What is AI in Android

Artificial intelligence : An android named Adam

Literature and philosophy are only partially compatible neighbors. Novels, dramas and poems deal more with the irrationality of people, with fickle feelings, lust for power and carnal desires. Theoretical treatises and tracts, on the other hand, deal more with reason, a more or less fixed structure of reasons that is able to put a stop to human instability. Narrative fictions are a playground for ambivalences, while the abstract reality of argumentative thinking demands clarity.

It's all much more complicated, of course, but it describes the trouble in which Adam, the dazzling-looking robot hero with a southern European touch from Ian McEwan's novel “Machines Like Me”, opens his eyes, moved by a troublemaker, one morning in south London. Who is this android who is thrown into the human world in the middle of his adult life without any memory of childhood and youth? A sentient being or a being that only pretends to feel? A superman, whose mathematical-logical genius also enables him to produce literary works, or ultimately just a creative cripple? And what does it mean when he says he's in love?

Its owners Charlie and Miranda, who regard it as a kind of child substitute, over whose adjustable personality traits they determine, do not know exactly themselves. But you will learn how quickly Adam grows intellectually over your head and how inconspicuously he fits into his surroundings. The digital gene pool with which they shape it according to their ideas counts little compared to the learning success with which it is transformed. Soon they will be living under one roof with a memory artist who has just put all 37 plays by Shakespeare on permanent memory, knows the differences between the poets John Donne and George Herbert and writes thousands of haikus himself.

Anthropologically trained computer nerd

Charlie, the first-person narrator, is at 32 years of age a clever computer nerd who is interested in questions of human nature through his studies in anthropology, but is anything but enthusiastic about literature. He barely stays afloat with online trading until Adam takes matters into his own hands. For Charlie and the ten years younger student Miranda, this is one of twelve Adams, for whom he gave his last savings, although he would have preferred to buy one of the 13 Eves that have come on the market, simply a fascinating study object that with the best will in the world does not work lets see through.

Adam does not understand himself correctly either - except that he perceives deficits in himself. Morally philosophically he has irrefutable convictions when it comes to justice, but he is unable to grasp the idea of ​​forgetting play, as they have children. It is a highly developed example of the question: What does a software developer actually replicate who replicates a person's intelligence? Does it also create the conditions for the inevitable idiosyncrasies that arise in the course of a lifetime? What types of pain can no longer be avoided at a certain level of consciousness? And what mimic skills does a robot need?

Adam, for example, has trustworthy wet breath and forty preprogrammed facial expressions, 15 more than the average person. Once a day he disappears into the bathroom to urinate, even though he is only filled with water. In addition, he is capable of sexual intercourse and masturbating - which in this strange ménage à trois leads to massive erotic distortions.

Robot ethics and animal ethics

If all of these are just ironic mind games for the time being, they have a lot to do with the prerequisites that qualify a robot not only to be a willless device, but also a respected roommate - at least on a par with a pet. A robot ethic that thinks about the moral expertise to implement autonomously acting machines overlap with an animal ethics that tries to clarify what rights we owe non-human beings.

Ian McEwan's novel is also so ingenious because it stages its own ambiguity between reflective and narrative passages and thus leads to the heart of the AI ​​problem. Like Adam, he is an artificial living being that can be programmed almost at will. It is a construction with a thousand adjusting screws that an author tries to control who, when writing, surrenders himself to something that is more and more emancipated from him: a parental concern of a different kind.

With “Machines Like Me And People Like You”, the original bears the picture-puzzle of the whole, which also extends to the automatisms of people, in its title. It is laid out as a retro-futuristic counterhistory from the early 1980s. The British have lost the Falklands War, the Beatles have reunited, and the computer scientist Alan Turing, whom the English state condemned to chemical castration for his homosexuality, the depressive consequences of which drove him to suicide in 1954, lives on happily and drives the AI- Research at the forefront. Half of the historical staff is recognizable, half imaginatively deformed - for example when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher is followed by Tony Benn, who ultimately falls victim to a fatal assassination attempt.

Lush plot, richly orchestrated

McEwan wouldn't be McEwan if he hadn't charged this constellation with a juicy plot and richly orchestrated it. “Machines like us” unfolds its theme on many levels: as a secret Brexit satire, as a romance novel, as a study about an underprivileged child, as a thriller and as a drama about guilt and atonement. He cleverly ties almost every aspect back to the puzzles of artificial intelligence. The crux of the matter is a secret that Miranda keeps. She testified in court against a certain Peter Gorringe who allegedly raped her under the influence of alcohol. No denial helped: he had to go behind bars.

Adam, who understands the concept of lying but cannot approve or practice it himself, accuses her of testifying wrongly. And so, little by little, an adventurous piece of enlightenment is set in motion that is under a sinister threat: Gorringe has been released from prison. Miranda fears that he is seeking revenge.

There aren't many writers out there who can handle this level of complexity. Either the narrative tension leaves a lot to be desired - or the intellectual capacity for satisfaction. Isaac Asimov could do that, and today Richard Powers can. Ian McEwan also succeeds in holding onto the novel as the genre in which the competition between humans and cyborgs can best be portrayed. He does this with excellent knowledge of all relevant philosophical discussions - and the awareness that a large number of them cannot do without thought experiments themselves.

“Machines like me” can almost be read as a quick run through the popular theory hits: Philippa Foot's “trolley” problem, which, in connection with the problems of autonomous driving, can show what damage considerations have to be made in the event of an accident. Or Hilary Putnam's scenario of the brain in the tank, which cannot know whether the outside world is only being faked to it. Even the P-NP problem unsolved in computer science, which roughly consists of the fact that computers can retrospectively verify solutions to complex mathematical questions in seconds, but when viewed from the front they stand in front of it like the proverbial ox in front of the mountain. McEwan sketches tricky mind-body problems in particular with a light hand. For this, he would like to thank the young British AI developer Demis Hassabis and the philosopher Galen Strawson, who is one of the representatives of panpsychism, a doctrine that knows the preliminary stages of the human mind.

What is machine experience?

In addition to a few minor repetitions and redundancies, one could at most reproach the novel for relying too much on the human-like nature of machines, when the future could rather lie in recognizing their otherness and thereby making them less susceptible to anthropomorphic projections. But McEwan thought of that himself. "To express human experience in words and to give these words an aesthetic structure is impossible for a machine," says Charlie once. Miranda replies: "Who said what about human experience?"

In a spectacular passage, McEwan discusses whether the merging of human and non-human intelligence would destroy the idea of ​​literature: “Our stories no longer revolve around endless misunderstandings. Our literatures are losing their unhealthy breeding ground. We will look back and be amazed how well people of yore knew how to describe their own shortcomings, how they were able to knit brilliant, even optimistic fables out of their conflicts. "

The human resemblance even becomes fatal for the Adams and Eves after a phase of soaring world conquest. As if they knew what pain and suffering are, they sink into infinite melancholy and do not shrink from suicide. The diagnosis of the fictional Alan Turing: “They couldn't understand us because we didn't understand ourselves. Your learning programs were overwhelmed by us. ”Only a person could write that. It would be tempting to bet that this will still be the case fifty years from now.

Ian McEwan: Machines like me. Novel. Translated from English by Bernhard Robben. Diogenes, Zurich 2019. 416 pp., 25 €.

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