The Current

Nobel author Kazuo Ishiguro on artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human

British author Kazuo Ishiguro says the world may be on the brink of a new era similar to the industrial revolution, thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence. He explores that theme, and what it means to be human, in his newest book, Klara and the Sun.

The British writer explores those themes in his latest book, Klara and the Sun

In his latest book, Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro explores the themes of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. (Knopf Canada)

Originally published on March 1, 2021.

Nobel-prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro says the world may be on the brink of a new era similar to the industrial revolution, thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence.

"I think there's going to be, you know, staggering benefits," said the British novelist. 

But we also need to be wary of the harm it could cause, he added.

Ishiguro explores that theme in his new book, Klara and the Sun. The story is centred around an artificial intelligence robot — or "friend" — named Klara, who has been designed to keep teenagers from becoming lonely. 

As Klara waits for someone to come along and buy her from the store, she carefully studies the behaviour of the humans who pass by, and she starts to wonder what love means. The novel explores that question — as well as what it means to be human — through the robot's eyes.

Ishiguro spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about the book. Here is part of their conversation.

There's always a spark for novels and a story. What was it that got you thinking about this idea of an artificial friend?

Well, away from the world of writing, I had been interested in the world of artificial intelligence for some time. And I've been lucky enough to be able to, you know, have conversations with some of the leading experts in this field. But I wasn't really thinking about writing a novel about AI. Klara, in a way, came from a different direction altogether. She came from the world of children's stories. 

I was fascinated in that kind of, the young child's logic, where weird things are allowed to happen — like the moon can speak, or you can open your window and pass a ladder out and climb right onto the moon. That kind of weird logic that applies in the world of people who only have very, very limited data and information about the world — we're talking about babies and toddlers. And so I wanted some of that kind of naivety and also the hope that comes with it to be with Klara. But, of course, she enters quite a dark — you might even call dystopian — world. And she tries to hang onto that childlikeness and hope.

[You wrote] "Do you believe in the human heart? I don't mean simply the organ, obviously. I'm speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart." Is there something as special in an individual as the human heart that makes us, as individuals, special? What's going on there with that question about the human heart?

Well, that question is asked by one of the characters, one of the members of the family that Klara is trying to help. And it is asked of Klara. It goes to the heart of one of the things the book is really concerned about. 

We've lived for centuries, I think, with this notion that each of us has some kind of special, unique, perhaps a ghost in us or a soul. And it's because of that, in some kind of way, that we each of us remain individual and unique. 

In the fiction I've created here, we're living in a world where artificial intelligence and big data, all these things have crept into the everyday to the extent that … that notion of that soul inside us is being challenged. [There's] the idea that maybe we're just a bunch of algorithms, or that, you know, once we have the technology, and perhaps we already have the technology, we'll be able to get a definitive summary of what a person is inside that body. 

You mentioned speaking with AI experts. What's the most intriguing thing that you learned from them about the possibility and the potential of this technology?

I understood that the latest generation of AI programs work on something called reinforcement learning, which is quite different to the older programs that would beat chess champions and things like this. 

The latest generation of AI really works by just being given a task or a mission, and it feels a kind of reward every time it does something that brings it slightly closer to that goal. 

I found that interesting for many reasons. But for a novelist like me, it starts to become much more metaphorical of human beings. For instance, I mean, there are many aspects of us that feel like we've been given this kind of mission or goal, and we relentlessly strive to fulfil it.

What do you mean?

Ishiguro's latest novel is called Klara and the Sun (Knopf)

Well, take the parental urge, for instance. You know, I've dedicated the novel to my mother who passed away shortly just before I finished it. And I wasn't writing it about her, but I realized there's an appropriateness to that. I mean, Klara is given this mission of doing the best thing possible for the teenager that buys her — basically stop her from becoming lonely, and make sure that no harm comes to her. And my mother was like that. I thought, everything she did seemed to have to further this goal of doing the best for her children. 

And I think that's the fascinating thing about human beings. OK, we're not machines, but we do have very, very strong things programmed into us. Even pretty horrible people, when they're around their children, you can see this very strong, and what to me is an admirable, urge to protect their child, to do the best for their child. And there are many other impulses like that about human beings. So that interested me about artificial intelligence. 

The world that she lives in  — I mean, you used the word "dystopian" earlier — you draw on issues of the environment and discrimination, on technology being used, you know, eugenics and gene selecting, for example. How much of the world that we're in right now were you drawing on to help shape that world?

I don't want to sound like some sort of alarmist person. I don't think I am. And by and large, I'm one of the people who are optimistic about the current breakthroughs that we've had. But I do think we haven't woken up to how profound some of the breakthroughs of the last few years have been.

How so?

Particularly, I would say, in these two areas: artificial intelligence and gene editing. The possibilities are staggering. 

With the advent of gene-editing technology called CRISPR, for which the two pioneers have just won the Nobel Prize … we have a very simple and easy-to-use tool … to prevent many, many fatal illnesses that we fear at the moment, and also to do profound things about feeding the world. However, it does open the way very simply and very easily to create … super children.

Already somebody has tried to do something to a pair of embryos in China. Well, in fact, he has done it, and he thought he was going to be celebrated and he's been put in jail in China. We haven't got an international kind of regulatory consensus at the moment [on] what to do.

I'm not one of those people who think, you know, all these things are going to lead us to doom. But I do feel that we are on the brink of a kind of a new era not dissimilar to when we were entering the industrial revolution. We non-scientists, we do have to kind of have a good think about how we reorganize our society in many, many different areas. 

What's the role of a novelist in that?

At the very crude level, I think it's quite good for novelists and indeed people who write movies and TV series to create a platform for debate and discussion.

But I don't think we're engaging with what is already upon us in terms of possibilities, in terms of gene editing and in terms of artificial intelligence.

I think there's going to be staggering benefits. But we do have to avoid the kind of horrible things that happened when we entered the industrial revolution…. We don't want the equivalent of seven-year-olds going down into mines and working 10 hours a day. We don't want people raiding other people's countries and turning the people into slaves, and we don't want to go through all that again. 

So I think we have to try and have a discussion about how we reorganize ourselves. And so that's the backdrop to Klara and the Sun. It's not dystopian, exactly. It's almost dystopian. 

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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