindness eroded?
How should we understand nature in an increasingly mechanical world?
One of the most beautiful things in Ishiguro’s novel is his recurring focus on the power of nature, and particularly the sun as a life force — for both Klara and Josie. We’re reminded that we’re all dependent upon natural resources, perhaps especially artificially intelligent systems that, we’re learning, have a huge environmental impact.
More than her human counterparts, Klara values and respects her natural environment. Her worship of the sun is quasi-religious. The environment responds to this respect accordingly, breathing life back into ailing Josie at her lowest ebb.
Ishiguro reminds us that the power of technology pales in comparison to this raw and natural force, and to survive we must spend less time dealing in upgrades or modifications, and more time reimagining the new world with our precious environment at its center.
There are, of course, many other important themes woven throughout this novel. Other reviews have zoned-in on the issue of “substitution”, whereby human workers seem to have been outmoded or displaced by artificial workers. Though present, this specific kind of obsolescence was felt more peripheral (though admittedly very topical).
Ultimately, with Klara and The Sun Ishiguro gifts us a valuable new work of art. No doubt future readings will delve somewhat deeper, and with them we will learn how best to approach the social aspects of our artificially intelligent future.