In his newest novel, Machines Like Me, the British writer Ian McEwan takes on the rise of artificial intelligence, exploring how humans would react to the creation of perfectly human-like robots. But he does it in his particularly McEwan-esque fashion. Rather than creating a work of speculative fiction set in a near future where general artificial intelligence has become a reality, McEwan sets Machines Like Me in an alternate past, a 1980s London where the internet already exists and the English A.I. pioneer Alan Turing — who in our world was effectively hounded to death by government authorities in 1954 because of his homosexuality — instead lived and went on to create the first true A.I.: a collection of androids for purchase called Adams and Eves.
Charlie, an underemployed Londoner who scrapes together a living day trading, uses his inheritance to buy one of the first Adams, in part to woo his upstairs neighbor Miranda. After they become a couple, Charlie and Miranda decide to jointly program Adam’s personality. What follows is a tragicomedy of human and A.I. manners, as Adam comes to fall in love with Miranda — in a specifically robotic fashion — even as Charlie grows jealous and even frightened of the being he technically owns. Turing himself makes an appearance, arguing for the essential value and life of artificial consciousness, while Adam struggles after he discovers that the human beings around him rarely follow the perfect ethics he has been programmed to obey.
OneZero editor in chief Bryan Walsh recently sat down with McEwan at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City to talk about the life of machines, the ethics of artificial consciousness, and what it would mean to lose to a robot in a novel writing contest.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity: