What kind of loyalty do we owe a robot we’ve paid for — one who exhibits a convincingly human kind of consciousness? Less loyalty than we owe to our own children? But what about to someone else’s child? And do we commit murder if we destroy him?
These are the questions facing Charlie when he spends his inheritance on a robot called Adam. Charlie is a trained anthropologist with an enthusiasm for computers who hopes to give his life meaning by experimenting in ‘electronics and anthropology — distant cousins whom late modernity has drawn together and bound in marriage’. He and his girlfriend Miranda join forces in programming Adam with a personality, playing at parenthood as they create a new quasi-human. ‘We aimed to escape our mortality, confront or even replace the Godhead with a perfect self.’
Quickly, Adam becomes the ‘companion, intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum’ he’s been advertised as. He performs household tasks, has one mutually pleasurable sexual encounter with Miranda and makes a fortune on the stock exchange. But the moral framework becomes more complex when Adam decides that Miranda should be imprisoned for an earlier moral misdemeanour, at a point when she and Charlie are about to adopt a small boy they’ve grown to love. To make things more complex, the setting is a counterfactual 1982. This is a 1980s with email (already a ‘daily chore’), 250 mph trains (Margaret Thatcher is ‘fanatical about public transport’) and a Falklands war that Britain loses, despite possessing intelligent missiles.
Machines Like Me is an enjoyable, even addictive, read but it’s ultimately disappointing in the way that all Ian McEwan’s novels have been since Atonement. AI matters, and does indeed provoke important ethical questions. The novel is an appropriately moral form in which to confront these and McEwan is in many ways the right person to do so.