Jane Glover Barrister – Mediator – Adjudicator

Books for ip geeks – machines like me


It feels as though the last week has been pretty full-on, so it’s time for something lighter.

If you are into AI, robotics, or sci-fi, then chances are you will already have come across Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  If you haven’t, then perhaps that’s your next birthday/anniversary present sorted.  (It’s a long wait if you want to order it from the library.)

In lesser hands, the premise behind Machines Like Me could have been cringe-worthy: an artificial human goes to live with a human couple in an alternative version of 1980s London, and a love triangle ensues.  Yikes, robo-sex.  But Ian McEwan is no ordinary writer, of course, and the book is compelling.  I gobbled it up in a day, and now wish I had savoured it more.

In some ways, the book is a love letter to Alan Turing. In our reality, as you probably know, Turing was prosecuted for homosexual acts and accepted chemical castration treatment as an alternative to prison. He committed suicide a couple of years later.

In this alternative reality, Turing goes to prison where he has a productive and peaceful time working hard on various theorems, and upon his release he continues to work for the benefit of society. 

As a result of that single, brilliant human brain not meeting an untimely end, the world is fundamentally different.  AI and robotics in particular are much more advanced.  Interestingly, another important reason why McEwan imagines the fields of science and technology have made such gains compared with our world is the wholesale rejection of IP rights.  Again, this is said to be Turing’s influence.  He spearheaded an open-source movement that led to the collapse of various esteemed scientific journals, and he refused to patent his many inventions in the computing and AI fields, generously making the technology available to everyone. 

The book is not perfectly written, in my not-very-expert opinion.  It feels a bit clunky at times, and the research sometimes shows through in big wodges of explanation.  The treatment of characters can also be uneven.  There is a sub-plot with a young child that didn’t ring entirely true for me  – the kid felt more like a plot device than a person in his own right.

Weirdly, the one character who is described particularly beautifully –  and who is entirely believable –  is the artificial human, Adam.  He is drawn in exquisite, loving detail right from the opening moments when he is carried into the flat and plugged in to charge.  That scene involves pages and pages of delicious tension and anticipation – it is pure genius.

The book attempts and achieves way more than seems possible for one novel.  It works as a sensitive exploration of big issues such as the nature of consciousness, and of nature vs nurture.  It’s a love story.  It’s a political satire.  It’s a crime story that riffs on themes of justice and revenge.  And it’s funny, too – especially when a lovesick Adam expresses his desire in endless, terrible haiku.  (Adam thinks that novels will eventually become unnecessary once the influence of machines becomes greater, because novels exist to reflect human messiness, imperfections and miscommunications that will disappear, and eventually we will be left with just haiku.)

The book is also a report card on the human race as a whole.  Unfortunately, it’s not a glowing report, and certain parts of society are judged more harshly than others.  A couple of female artificial humans (the Eves) end up in Riyadh, for example, and their experience is dire compared with Adam’s life in London.  At best, perhaps, the overall grade given to humanity is a C: could do better if we applied ourselves.

Mirror of our times

Reflects blemished human souls

And finds them wanting

OK, that one was from me, not Adam.  Clearly no better though…….sorry!  The age when a haiku will do is not yet upon us – you will have to read the novel.  It’s no hardship.

About the author

Jane Glover

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Jane Glover Barrister – Mediator – Adjudicator

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