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  • Published: 3 March 2020
  • ISBN: 9781529111255
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $22.99

Machines Like Me



It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low – for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love. As soon as it was feasible, we had no choice but to follow our desires and hang the consequences. In loftiest terms, we aimed to escape our mortality, confront or even replace the Godhead with a perfect self. More practically, we intended to devise an improved, more modern version of ourselves and exult in the joy of invention, the thrill of mastery. In the autumn of the twentieth century, it came about at last, the first step towards the fulfilment of an ancient dream, the beginning of the long lesson we would teach ourselves that however complicated we were, however faulty and difficult to describe in even our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered. And I was there as a young man, an early and eager adopter in that chilly dawn.

But artificial humans were a cliché long before they arrived, so when they did, they seemed to some a disappointment. The imagination, fleeter than history, than technological advance, had already rehearsed this future in books, then films and TV dramas, as if human actors, walking with a certain glazed look, phony head movements, some stiffness in the lower back, could prepare us for life with our cousins from the future.

I was among the optimists, blessed by unexpected funds following my mother’s death and the sale of the family home, which turned out to be on a valuable development site. The first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression went on sale the week before the Falklands Task Force set off on its hopeless mission. Adam cost £86,000. I brought him home in a hired van to my unpleasant flat in north Clapham. I’d made a reckless decision, but I was encouraged by reports that Sir Alan Turing, war hero and presiding genius of the digital age, had taken delivery of the same model. He probably wanted to have his lab take it apart to examine its workings fully.

Twelve of this first edition were called Adam, thirteen were called Eve. Corny, everyone agreed, but commercial. Notions of biological race being scientifically discredited, the twenty-five were designed to cover a range of ethnicities. There were rumours, then complaints, that the Arab could not be told apart from the Jew. Random programming as well as life experience would grant to all complete latitude in sexual preference. By the end of the first week, all the Eves sold out. At a careless glance, I might have taken my Adam for a Turk or a Greek. He weighed 170 pounds, so I had to ask my upstairs neighbour, Miranda, to help me carry him in from the street on the disposable stretcher that came with the purchase.

While his batteries began to charge, I made us coffee then scrolled through the 470-page online handbook. Its language was mostly clear and precise. But Adam was created across different agencies and in places the instructions had the charm of a nonsense poem. ‘Unreveal upside of B347k vest to gain carefree emoticon with motherboard output to attenuate mood-swing penumbra.’

At last, with cardboard and polystyrene wrapping strewn around his ankles, he sat naked at my tiny dining table, eyes closed, a black power line trailing from the entry point in his umbilicus to a thirteen-amp socket in the wall. It would take sixteen hours to fire him up. Then sessions of download updates and personal preferences. I wanted him now, and so did Miranda. Like eager young parents, we were avid for his first words. There was no loudspeaker cheaply buried in his chest. We knew from the excited publicity that he formed sounds with breath, tongue, teeth and palate. Already, his lifelike skin was warm to the touch and as smooth as a child’s. Miranda claimed to see his eyelashes flicker. I was certain she was seeing vibrations from the Tube trains rolling a hundred feet below us, but I said nothing.

Adam was not a sex toy. However, he was capable of sex and possessed functional mucous membranes, in the maintenance of which he consumed half a litre of water each day. While he sat at the table, I observed that he was uncircumcised, fairly well endowed, with copious dark pubic hair. This highly advanced model of artificial human was likely to reflect the appetites of its young creators of code. The Adams and Eves, it was thought, would be lively. He was advertised as a companion, an intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum who could wash dishes, make beds and ‘think’. Every moment of his existence, everything he heard and saw, he recorded and could retrieve. He couldn’t drive as yet and was not allowed to swim or shower or go out in the rain without an umbrella, or operate a chainsaw unsupervised. As for range, thanks to breakthroughs in electrical storage, he could run seventeen kilometres in two hours without a charge or, its energy equivalent, converse non-stop for twelve days. He had a working life of twenty years. He was compactly built, square-shouldered, dark-skinned, with thick black hair swept back; narrow in the face, with a hint of hooked nose suggestive of fierce intelligence, pensively hooded eyes, tight lips that, even as we watched, were draining of their deathly yellowish-white tint and acquiring rich human colour, perhaps even relaxing a little at the corners. Miranda said he resembled ‘a docker from the Bosphorus’.

Before us sat the ultimate plaything, the dream of ages, the triumph of humanism – or its angel of death. Exciting beyond measure, but frustrating too. Sixteen hours was a long time to be waiting and watching. I thought that for the sum I’d handed over after lunch, Adam should have been charged up and ready to go. It was a wintry late afternoon. I made toast and we drank more coffee. Miranda, a doctoral scholar of social history, said she wished the teenage Mary Shelley was here beside us, observing closely, not a monster like Frankenstein’s, but this handsome dark-skinned young man coming to life. I said that what both creatures shared was a hunger for the animating force of electricity.

‘We share it too.’ She spoke as though she was referring only to herself and me, rather than all of electrochemically charged humanity. She was twenty-two, mature for her years, and ten years younger than me. From a long perspective, there was not much between us. We were gloriously young. But I considered myself at a different stage of life. My formal education was far behind me. I’d suffered a series of professional and financial and personal failures. I regarded myself as too hard-bitten, too cynical for a lovely young woman like Miranda. And though she was beautiful, with pale brown hair and a long thin face, and eyes that often appeared narrowed by suppressed mirth, and though in certain moods I looked at her in wonder, I’d decided early on to confine her in the role of kind, neighbourly friend. We shared an entrance hall and her tiny apartment was right over mine. We saw each other for a coffee now and then to talk about relationships and politics and all the rest. With pitch-perfect neutrality she gave the impression of being at ease with the possibilities. To her, it seemed, an afternoon of intimate pleasure with me would have weighed equally with a chaste and companionable chat. She was relaxed in my company and I preferred to think that sex would ruin everything. We remained good chums. But there was something alluringly secretive or restrained about her. Perhaps, without knowing it, I had been in love with her for months. Without knowing it? What a flimsy formulation that was!

Reluctantly, we agreed to turn our backs on Adam and on each other for a while. Miranda had a seminar to attend north of the river, I had emails to write. By the early seventies, digital communication had discarded its air of convenience and become a daily chore. Likewise, the 250 mph trains – crowded and dirty. Speech-recognition software, a fifties’ miracle, had long turned to drudge, with entire populations sacrificing hours each day to lonely soliloquising. Brain–machine interfacing, wild fruit of sixties optimism, could barely arouse the interest of a child. What people queued the entire weekend for became, six months later, as interesting as the socks on their feet. What happened to the cognition-enhancing helmets, the speaking fridges with a sense of smell? Gone the way of the mouse pad, the Filofax, the electric carving knife, the fondue set. The future kept arriving. Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.

Would Adam become a bore? It’s not easy, to dictate while trying to ward off a bout of buyer’s remorse. Surely, other people, other minds, must continue to fascinate us. As artificial people became more like us, then became us, then became more than us, we could never tire of them. They were bound to surprise us. They might fail us in ways that were beyond our imagining. Tragedy was a possibility, but not boredom.

What was tedious was the prospect of the user’s guide. Instructions. My prejudice was that any machine that could not tell you by its very functioning how it should be used was not worth its keep. On an old-fashioned impulse, I was printing out the manual, then looking for a folder. All the while, I continued to dictate emails.

I couldn’t think of myself as Adam’s ‘user’. I’d assumed there was nothing to learn about him that he could not teach me himself. But the manual in my hands had fallen open at Chapter Fourteen. Here, the English was plain: preferences; personality parameters. Then a set of headings – Agreeableness. Extraversion. Openness to experience. Conscientiousness. Emotional stability. The list was familiar to me. The Five Factor model. Educated as I was in the humanities, I was suspicious of such reductive categories, though I knew from a friend in psychology that each item had many subgroups. Glancing at the next page I saw that I was supposed to select various settings on a scale of one to ten.

I’d been expecting a friend. I was ready to treat Adam as a guest in my home, as an unknown I would come to know. I’d thought he would arrive optimally adjusted. Factory settings – a contemporary synonym for fate. My friends, family and acquaintance, all had appeared in my life with fixed settings, with unalterable histories of genes and environment. I wanted my expensive new friend to do the same. Why leave it to me? But of course, I knew the answer. Not many of us are optimally adjusted. Gentle Jesus? Humble Darwin? One every 1,800 years. Even if it knew the best, the least harmful, parameters of personality, which it couldn’t, a worldwide corporation with a precious reputation couldn’t risk a mishap. Caveat emptor.

God had once delivered a fully formed companion for the benefit of the original Adam. I had to devise one for myself. Here was Extraversion and a graded set of childish statements. He loves to be the life and soul of the party and He knows how to entertain people and lead them. And at the bottom, He feels uncomfortable around other people and He prefers his own company. Here in the middle was, He likes a good party but he’s always happy to come home. This was me. But should I be replicating myself? If I was to choose from the middle of each scale I might devise the soul of blandness. Extraversion appeared to include its antonym. There was a long adjectival list with boxes to tick: outgoing, shy, excitable, talkative, withdrawn, boastful, modest, bold, energetic, moody. I wanted none of them, not for him, not for myself.

Apart from my moments of crazed decisions, I passed most of my life, especially when alone, in a state of mood-neutrality, with my personality, whatever that was, in suspension. Not bold, not withdrawn. Simply here, neither content nor morose, but carrying out tasks, thinking about dinner, or sex, staring at the screen, taking a shower. Intermittent regrets about the past, occasional forebodings about the future, barely aware of the present, except in the obvious sensory realm. Psychology, once so interested in the trillion ways the mind goes awry, was now drawn to what it considered the common emotions, from grief to joy. But it had overlooked a vast domain of everyday existence: absent illness, famine, war or other stresses, a lot of life is lived in the neutral zone, a familiar garden, but a grey one, unremarkable, immediately forgotten, hard to describe.

At the time, I was not to know that these graded options would have little effect on Adam. The real determinant was what was known as ‘machine learning’. The user’s handbook merely granted an illusion of influence and control, the kind of illusion parents have in relation to their children’s personalities. It was a way of binding me to my purchase and providing legal protection for the manufacturer. ‘Take your time,’ the manual advised. ‘Choose carefully. Allow yourself several weeks, if necessary.’

I let half an hour pass before I checked on him again. No change. Still at the table, arms pushed out straight before him, eyes closed. But I thought his hair, deepest black, was bulked out a little and had acquired a certain shine, as though he’d just had a shower. Stepping closer, I saw to my delight that though he wasn’t breathing, there was, by his left breast, a regular pulse, steady and calm, about one a second by my inexperienced guess. How reassuring. He had no blood to pump around, but this simulation had an effect. My doubts faded just a little. I felt protective towards Adam, even as I knew how absurd it was. I stretched out my hand and laid it over his heart and felt against my palm its calm, iambic tread. I sensed I was violating his private space. These vital signs were easy to believe in. The warmth of his skin, the firmness and yield of the muscle below it – my reason said plastic or some such, but my touch responded to flesh.

It was eerie, to be standing by this naked man, struggling between what I knew and what I felt. I walked behind him, partly to be out of range of eyes that could open at any moment and find me looming over him. He was muscular around his neck and spine. Dark hair grew along the line of his shoulders. His buttocks displayed muscular concavities. Below them, an athlete’s knotted calves. I hadn’t wanted a superman. I regretted once more that I’d been too late for an Eve.

On my way out of the room I paused to look back and experienced one of those moments that can derange the emotional life: a startling realisation of the obvious, an absurd leap of understanding into what one already knows. I stood with one hand resting on the doorknob. It must have been Adam’s nakedness and physical presence that prompted the insight, but I wasn’t looking at him. It was the butter dish. Also, two plates and cups, two knives and two spoons scattered across the table. The remains of my long afternoon with Miranda. Two wooden chairs were pushed back from the table, turned companionably towards each other.

We had become closer this past month. We talked easily. I saw how precious she was to me and how carelessly I could lose her. I should have said something by now. I’d taken her for granted. Some unfortunate event, some person, a fellow student, could get between us. Her face, her voice, her manner, both reticent and clear-headed, were sharply present. The feel of her hand in mine, that lost, preoccupied manner she had. Yes, we had become very close and I’d failed to notice it was happening. I was an idiot. I had to tell her.

I went back into my office, which doubled as my bedroom. Between the desk and the bed there was enough space in which to walk up and down. That she knew nothing about my feelings was now an anxious matter. Describing them would be embarrassing, perilous. She was a neighbour, a friend, a kind of sister. I would be addressing a person I didn’t yet know. She would be obliged to step out from behind a screen, or remove a mask and speak to me in terms I had never heard from her. I’m so sorry . . . I like you very much but, you see . . . Or she’d be horrified. Or, just possibly, overjoyed to hear the one thing she had longed for, or to say herself but dreaded rejection.

By chance, we were currently both free. She must have thought about it, about us. It was not an impossible fantasy. I would have to tell her face to face. Unbearable. Unavoidable. And so it went on, in tightening cycles. Restless, I went back next door. I saw no change in Adam as I brushed past to get to the fridge, where there was a half-full bottle of white Bordeaux. I sat facing him and raised my glass. To love. This time, I felt less tenderness. I saw Adam for what it was, an inanimate confection whose heartbeat was a regular electrical discharge, whose skin warmth was mere chemistry. When activated, some kind of microscopic balance-wheel device would prise open his eyes. He would seem to see me, but he would be blind. Not even blind. When it kicked in, another system would give a semblance of breath, but not of life. A man newly in love knows what life is.

With the inheritance, I could have bought a place somewhere north of the river, Notting Hill, or Chelsea. She might even have joined me. She would’ve had space for all the books that were boxed up in her father’s garage in Salisbury. I saw a future without Adam, the future that was mine until yesterday: an urban garden, high ceilings with plaster mouldings, stainless-steel kitchen, old friends to dinner. Books everywhere. What to do? I could take him, or it, back, or sell it online and take a small loss. I gave it a hostile look. The hands were palms down on the table, the hawkish face remained angled towards the hands. My foolish infatuation with technology! Another fondue set. Best to get away from the table before I impoverished myself with a single swipe of my father’s old claw hammer.

I drank no more than half a glass, then I returned to the bedroom to distract myself with the Asian currency markets. All the while I listened out for footsteps in the flat above me. Late into the evening, I watched TV to catch up on the Task Force that would soon set off across 8,000 miles of ocean to recapture what we then called the Falkland Islands.

Machines Like Me Ian McEwan

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

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