Talkin' bots with Ian McEwan

Last week, the Page Society took a field trip to the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio, to listen to Ian McEwan discuss his new novel in conversation with Carol Off.

Machines Like Me, released by Knopf Canada in late April, is a finely tuned work, shifting from quiet introspection to passion and comic relief in the span of a page. His navel-gazing protagonist, Charlie, is a wonderfully rendered character, a pathetic man-child who buys a replicant human in the waning days of an alternate-universe Thatcherite London. In this world, Alan Turing is alive, and technology has advanced at a rapid-fire pace – yet despite the electric vehicles and twittering computer-verse recognizable to a modern audience, you can still see the grime of austerity Britain at work.

Adam, Charlie’s robot companion, is one of the first of his kind – for Charlie, Adam is a fateful purchase that allows him to develop a closer relationship with upstairs neighbour and love interest, Miranda. Adam is a thought experiment – an eye-wateringly expensive impulse buy and a distraction for a man clinically incapable, it seems, of holding on to money.

Over the course of the novel, McEwan expands the tightly-focused world of Charlie, Adam and Miranda to explore the philosophical and moral quandries commensurate with the idea of artificial intelligence. Is humanity built, earned – or something else? Can artificial consciousness transcend its human creators – or is human consciousness itself an artificial creation? Is Adam, at his core, a conscious being? Or is he the world’s most sophisticated, neuroses-inducing computer game?

As in his wonderfully experimental novel Nutshell, McEwan takes an idea that’s been done before (Hamlet, robots) and dives deep.

Ian McEwan in conversation is exactly as you’d imagine. He’s erudite and quick, disarmingly witty when sparring with audience members on issues of religion, technology, and human nature – not only in relation to his characters, but to himself as well. I don’t know of another person alive who could so deeply dive into a character study as to spend two years shadowing neurosurgeons at a London hospital, but McEwan’s done it (successfully enough to convince two neurosurgery residents to call him “doctor”!) If you get the chance, come listen to him speak the next time he’s in Toronto – well worth the price of admission – but in any case, pick up a copy of Machines Like Me.