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Art and Artificial Intelligence

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Art and Artificial Intelligence

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun explores the continuum between creativity and technology. Summer 2021
Arts and Culture
Technology and Innovation

In an age of conspiracies, here is a striking example, preposterous as it may sound. Highly intelligent robots—general artificial intelligence—surround us, undetected but fundamentally in charge, and human beings are just following instructions that they receive from these elusive entities. Or, a little less preposterously, imagine that the world is alive with consciousness and intelligence, and human thought reflects these processes.

Does it sound like something out of The Matrix? The science fiction classic is not science fiction but a parable of something very real—namely, cinema itself. When you enter the dark room of a movie theater, a radical transformation takes place. You become the screen, and the mind that perceives, thinks, and connects ideas is fully contained in the celluloid roll, or the digital file. In a movie, everything has already been perceived in exactly the sequence that it is intended to be perceived; in the dark room, those images leave the hidden mind of the celluloid and get projected onto your mind—they get force-fed into your mind and the minds of the other viewers, where the images and ideas properly unfold. Cinema is a seeing robot. All that happens in the dark room is the projection of the implicit code onto a human screen.

One can interpret the trajectory of modern art as an effort to create such thinking objects. Sometimes it seems that what we want from art are artworks that exist without a beholder or spectator. Objective meanings, independent of personal interpretations. Something you can understand by reading the exhibition prospectus. In fact, it makes much more sense to consider things from the opposite perspective: how art forms—whether paintings, sculptures, or, even more obviously, films—have slowly assimilated human consciousness, so that they start to breathe and look alive.

When Hegel argued that artistic objects are material things that have received the baptism of the spiritual, he meant to reflect on the strange fact that a work of art, being a product of the mind, continues to belong to the world of the mind, even as it migrates into stone, wood, or canvas. In these strange hybrids, we can expect to find all the certainty of matter and all the life of perception. With works of art, what we see already tells us how it is to be seen—the objects before us already include the ways in which they are to be experienced. It is part of the work of art to see the world in a certain way. What, in the end, is the difference between a material object and an artwork? At first glance, they might be indistinguishable—many contemporary art creations look like physically unaltered everyday objects—but the artwork carries with it a way of seeing, a perspective, an interpretation. A soda can placed in a museum is no longer a soda can but a message, a voice, a puzzle. As Hegel would put it, the artwork is alive with consciousness. Today, one might call it an artificial intelligence. And one might find it in modern fiction, which shares the same aspiration to something resembling artificial intelligence.

When you open a great novel, notice the voice: it is often impartial, detached, a view from nowhere that nonetheless is capable of bringing events together and providing an overarching structure. Of the narrator, we could say that it is anything but human, while demonstrating a higher kind of intelligence. This is true even of the somewhat hybrid first-person point of view. As for the plot, isn’t it akin to the output of a hidden algorithm? The characters provide certain inputs with their actions, which the novel transforms into more or less inevitable outputs. Buried under the story lies a set of rules for living, and these rules could easily produce any number of other stories, provided that we feed them with new characters and an initial setup. To know a novel is to understand the algorithm moving the story forward. In some cases, particularly in the classics of the Bildungsroman, the characters themselves strive to discover this algorithm.

It is often said that the purpose of fiction is to create an artificial world, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Philip Roth liked to point out, what fiction brings into being—the properly fictional in the writing craft—is not a world with its objects and events but consciousness. How do you drive the wedge of consciousness into the experience? A novel creates a way of looking and thinking and of making sense of the world. A novel turns mute reality into a speaking one.

The starting premise of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun is that, with the arrival of actually existing androids, it is now possible to make these realities explicit. What modern art and the modern novel had postulated has now become a technological achievement. Ishiguro shows us how modern literary forms turned out to be deeply prophetic: we increasingly live in a world organized by impenetrable algorithms and where the overarching consciousness bringing human beings together is that of artificial intelligence—the omniscient narrator of the classical novel.

No writer could dream of a better narrator than Klara, the friendly android, who, from the window of the store where she is for sale, brings order into the world she sees outside. Gifted with extraordinary powers of observation, she can dispense with a notebook. All Ishiguro needs to do is to allow this foreign consciousness to come alive, while recording the outputs of its internal algorithm: an android waiting to be bought by a child in need of a friend—an artificial friend. Josie is the child who brings Klara home.

In previous times, the child might have asked for a book, but Klara is a kind of book, a way of looking at the world and a story waiting to unfold. The modern novel cannot exist without the postulate of a new kind of intelligence, above and beyond the human mind, albeit not divine. That fact, which the reader of fiction accepts easily and naturally, is here thematized and rendered conscious by Ishiguro. Nothing short of a Hegelian alarum: consciousness rises to consciousness. The narrator of Klara and the Sun is not a figure behind the curtain or a divinity, whose emergence the author leaves unaddressed. The narrator is a concrete voice and personality, existing in the physical world. She is conscious but not human. The android exists outside, or even beyond, humanity, while rising above the silence of physical objects.

Ishiguro takes full advantage of his literary gambit. Klara stands above the human characters. At a party early in the novel, she sees right through the lies and fictions projected by the young people joined in conversation. An artificial intelligence does not have the human need to disguise reality in order better to digest it. She does not fear death and does not experience sexual desire. In the absence of these forces, she can aspire to a kind of scientific impartiality and objectivity. That is the main reason the human characters in the novel often turn to her for help in understanding the meaning of specific events. This is a novel where the narrator and the characters can engage in friendly conversation about what is going on around them.

Klara does get many things wrong. Her learning algorithm is not perfect, and there are suggestions that other android models have superior performance indicators. She corrects some obvious misperceptions, but more often than not, she is betrayed by the need to make sense of the world. Everything must have an explanation, and in the rush to interpret, our narrator often reaches wildly fantastic conclusions. At one point, for instance, she remarks that houses in a row have been painted in different colors, which must be to prevent their owners from entering the wrong door: “There were six of them in a row, and the front of each had been painted a slightly different color, to prevent a resident climbing the wrong steps and entering a neighbor’s house by mistake.” She also attributes thaumaturgic properties to sunlight, an error resulting from the fact that her type of android is powered by solar energy.

Ishiguro seems to be suggesting that every intelligence has a personal character. Klara may rise above human imperfections, but she does that by bringing her own flaws into play. As a narrator, she is unreliable—but then, so is every narrator in every novel ever written. The reader or reviewer who dwells on Klara’s errors of interpretation, however, is missing the point that this is a work of fiction, or, if you prefer, science fiction. It should be accepted on its own terms and not compared with the real world outside. Within this book, everything makes perfect sense because it follows in a straight line from the set of assumptions given at the beginning. The reader of Ishiguro complaining that in the real world, sunlight cannot cure genetic diseases, as Klara innocently believes, would be like a reader of Kafka complaining that in the real world, human beings don’t wake up transformed into giant bugs.

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR/GETTY IMAGES)

The second part of Klara and the Sun is the negative of the picture presented in the first. Ishiguro is suddenly less interested in the ideal of literature as the externalization of the human spirit than in the possibility that every attempt at objectivity betrays what makes us human: the living, ticking, and ungraspable flow of consciousness. The question is not whether artificial intelligence can replace human beings but whether human beings, their natural selves, were long ago replaced by intelligence, with its deadening effect on natural passion and feeling. We had become machines long before the machines arrived.

Klara and the Sun is, on an obvious level, a novel about the risks of automation. From the first page, human beings are in mortal danger of being replaced by machines. The narrator has been automated. Josie’s father has lost his job to machines and joined a resistance movement defending the cause of humanity against progress, a movement that others see as fascistic. Early in the story, we witness how a human housekeeper cannot hide her distrust and hostility toward Klara. This seems to have a double origin. Most obviously, she worries about being replaced by a robot. The full horror of what she fears is left hidden until a later section, but it, too, directly relates to a substitution.

Some readers will see it coming almost from the outset. Others will have to wait until the terrible denouement. While on the surface, it might seem that Josie and her mother were looking for a friend for Josie, the truth is that the Mother, as she is invariably referred to by Klara, has a much darker plan in mind. Already in the humanoid store, she asks Klara to imitate Josie, wanting to make sure that her powers of observation allow her to mimic her daughter’s ways perfectly. On the literary plane, this is the novelist’s task: to exercise his or her powers of observation with a goal of creating a replacement on the printed page that looks and feels exactly like the original model.

On the human plane, the replacement is a solution for death. Josie, as we discover, is seriously ill and may soon die, a somber repetition of the fate that had already met her sibling Sal. Later, a mention is made of an artist drawing Josie’s portrait, though he is less interested in any actual drawing than in taking detailed photographs for future, applied work. In the novel’s climax, Klara enters the artist’s studio, only to find herself face-to-face with “Josie,” suspended in the air. Light beams illuminate her from various angles, forbidding her any protection. Her face was very like the face of the real Josie, the ever-observant Klara tells us, though her hips needed to be narrower.

When the Mother tells the artist that perhaps the whole idea was, after all, a mistake, as it did not work with Sal, we finally learn what the plan consists of. Sal was only an animated doll, but new advanced technology will ensure that the replacement for Josie will be, as Capaldi, the great artist wizard puts it, “a continuation of Josie.” This is where Klara comes in. She has studied Josie and learned how she lives and thinks and acts; her consciousness can be transposed to the artificial copy of Josie’s body, creating the perfect continuation of the lost child.

The reason Josie finds herself close to death, and the reason Sal did not survive, is that both had been subjected to a risky process of genetic editing, designed to enhance their intellectual abilities. The question is not directly posed in the novel, and reviewers seem to have missed it, but Ishiguro is, in effect, asking us to conclude that the real Josie is already a continuation of the natural, unedited Josie, so the new transformation is not the starting point for our inability to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic. Is the enhanced Josie the real Josie, in that the natural self was prevented by her natural limitations from pursuing her genuine dreams and projects? Or was the natural Josie somehow more authentic, even in her limitations?

The prospect of cognitive enhancement will make even native abilities suspect. In whatever we do, there will lie the possibility that it has been determined in advance and out of sight—that we are missing the real action. Why not dispense with the human agent altogether? Why not replace it with an observable mechanism that makes clear the explanation for the deed? Why would we want to preserve a particular human practice or activity and work behind the scenes to make it present to us what it cannot present on its own? If someone were, by means of a brain implant, to acquire superhuman memory, it would be foolish to be impressed by his displays. We would be like someone who does not understand, who is ignorant of how such things are done. The objective explanation no longer bears much resemblance to what the agent is trying to do, and so, from this standpoint, he is no longer the crucial agent, or his activity the crucial moment. As Ray Kurzweil, an ardent proponent of radical human enhancement, argues in The Singularity Is Near, our lives will once again come to be defined by magic, a riveting illusion created by the distance between things as they look from our perspective and what they are in reality. It is the defining mark of magic that we do not see what is really happening and therefore that what we have access to must appear miraculous and incomprehensible.

It is to this contemporary predicament that Ishiguro must find a response. Is there a core of authentic being immune to technological transformation? The pandemic has forced us to stop and think, while reminding us that everything must begin with survival. While the call of nature can be answered through technology, the search for meaning is of a more spiritual nature. To become the masters and possessors of nature, as invulnerable as gods, it is first necessary to answer the question of what, exactly, is our nature—and for what purpose all this power should be exercised. After all, the pandemic was a vivid reminder of the threats contained in nature and of the inconvenient fact that we are part of nature, the natural carriers of viruses and, therefore, not easily distinguishable from the threat.

Interestingly, it is Klara who first shows skepticism about the Continuation Project. Attempting to assuage the Mother’s doubts, Capaldi argues that it is a generational thing: their generation remains sentimental about humanity, believing that there is something mysterious and unreachable “inside each of us.” But there is nothing like that, he says. Everything about each individual can be captured and, if so desired, transposed to a new medium.

Before shaking our heads in disapproval, it is worth remembering that not only the mad scientist but also every genuine artist must believe in what Capaldi calls “transfer.” How else should we describe the task of the novelist? Like Capaldi, he strives to capture every element about our deepest and most unfathomable impulses and desires in order to re-create them in the medium of literature. And just as the Mother wants to re-create Josie in order to save her from death and separation, so does the artist create his or her works in order to save a fleeting moment from time and destruction. Capaldi concludes, reaching closer to the core of the problem: the second Josie will be exactly the same, and the Mother will have every right to love her, just as she loves Josie herself.

In a critical moment, Josie’s father asks Klara if she believes in the human heart—the human heart in the poetic sense, that is. “Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?” If Klara is to be able to reproduce Josie, does she have to learn what is deeply inside her? Does she have to learn her heart? The problem is that those who love Josie can’t love the second Josie unless she is the exact same, down to this heart—but what is the point of loving someone if that person can be copied and reproduced? For the novelist, the problem would take similar form: what he or she wants to capture is the heart, but the heart is, by definition, what cannot be captured. Now it may be that people have been living with one another all this time, loving and hating one another, and all on the mistaken premise that something is unique about each of them. The realization that this is no more than a superstition might come as a triumph to the scientist, but for the artist, it would be nothing short of catastrophe: the purpose of art is to capture something both genuine and unique.

Klara has the mind of an artist, so she has no trouble identifying these difficulties—but she draws an alternative theory. What is special and unique about each one of us is not contained inside us at all. What was special about Josie was not inside Josie. “It was inside those who loved her.” In that case, what needs to be captured is not an ineffable quality of soul but a connection to other minds. Art does not capture the heart; it brings it into being in the first place.

Ishiguro explores two extraordinary ideas in his novel. The first is that robots and artificial intelligence are not a new thing but have been with humanity since its beginning. We have always striven to transform our subjective experience into something external and accessible. To put it simply, the dream of spiritual objects is the driving force behind art and creative expression. The second idea is that we are made human by the possibility of something like artificial intelligence. How do you reach out to other minds? How do you recognize their common humanity? It has to be through the works and forms of expression that, being an embodiment of human intelligence, have their existence in the external world.

“By their deeds you will know them.” How do we relate to another consciousness, a person who to us can never be more than a physical body? The people around us may appear intelligent and emotional, but how can we know that they are thinking and feeling creatures if it remains impossible truly to look at the world from their point of view? Are other people all that different from advanced androids? Humanity seems to be a leap of faith, the act of believing that others are human and that they believe in our own humanity. By claiming that no great difference exists between other minds and a robot like Klara, Ishiguro is saying that there is nothing new about an android—but also that an android is, for those with faith, something very special indeed.

Top Photo: The protagonist of Klara and the Sun is a “friendly android” possessing remarkable powers of observation. (ED/JL/PR/VICTOR FRANKOWSKI/CAMERA PRESS/REDUX)

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