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Machines Like Me - A Review by Ludwig Honk

In Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan invites us to an alternative 1982 where Great Britain has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing has escaped his tragic fate, and perfect replicas of human beings are available for purchase.

I feared this would be an attempt at a theme in my opinion already exhaustively explored; examining what truly makes us human by means of blurring the line between man and machine. This has been effectively covered (by several authors, but perhaps most famously) by Philip K. Dick in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If Dick singled out empathy as the essence of what it means to be human, McEwan has his gaze set on moral judgment. It is in the absurdity of the eventual actions of the humanoid robot that we are lead to evaluate what is means to be human. 

If this conclusion seems unsatisfying, the means by which McEwan delivers it are not: a brilliant manoeuvre toward the end exposes some of our fundamental assumptions about morality and how beings are increasingly excluded from our moral considerations in correlation to their decreasing humanity (e.g., it is easier to kill a fly than a dog because the fly is less human). McEwan masterfully delivers us to a point of unstable equilibrium, where we are forced to examine moral judgments intuitively and then rationally, bouncing unrestfully between contradictory conclusions. In this balancing act, we cannot ignore that it is whether we consider Adam human that ultimately tips the scale.

There is a touch of magical realism in the robot’s presence and in how McEwan places Adam in front of us; blatantly ignoring the questions his existence begs. He is there; there in absolute disregard of the minimal probability of his being (as are we, for that matter). Our understanding of how and why is unnecessary for its being so and McEwan does not elaborate. However, if the author's assertion that moral judgment is the distinguishing capacity is to be credible, the origin of the machine's incapacity needs to be so as well. McEwan's suggestion that, although capable of many wonders, the machines would despair of making sense of moral intuitions and tumble into the fallacies of utilitarianism, seems weak, at best. Moral psychologists (such as Haidt, Graham, or Nisbett) would claim it is Ian, not Adam, who has miscalculated the scope of moral considerations and intuitions. 

At times, I admit I worried McEwan had fallen into the trap of trying to treat it all: rape, death threats, intelligent machines, alternative reality, war, religious expression, revenge, political turmoil, and so on. It is not very clear what all this adds to the story in the end, nor is it obvious what purpose the alternative universe has. Nevertheless, there are some proper gems hidden between these lines: Adam’s painful confession of his masturbation and the inverted Turing’s Test hidden in Maxwell’s mistaking Charlie for the robot, to name a few. 

In sum, McEwan delivers a thought-provoking novel that captures the reader’s attention and diverts it toward many-a-question begging an answer in the years to come. 

 

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