A little over a century ago, Czech playwright Karel Čapek used the word “robot” for the first time ever in his 1920 play R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots. “Robot”, a variation of the Old Church Slavonic word rabota, means servitude or forced labor. In the play, the company R.U.R. mass produces workers through the use of biotechnology with the ability to do everything humans do, except having feelings.
This idea has fascinated us ever since, yet the prospect of a future with humanoid robots has typically been presented in literature and film as menacing and bleak. From Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (then adapted to Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner) to The Matrix series by directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski, just to mention a few, the idea is that robots will end up outsmarting, replacing, and finally, conquering us.
Klara and the Sun, Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel, presents a more generous approach. In a not-so-distant future, a sun-powered Artificial Friend (AF) named Klara is one of the humanoid robots designed to be the companion of young adults. Although highly intelligent and skilled, her goal is mainly to help a teenager feel less lonely. Remote learning, the default form of education, has isolated the new generations so that “interaction meetings” are needed to exercise their ability to socialize.
It is also a reality in which children can obtain an enhanced intelligence — be “lifted” — but not without some sacrifice, and where these children are often the only ones with access to higher education. Moreover, robots have been the cause of “substitutions”, replacing human workers in most job sectors resulting in high levels of unemployment. Indeed, this scenario supports the thinking that this level of technology will inevitably become an obstacle to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities.
Ishiguro tells the story through the eyes of Klara, not the humans, and by doing so, exposes the ethical consequences of such a future as well. We soon learn that robots are not welcomed everywhere, or even acknowledged, and are at best treated with condescension. “One never knows how to greet a guest like you. After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” says Helen, one of the characters.
Klara is exceptionally perceptive, to the point of being able to discern complex emotions, give thoughtful advice, and even develop a set of beliefs. Therefore, is she really that different to us? Ishiguro not only questions what it is that makes us human, but if the very question even matters at all. When it comes to respect, the way we treat whatever we deem “not human” — animals, plants, and yes, machines — will inevitably influence how we treat one another.
“I wanted to show a society that could go either way. As a society, we have to reorganize ourselves so we can benefit from these things, and not have these things destroy our civilization,” Ishiguro explains.
In a world of ever-growing innovation, from medicine to communication to space exploration, the benefits that technology brings into our lives could never be downplayed. Still, the issue that remains is how we use that technology, so that it can improve not only the lives of a few, but of everyone.
Buy Klara and the Sun at your favourite independent bookstore, or get it from your local library.