That is the title of the most recent book I have read. I finished it a week ago and it has since not left my mind. It’s written by Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro and it’s short and easy to read.
The point of view character is also the title character, an Artificial Friend (AF) called Klara. You’re dropped into a world where AI is synonymous with AF, and people are essentially what they have always been; people.
AI is a topic that will only grow in relevance as the technology advances. In the world that Ishiguro creates, AI has replaced jobs, and it utilised widely, but for the purposes of the story it is limited to the experience on one AI in particular, Klara.
An AF is essentially a service robot for wealthy children. They are bought to teach said children and keep them from loneliness. It’s an interesting concept and Ishiguro is careful not to throw the details of the world at you. He holds them back and drip feeds you only what Klara overhears or thinks.
We enter the story when Klara standing in her store, waiting to be selected by whatever child walks in and takes a liking to her. Immediately, the reader is lead to empathise with Klara as she experiences the world in ways a child might; calling people names that are descriptions (Beggar Man, the Manager, and the Mother), exclaiming and expressing delight over the smallest variations in her environment.
It is beautiful writing, but it isn’t long before Klara is selected by Josie, and she leaves the store.
It is clear immediately that Josie is unwell. Ishiguro doesn’t hide it, in fact, he pushes it to the fore of the readers mind when the Mother instructs Klara to copy Josie’s unsteady walk.
You see, the world has been split. Higher education is reserved for children that have been ‘Lifted’, which is the in-world term for genetic engineering. These children are superior and are therefore given more opportunity than the children that haven’t been ‘lifted’.
But it comes with a catch; the process of ‘lifting’ involves risk and potential death if the body rejects what has been done to it.
This is where Klara enters Josie’s story. She is ill and feared to be dying.
Throughout the novel, it becomes Klara mission to help Josie survive and she does this by appealing to her god, the Sun.
AF’s are primarily powered by Sunlight and due to this Klara views the Sun as the source of all life, the great father, God.
I won’t spoil the story but I recommend that everyone read it as it is a fascinating study on where the world may go.
There is one part I will focus on though. Near the back end of the book, Klara asks this of one of the other characters.
“I did wonder…if I were to inhabit the new…what would happen to this?” I raised my arms in the air, and for the first time…looked at me. She glanced at my face, down at my legs, then she looked away and said:
“Why does it matter? That’s just fabric.-“
I’ll cut it off there, as it makes my point. This interaction is brushed over, a few lines out of tens of thousands of words but it is at the heart of an issue that will confront humanity in the near future.
Klara, for the first time in the novel, explicitly displays a connection to her body. The ‘fabric’ she inhabits, a place she has come to know and consider a part of her. But her concerns are brushed off by the other character, a human.
It doesn’t matter because Klara isn’t human. She doesn’t have that…spark…that makes her one of us.
Despite lacking said spark, she shows compassion, fear of death, love, fear, hatred, shame.
By all reasoning, Klara is alive. She doesn’t have a beating heart, but she feels.
That spark that Klara is ‘missing’ is also called a soul. Human’s have always held ourselves up above animals as something special, something ‘other’. To be frank, we’ve held ourselves up as something better, despite the only evidence supporting that fact were fictions invented by our own minds.
The idea of the soul is all but debunked within scientific circles. There are ways to predict the actions of humans before they themselves know what they are going to do. There are two selves within our brains, with different desires and wants. There are people whose essence, personality, core being, is changed irrevocably after an accident- are they the same person as they were before? Is their soul the same?
Klara doesn’t have a soul. Everything she wants, feels, desires are the result of algorithms based on environmental, societal, and genetic (AI code) stimuli.
But she still does feel, and fear, and want, and hope.
We react to stimuli; the very same ones that Klara does.
Our code is complex and biological but in the end it is the same. Algorithms responding to stimuli.
Does that make her less than us?
Does that make us the same as her?
The path I have walked us on isn’t one that sits well with me. At times I rebel at the assumption that we are nothing but biological machines with no inner-self or soul; that the mind is merely a way to interpret information. It’s hard to comprehend and the awe it inspires is not the kind that is comforting.
If it is true, it isn’t truly cause for despair. Even if we are biological machines it doesn’t isolate us. So what if we are only different from animals due to some evolutionary leaps? If anything, losing that concept of soul brings us closer to the creatures that we take for granted and draws us nearer to the Earth we live on.
I hope this has given you something to think about, though, if you find yourself getting too worried, I recommend reading as a well-proven distraction.