This rambling conversation among friends was sparked by a reading of Klara and the Sun, the first book published by Kazuo Ishiguro since he received the 2017 Nobel Prize for novels about “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” There are a few spoilers here, so those who haven’t read the book may want to wait before continuing.
Gary Mawyer is a fiction writer and technical editor in Charlottesville, Virginia. Alex Mawyer, his son, is the director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Pat Matsueda is the founder of Vice-Versa.
To give the rambling a more aesthetic form, headings and brief extracts have been inserted. The conversation begins with Gary’s observations about the book while reading it.
GM Klara’s voice is professedly an A.I. program. Klara and the other Artificial Friends are programmed to observe people and surroundings in language, and translate some combinations of behavior/action into “emotions,” which Klara experiences as programming conflicts that cause her to stop drawing conclusions from that point and merely observe without analysis. I’d say this makes Klara a legitimately emotional being, since she is exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of others, as well as her own and the emotions of her fellow Artificial Friends, or A.F.s. Her emotional life seems amazingly wise, as if she had a thousand years of experience, but Klara’s state-of-knowledge is also mostly potential. There is not a lot that she specifically “knows” experientially. Her knowledge of the world started as a dictionary or encyclopedia, which she matches to experiences as they appear in life. Then she evolves feelings, opinions, and conclusions specific to the experience.
For A.I. enthusiasts, this (still theoretical) level of complexity ought to be pretty inspirational. Klara’s an inspired hint at the elusive more-intelligent A.I. For readers, a prominent question for the book is: what qualities of intelligence does Klara not have? That’s a question I think the book is exploring conscientiously. A secondary question could be: is “intelligence” as we experience it actually just a property of language? If so, how “artificial” are we?
Then [Mother] asked Manager: “Every Artificial Friend is unique, right?”
“That’s correct, ma’am. And particularly so at this level.”
“So what makes this one unique? This…Klara?”
“Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning.”
AM I’m not entirely convinced by the premise that AI consciousness would “read” or easily translate quite so analogous to human consciousness. Aren’t there numerous reasons to suppose that AI consciousness would or could only be alien to our kind of human consciousness? It seems to me that the voice Ishiguro develops for Klara is more of an attempt to puzzle out the old Joycean Joycean, to write about, after all, “our” kind of consciousness in contrast to a more direct exploration of the possibilities, probabilities, or likely futurities of any sort of artificial intelligence. Anyway, I suppose Ishiguro is entitled to ask us to suspend disbelief along the proposed lines, i.e., what if we were able to mechanically reproduce our own kind of consciousness in a fabricated being. P.K. Dick already thought us through that in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I think that’s the real analogue for the Klara setup.
That said, there were moments where the reader was offered an opening into some sense of what, after all, might be fundamentally more than and other than human in Klara’s cognition, consciousness, flow of the soul. Would be fascinated to know how much of this was prepared, ha! programed, etched into the paper-silicon artificial being of the text, by Ishiguro as opposed to being ready-to-interpretive-hand because of Dick and every other A.I. precursor text or representation… Looking at you HAL 9000: “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”
GM I agree.
Artificial Human Intelligence
PM Going back to your question, Gary, about how artificial we might be: I remember reading about a recent experiment in which researchers attached sensors to people’s heads in order to stimulate certain parts of their brains. The people thought they were making independent choices, but in fact they were responding to the stimulation they received. So perhaps from a certain, limited—i.e., biased—perspective, we are artificial. What we perceive as our individual lives—organic creations made up of innumerable choices specific to us—are perhaps predictable.
As for intelligence being a property of language, I am reminded of a sentence I read on LinkedIn: “For consistency, your read receipts and typing indicators setting now applies to all messages, including InMails and Message Requests.” I sent this to my friend Michael Lagory—whom I call The Grammar King due to his extraordinary facility—and said it was beyond my comprehension. I said it was language without meaning. Can we say that the person who wrote that sentence was without intelligence? It occurred to me that perhaps a person didn’t write it at all, but a bot.
AM Pat, your point really resonates. I think you raise a flow of intriguing possibility about how we make sense of signals, maybe textual and otherwise, which pass through our sensoria.
Blind Spots and Limited Perspectives
GM I love the LinkedIn sentence—it’s two mysterious compound nouns that become unintelligible when read as individual words. Klara’s AF voice and her quotations are all we are presented with, but it is increasingly clear that Klara has particular blind spots and limitations to go with her peculiar insights—which are initially pure observation but increasingly involve interpretations that we as readers can either accept or question.
Klara is a rich book, subtly raising a host of great questions without necessarily forcing answers on the reader. I forget who it was that said philosophy was about the questions and not the answers. Maybe proper fiction needs to be philosophical in this sense to be really satisfying.
AM Yes! I was struck by the possibility that the novel’s novelty might be imagining a sufficiently distanced future being revealed, slowly, as a possibly not-so-distant near-now whose strangeness and insights are the result of their filtering through the uncanny perception of an AI like Klara. For instance, an early scene in the AF shop, where Klara finds herself pondering the nature of perspective, blockages, limits on the mind’s capacity to envision and world-make/world-know produced by the surrounding landscape and its built and natural environments, topography to say nothing of the actual horizon, even in the absence of some tower across the street… All of this true not just for our AF friends but for all of us, always.
I took three small steps forward till I could see…the Mother staring at something out of my vision. I could see her face only from one side, but I thought she appeared even more tired than that time I’d seen her on the sidewalk, looking like one of the high-perched birds in the wind.
The character of the society the novel hints at fascinates, even though only developed in chiarascuro, including its AF technologies, as the dark which allows Klara’s dimensionality to come, somewhat, into view. Where has this society come from and where is it heading? Really we have no idea how functional or dysfunctional, how utopian or dystopian this world is. My feeling around Klara’s friend’s drone tech, the father’s sovereign un-citizen commune, and such like, is that we were strongly being urged to guess “dystopia.” If Ishiguro’s world is as cracked in its foundations as it seemed in my read, there might be bigger things afoot—for the total society—than the future of the AF technology.
“What I was saying earlier has nothing to do with fascism. We have no aggressive agenda beyond defending ourselves should the need arise. Where you live, Helen, maybe you don’t have to worry yet, and I sincerely hope it’ll be that way for a long time. Where I am, it’s different.”
PM What did you think of the climactic scene—where the sun enters Josie’s bedroom?
GM I take it that Klara’s “superstition” is actually her way of connecting with the Divine as a creature of God. Despite her A.I. existence as an artifact, Klara prays, and her prayers ultimately work, suggesting that God exists, and in some way cares; and in this vein, miracles happen.
PM I think of her at the beginning as a creature of empirical science. She reasons, observes, synthesizes. She knows the sun powers her, so she assumes it powers humans also.
She has archetypes: Beggar Man and his Dog; and Raincoat Man and Coffee Lady. The first pair is invoked when she bargains with the sun and disables the Cootings Machine; the second when she entreats the sun to save Rick and Josie because they are lovers.
All of her reasoning, observing, and synthesizing creates a complex intelligence, one that is magnitudes greater than that of the other AFs. This comes to resemble ours, and when she is cast out—first into the utility room and later into the junkyard—it is like an exile from Eden. But she has memories, and it is this world of memories that sustains her spirit. Maybe memory equals spirit in this imagining.
I can always distinguish one memory from another, and place each one back in its true context…I remain conscious of their rough borders—such as might have been created by an impatient child tearing with her fingers instead of cutting with scissors…[S]uch composite memories have sometimes filled my mind so vividly, I’ve forgotten for long moments that I am, in reality, sitting here in the Yard, on this hard ground.
GM That reading of Klara is also solid, and unlike mine it doesn’t require any transcendental assumptions. It’s also possible the author intended a light-and-shadow effect for the meaning of the story.
PM Klara believes she influenced the sun to heal Josie. Ishiguro leaves it up to us to believe likewise. If she is not responsible, the sun’s entering J’s room is a coincidence, a miracle, or a superfluous event, i.e., unrelated to J’s recovery. How do we, as readers, answer this question?
AM Certainly the event was not superfluous to Klara. For Klara it was real, material, concrete, a luminous moment of the numinous! That’s how I experienced it. I felt equally certain that the sun’s entry had nothing to do with the MNRA resequencing disorder that Josie’s genetic upgrade resulted in or the resolution of its crisis and resolution from whose froth emerged Josie 2.0! In that sense, I was bemused by Ishiguro’s rather sneaky authorial magic of seducing the reader into Klara’s superstition. If I’m being honest, I was also a little disappointed. The bicameral mind argument among strong AI proponents—that an artificial consciousness might need to be bootstrapped by hardwiring a god-like super-ego with whom the proto-ego of the AI of the artificial being could establish falling cascades of intellecting recursion, Hofstadter’s “strange loops” from which a conscious self could emerge—was the plot line of popular, and popularly disappointing series Westworld in recent years. That said, I did love the implied undercurrent that the hyper-informed, hyper-educated Klara profoundly understood the deep science of the virally transmitted genetic upgrades remaking Josie and profoundly felt that it was all about the sun.
GM Elements of Klara’s biomechanical organism may be solar-powered. As an electrical being, she experiences sunlight as her life-force. As the more fully biological people say, the AFs have superstitions about the sun and sunlight. Perhaps not unlike the Inca. Regardless, the scene in Josie’s room could be either coincidence or another example that God is what he is and does what he pleases.
PM Notice that Manager at the end tells Klara the B3 generation did not do well. The suggestion is that the AF project ended there—or was put on hold.
GM The last scene with Manager is the happy ending. Klara doesn’t fear death. Her cognition could run on for years under the right conditions. Manager might be asking whether she envies that particular ability of Klara’s. It’s the staring-away of an unstated “I don’t know.”
You know, Klara. Of all the AFs I looked after, you were certainly one of the most remarkable. You had such unusual insight. And observational abilities. I noticed it right away.
PM Why does Klara not seek out the company of other AFs?
AM Why should she? I donʻt seek out the company of many other people. All of the people in my life are already infinities. It seems to me Klara similarly experiences her people as infinities as well. Why should she seek others? What would they be to her that Josie is not? She has her people! Her people are her story. Or, to turn this around, perhaps one might say that Klara is infinite enough, or psychologically whole enough, not to feel the compulsion of an inauthentic audience to her story. Bonus! She had an authentic audience to her story—us! Perhaps we should hope that some demiurge is reading our lives right now!
But, I see that I’ve dodged one part of your question! I suppose Ishiguro/Klara had me from the outset. Klara feels. Or, narrates feeling. She aches with the absence of those she cares about, or reports as much. She perceives and makes sensible things beyond her immediate senses. She philosophizes and, πάθει μάθος (pathei-mathos), appears to mature in proportion to the pain of experience. What’s artificial about her? Or her friends?
GM It’s a good question. The narrative offers some scant clues. Klara’s fond of Rosa, her first A.I. mate, in important lifelong ways. Interactions in the store suggest that A.F.s are cliquish and capable of snobbery, possibly side effects of their humanocentric programming, and this wouldn’t lead to AF socialization. Particularly long-running A.F.s might be scarce. I’m sure there are other clues.
PM Remember that Klara has intimations that Rosa has run into trouble. These are confirmed when Manager tells her what happened to the AF.
I don’t know if this is something female or simply human. Most of us exist in a fog, not susceptible to the calls for help of our friends. My sister had the ability to tune in to my feelings and thoughts, but she was psychotic. Perhaps there is a wavelength that only psychotics and people like them…?
GM I read psychic for psychotic at first. I know your sis was psychotic, sadly, but probably also somewhat psychic. The two things are somehow related in certain individuals, though the definitions of the two things are very wobbly. But I feel safe to say some of us who qualify as disordered are also tuned in to bandwidths and frequencies that aren’t on the usual dial. The more “sane” psychic individuals might be practicing a general talent that most neglect but could develop; or it may be limited to some and not others; it could amount to one of Charles Fort’s “wild talents” that cannot be controlled; or it could be a defect, a fractured sense of time/space integration; also there’s a credible idea that psychic occurrences among the so-called sane are subliminal achievements—a capacity to synthesize small inklings and inputs (below the level of conscious reckoning) into a precognitive or clairvoyant episode. Likely all these bits of explanation have some validity.
The seriously disordered may be sometimes suffering from an intolerable level of broken bandwidth and static, to revert to the metaphor above. It’s all very well to have occasional psi episodes and another kettle of fish to have them frequently or regularly. I’ve long thought that some can sometimes project their distortion—the worst affected being somewhat like beacons of distortion. Someone in this fix is never going to adapt socially or enjoy normalcy. Maybe sometimes a psychotic is a person actually living in another reality. I’ve always wondered about the edges of our reality…a big fan of Borges, obviously.
AM I wonder if we could stick with the question of the nature of artificial intelligence in a storied world not, yet, entirely post-human.
GM Maybe we should we consider the possibility that Klara’s ground state in the store is actually very high-end intellection, despite the company’s premise that she is a service robot. Does her increasingly messy involvement with people require her to compromise her higher capabilities to adapt to the (generally selfish and capricious) emotional needs of what are basically monkeys? And to do so mainly by employing the language of the monkeys, apart from her innate electrical field, which might not require verbalization? If so, she is generous to a fault. But we don’t really know how independent she can be; though we know she walks on legs and can imitate or adopt walking styles, for some reason she can’t get through high grass and has to be carried. What do we make of that, maybe?
PM Yes, Klara possesses “high-end intellection” and is creative in her thinking and feeling. As my friend Phyllis said—she read the book before I did—intelligence evolves over time. When K becomes “employed,” she subordinates all that to helping Josie. You can see her struggle to fit into the Arthur household by her interactions with Melania Housekeeper.
Re being carried: K needs to be carried when she loses her sense of direction. Rick rescues her in a world she does not know: she does not know the biological landscape, only a human-made one. And no doubt she is shorter than Rick and can’t see the horizon line—can’t read vast spaces and topographical features—like he can. Also, she is walking in the field not only for the first time but also in that twilight period between afternoon and evening.
PM The field next to Josie’s home is a wild, mysterious place. Its potential to change lives lies fallow until Klara enters it. Of course, she may have special powers—or perhaps just a stronger faith—to activate that potential. Two details enhance the idea that the field is a powerful place: Rick’s waiting for Klara—believing she won’t be able to find her way out—after she ventures into it; and Helen’s remarking in wonder that she saw J’s mother chasing after Sal two years after the girl died. As civilization domesticates the wild, such places dwindle, along with—I sense—our potential to perform the life-changing acts we need to save ourselves. Your thoughts about this?
GM I think all your comments on the field and on wild places are good explanations of the way this is treated in the book.
It seem to me that this aspect of the narrative could be singled out as a classic general problem in narrative, “world completeness.” We want the fictional world of a story to be as complete as it needs to be, aspect by aspect, realizing that it can’t be absolutely complete (viz. Borges’s “Book of Sand”… a complete description would be infinite).
As the seasons—and the years—went by, Mr McBain’s vehicles cut down the tall grass in all three fields…The barn now looked taller and more sharply outlined, but Mr McBain still didn’t build additional walls for it, and on cloudless evenings, as the Sun went towards his resting place, I was still able to see him sinking to the far side of the barn before fading into the ground.
PM Klara never uses the word love to describe what she feels about Josie, though she does invoke love when she pleads with the sun the second time. She seems to understand it even though she apparently doesn’t feel it. She does see it demonstrated by Josie and Rick—and by Raincoat Man and Coffee Lady—so perhaps we are to believe love can be understood when it is enacted. What are your thoughts about this?
AM Across all of the Klara moments, Klara reminds us how little we flesh-humans know about such seemingly semantic primes or semantic simples. The history of popular music, poetry, novelistic fiction broadly, and entire academic literatures in psychology and sociology…all support the proposition that none of us really understand love or could definitively define the action, feeling, experience, trajectory, endpoint or any of a dozen of other prismatically revealed facets of the thing itself. Klara’s non-use of the term is not evidence of the absence of the thing (love) in her thoughts or experience. Perhaps not using the term reveals Klaraʻs immense sensitivity and sophistication?
For a moment we looked at each other with gentle smiles.
GM I’m not certain there’s a distinction in Klara between ostensible human feelings and supposed lack of feelings in an A.I. being. Klara is animate, not inanimate, and her expressions of love or about love are not dissimilar to characters in, say, Jane Austen. To some extent love is a behavior. Its mysterious emotional underpinnings are not explained. We say “for he so loved the world” in the BCP and also apply Christ-like love-notions to the doughboy who saves his buddies by falling on the live grenade, a famous archetypal scene with realities behind it. In Wuthering Heights we take Heathcliff’s love not only for granted, but as peculiarly realistic, even though Heathcliff barely speaks a couple of hundred words, and it’s Cathy who says “I am Heathcliff,” not the sort of thing Heathcliff himself would say.
In short, I read Klara as a loving being with no real need for a theory of love, in some senses angelic, in other senses we think below the human level, though in Klara the whole question of who is below whom on the human level is tied in knots—some humans are below other humans, for instance, and parents risk their children’s lives in gene-amplification procedures that routinely fail. Klara, in my view, lives out a particularly noble expression of love and consciously expresses the motives she has for it, even recognizing her own motives as ambiguous ones.
Rick was concentrating again on his remote, and the birds rose together into the air. Josie watched them, both her hands still on his shoulder, so that the two of them formed a single shape against the sky.
PM Yes, at the end Klara is sustained by her memories. Having told us Klara’s life, Ishiguro doesn’t need to delve into these. And yet they are a mystery—one that belongs uniquely to her, and we are content that she alone possesses it.