Pepper the robot welcomes guests at City Hall in Paris. Photo: BSIP SA/Alamy Stock Photo

Ishiguro’s AI tale for our times

<em>Klara and the Sun</em> is narrated by a robot who looks after a sick teenager. But the real drama is at the edge of the story
March 2, 2021

A recent BBC science report showed Pepper, a “culturally competent” robot, interacting with residents of a care home. One of them, Peter, was encouraged to reminisce about the war while Pepper, four feet tall and cute as a button, nodded encouragingly and blinked its big, Disney eyes. It seemed to be listening to Peter and perhaps it was also doing other useful things, like monitoring his blood pressure and heart rate, or checking for signs of macular degeneration. We’ve been anticipating and dreading the age of the robot for more than a hundred years. Now, in car plants and care homes, it’s finally dawning. How long before robots like Pepper acquire that quality we prize so highly in humans and fear in machines: emotional intelligence? Is it only a matter of time before Pepper can roll its neon eyes and say: “Oh please, not the doodlebugs again, Grandad”?

Klara, the robot at the centre of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, would never be so rude, but she does have abundant emotional intelligence. She’s an “artificial friend” or AF, designed as a companion for children of around 12 to 14. We first meet her and the other AFs awaiting purchase in a shop on a busy street somewhere like New York, perhaps at some point in the near future. The streets are a familiar tangle of traffic and roadworks, and shoppers still carry takeaway coffees, but society has undergone sinister changes. Swathes of people have lost their jobs and some are living in secure communities, arming themselves against violent attack. Children, in particular, live with horrifying new pressures.

Klara’s here to reassure and support them. She’s a robot for our times. Her watchword is “kindness” and she can think of nothing worse for a person than to be lonely. A B2 AF from the fourth series which, the shop manager notes approvingly, “some say has never been surpassed,” she’s quick to pick up on intonation or body language and bristles when people are mean to one another. She has a very human tendency to worry about doing or saying the right thing. Klara’s not perfect—the B2s have had problems with solar energy absorption and customers are increasingly opting for the improved cognition of the B3s. Even so, the shop manager has a soft spot for her. “Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.”

The novel is told in the first person, by Klara herself, so we see this learning in action, initially in the store where the AFs watch life go by from a sofa in the front window. Klara learns to interpret minute changes in facial expression or behaviour: what a tightened grip on a coat collar might mean, or the hesitancy in reaching out to touch a child. She can recognise “high-rank” clothes and shoes. She sees how some people, when they’ve been hugging for a long time, introduce a rocking motion to disguise any awkwardness. The robots take turns in the window, the sunniest spot, so sometimes Klara finds herself at the back of the shop, where a stack of magazines is provided to help the AFs learn about the world they will shortly enter. It seems like an old-fashioned education—why not code this information in?—and clearly it’s limited, because Klara’s got some half-baked ideas.

Knowing how important the Sun is to her—especially given those absorption difficulties—she infers that it must act on humans in a similarly direct way. This theory seems proven when she notices a homeless man and his dog, apparently lying dead in a doorway, spring back to life as the Sun comes out the next morning.

So when Josie, a likeable but sickly 14-year-old, persuades her mother to buy Klara, it isn’t long before the AF is wondering if she can persuade the Sun (which Klara personifies as male) to restore the girl’s health. From Josie’s bedroom window she watches the Sun setting behind Farmer McBain’s barn and thinks she has located his home. All she has to do now is find a way to meet him there, explain Josie’s problem and ask for his intervention. It’s a quaint mission—sort of Toy Story meets Isaac Asimov.

5205106 The midnight sun (chromolitho) by English School, (20th century); Private Collection; ( The midnight sun. Illustration for one of a series of cigarette cards on the subject of "Do You Know" published by Wills\'s Cigarettes, early 20th ce 5205106 The midnight sun (chromolitho) by English School, (20th century); Private Collection; ( The midnight sun. Illustration for one of a series of cigarette cards on the subject of "Do You Know" published by Wills\'s Cigarettes, early 20th ce

The Sun represents a “primitive faith” in Ishiguro’s new novel—but not for humans. Photo: Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

Meanwhile, as this plan takes shape, the reader is trying to focus on what looks like a more compelling subplot. From conversations Josie has with her mother and the boy next door, Rick, we learn that her sickness has been caused by gene editing. Josie, and other children like her, have undergone a process called “lifting” to enhance their intellectual performance. It’s almost the only way to get into a top school but it’s also dangerous: it killed Josie’s older sister and perhaps it’s going to kill her, too. For middle-class parents, engineering a child’s life chances has become so important it’s worth taking the risk they may die in the process.

At an “interaction” group we meet some of the other “lifted” children and they seem pretty obnoxious. We fear for Klara when they suggest throwing her around to see if she can execute a perfect somersault like the B3s they have at home. We root for Rick, whose mother Helen—the only English character in a novel set in an unspecified America—decided against “lifting” her son and may now pay a heavy price. Very few academies still accept unlifted children, and only then in small numbers. It may be that Rick’s best chance lies through connections: his mother used to go out with a governor at one of these schools, Atlas Brookings.

In 2017, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “novels of great emotional force [that uncover] the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” His fictions range widely in theme, each new book prompting quite different reactions to the last. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are undisputed classics, but The Buried Giant, set in a mythical Britain of dragons and ogres, baffled many readers. The Unconsoled, a sprawling, dreamlike fiction about a composer suffering amnesia, puzzled even its passionate defenders; Anita Brookner thought it “almost certainly” a masterpiece. It’s hard to talk about Ishiguro without invoking ungainly contradictions, because his fiction is itself deliberately contradictory (he has called The Remains of the Day “too perfect”). Typically the novels are told in the first person with a calm authority that conceals some gradually emerging horror. The narrator speaks directly to readers in an even tone that acts reassuringly like a sedative, until we start wondering what awful thing has happened that required us to be sedated in the first place.

“Klara’s here to reassure us. She’s a robot for our times”

In The Remains of the Day, butler Stevens’s preoccupation with duty and deference push important information—about his master’s fascist sympathies—to the sidelines. Pages about cleaning silver threaten to eclipse a paragraph on a visit by Nazi ambassador Ribbentrop. In Never Let Me Go, the children at Hailsham boarding school have long, chuntering conversations about art and sport that sound much like teenagers’ conversations anywhere, except for odd allusions to “guards” and “donations.” Gradually we learn that the young people are clones whose organs are being harvested. Whether depicting an elderly butler or a chatty young woman, Ishiguro reproduces his narrator’s speech perfectly—too perfectly, perhaps. The mannerisms can seem like mimicry, used in the service of something darker. The emphases, like the shadows in a De Chirico painting, aren’t where you expect them to be.

Ishiguro himself ascribes that combination of restraint and emotion to a mix of English and Japanese sensibilities. He came to Britain at the age of five and didn’t go to Japan again until his thirties, but that imagined country, perhaps not much like its real counterpart, was creative fuel. The young Ishiguro saw how different the etiquette observed by his family was to that of their neighbours, and how such codes can play into character and plot.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Ishiguro described how the singularity of his experience, a Japanese boy in a Guildford cul-de-sac, helped him stake out his own strange territory in books. “As the only foreign boy in the neighbourhood, a kind of local fame followed me around. Other children knew who I was before I met them. Adults who were total strangers to me sometimes addressed me by name in the street or in the local store.”

“It’s a combination of sincerity and strangeness that creates such a fertile territory for Ishiguro”

His father was an oceanographer, working for the British government, but it was an ostensibly temporary arrangement and for 11 years the family was poised for a return to Japan. Young Kazuo was sent comics and books from Japan to ease his imminent reintegration. At home his parents made observations about the “curious customs” of their Surrey friends, but Ishiguro remembers his childhood with fondness. “I’m amazed by the openness and instinctive generosity with which our family was accepted by this ordinary English community. The affection, respect and curiosity I retain to this day for that generation of Britons who came through the Second World War, and built a remarkable new welfare state in its aftermath, derive significantly from my personal experiences from those years.”

The respectful tone sounds a bit like Stevens the butler. There can be a disconcerting earnestness to Ishiguro’s delivery, both on the page and in person. To speak about Surrey and not make one joke? I’m not sure that’s ever been attempted before.

It’s the combination of sincerity and strangeness that creates such a fertile territory for his stories. He likes to experiment with genre, and Klara and the Sun uses elements of both fable and dystopia to turn some familiar ideas on their heads. While the humans in this novel find some chilling uses for technology, the robot puts a primitive faith in the Sun. Klara barely even knows what a smartphone is—she calls it an “oblong.” Drawn to her homespun wisdom like Forrest Gump to chocolates, the humans confide in her their demons and dilemmas. The jacket blurb claims this novel is about love, but that discourse is actually rather limited—even trite—given what’s at stake.

“We keep willing Ishiguro to train his focus one way and he keeps turning us away from it”

If there’s a message here for us, it probably isn’t the one we’re looking for. I don’t think Klara and the Sun is about the danger of using artificial intelligence to satisfy the human need to love, although that may be the headline story. What Klara and the other characters understand about the world overlaps and intersects in strange ways. There’s a literal representation of that mismatch in what Klara sees. Thanks to hardware problems and plot developments I won’t spoil here, her vision often breaks down into boxes, with different perspectives confusingly presented on one plane, like Cubist art. A person’s angry expression, deconstructed, may fill 10 boxes, showing marginally different aspects. Important action may be thrust to the periphery.

Tantalising developments happen at the edges of Klara’s experience. We’re privy to some of it—conversations about Atlas Brookings or Josie’s health—as well as, in one extraordinary aside, the revelation that Rick has been developing a flock of drones disguised as birds. We keep willing Ishiguro to train his focus on this view and he keeps turning us away from it. We want to look at the dystopia unfolding among the “lifted children.” Instead he sends us scampering through fields with Klara to McBain’s barn for a rendezvous with the Sun, and then on through a set of twists and turns which, while enjoyable, are only just about plausible to a reader who’s watched the usual amount of adventure films. What’s the aim here?

There used to be a chain of high street shops called What Everyone Wants (now sadly defunct). When it came to marketing, the owner clearly favoured a direct approach. Ishiguro isn’t about to be so compliant, though, and ignoring what a reader wants is his bold move in this novel. Was what we wanted—another AI dystopia, some titillating fearmongering about robotic slaves or overlords—too obvious? Is the clichéd plotting designed to show up our clichéd thinking? Telling the “wrong” story, or telling a story by proxy, is a device Ishiguro has experimented with before, even in his first novel, A Pale View of Hills. Something similar is going on here.

The darker story, the one barely alluded to, may be about humanity’s dangerous hubris regarding data collection and surveillance. Clever or cute robots are a distraction. Having very much enjoyed the first two thirds of Klara and the Sun, I was disappointed by an ending that veered too close to Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince—but perhaps disappointment was always part of the author’s plan. There will be other readers who take Klara’s mission at face value and enjoy that too—because it seems that Ishiguro’s vision really can be both sincere and oblique; he can present multiple perspectives on the same plane. The trick is in learning, like a good AF, to “absorb and blend” the fragments. This may be a novel that begins its real work on a reader only once the last page is turned.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber, £20)