I devoured the latest Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me, subtitled And People Like You (Jonathan Cape, 2019). I’m a McEwan fan and I’ve read the whole canon. Mind you, his books are a little like Chinese meals. There is no satiety. After The Children Act I waited impatiently for the next one, and here we are. They made a film out of The Children Act, and I will hazard a guess, two guesses, that they will make one out of Machines Like Me, and that Ben Whishaw (Q in the Bond movies) will play the machine. Just a hunch.
I’m not quite sure why I admire McEwan, because I seldom find his characters simpatico, and I would have no wish to meet them or move among them, in their metropolitan environment. Yet his books are page turners, and this latest is no exception. It’s a vision – dystopian to my mind – of where Artificial Intelligence might take us. It concerns an android, Adam, so sophisticated as to pass for Homo sapiens. McEwan elects not to place Adam in the future but back in the 80s, but the 80s of an alternative universe in which Britain has lost the Falklands War, Tony Benn is leader of the Labour Party, the Beatles have reunited, and Alan Turing, an establishment elder statesman, is alive and well. This backdrop, at once familiar and totally unrecognisable, provides a zany lop-sidedness against which Adam’s existence becomes almost believable.
Alan Turing is another reason why Machines Like Me could end up in film. Benedict Cumberbatch played him in a film largely concerned with his decryption work during the war at Bletchley Park, The Imitation Game. The thesis of The Imitation Game is that if you are interacting with an intelligence whose mode of expression suggests consciousness, then there is no reason to suppose that consciousness is absent. You might say that Machines Like Me is an exploration of all that such an assumption might imply.
Do you suppose Adam the android goes AWOL? As in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and Robert Harris’ The Fear Index, that’s generally what such creations do. If he does, we should hardly be surprised. Already such events are happening in reality. It now seems highly likely that two recent near identical disasters in civil aviation were caused by a computer taking control of the aeroplane and flying it into the ground while the pilots were unable to do anything about it. In aviation, when the gremlins start to act up, the captain takes control and flies the aeroplane. This side of the Pond he says, “I have control,” and on the other side, “My aeroplane.” What a shock to make that statement only to find that the real captain of the aircraft is not in the cockpit. In any walk of life, when the systems begin to malfunction, you must have a way of shutting them down while still being able to carry out your basic tasks. Under no circumstances should you allow Adam to disable his own Kill switch.
These events were shocking enough, but even more shocking was the insouciance of the reaction from some quarters. There was no recognition of the fact that these events were not like other civil aviation disasters caused by pilot error, mechanical failure, bad weather, bad ground to air communication or more likely, a multifactorial concatenation of circumstances, a combination of all of the above. In its sinister aetiology, this was of a different order. Yet our capacity for forgiving machines their vagaries seems inexhaustible.
Our love affair with IT and AI in 2019 is just like our love affair with the automobile circa 1964, around the time Dr Beeching ripped up the rail system. Once we were gridlocked we came to regret that, and I believe once our cyber systems pack in, not necessarily because they are hacked, but just because they are too damned complicated, we will similarly rue the day. I don’t care for this Brave New World.
Last week, the National Security Council met to discuss whether the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei should be involved in building the UK’s 5G phone network. That Mrs May favours Huawei, apparently against the advice of some ministers and officials, has been leaked. Who leaked it? MI5 might be called upon to seize mobile phone and email records. There is a certain irony in the National Security Council’s assessing whether or not Huawei’s systems might be “secure”, while the council itself is as leaky as a sieve. That could have come straight out of a novel by Ian McEwan.