Artificial Care in Klara and the Sun
Can a robot caretaker make us reconsider what it means to care?
I always joke with my mom and tell her as soon as she’s sixty, I’m sending her to an elderly home. We laugh about the prospect of growing old and pretend it is an unlikely possibility. I try to convince her it’s because they will be able to take better care of her, but of course she tells me there is no way she is leaving my side. Not when she is sixty. Not when she is seventy. Not if I don’t live in Egypt. Not if I’m married. She insists that in Egypt, a mother never leaves her daughter’s side – “it’s the way we’re built,” she says with a matter-of-fact gaze, “we’re built to care for one another.” She assures me that she will be an annoying mother-in-law: “It’s tradition ya Salma, hatala3 3eno.” There is no escape from our ‘essence’—in this case, our empathy.
Klara and the Sun gave me a new idea, though I’m not entirely sure my mother would be open to that option either. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun was published earlier this year by the Nobel-winning writer. The book is written from the perspective of Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF), created to befriend ‘lifted teenagers’. The book starts with Klara in the store with other AFs waiting to be chosen by a teenager to accompany throughout very turbulent (cringe-worthy) years.
Eventually, Josie, an adorable teen, chooses Klara and takes her to live with her, her mother, and her helper far from the city. Josie is an exceptional teen who warns Klara that although they will have a lot of fun together, she would sometimes get terribly sick. We only find out why later in the novel; Ishiguro writes in a way that keeps you guessing however, and her illness is an important piece of the puzzle. Throughout the story, we learn to see the world through Klara’s eyes, an exceptionally observant AF. Early on, we adjust to seeing the world in boxes and diagrams, an obvious trope, but a helpful one nonetheless, because otherwise, we can easily forget that Klara is actually a humanoid robot. We also learn to think in a very rational and logical manner, as though the facts of life can be ordered in logical propositions (See the ‘Ontological Assumption’ from Dreyfus, 1972). I found myself unlearning and relearning so much about emotions and feelings throughout the book, a testament to the brilliance of the author; because Klara is a machine, not everything comes to her naturally the same way they would to a person, forcing me to rethink the structures of our day-to-day life.
Ishiguro writes with so much passion, which is extremely unsettling given the fact that he is writing from the perspective of a robot. Throughout the entire novel, I find myself wondering how Klara could care so much for Josie, and how in turn, I could care so much for Klara. I think again of my mother and how she promises to never leave my side. Can Klara promise Josie the same? Would Josie exchange that promise with Klara? Although those humanly promises are usually flush of juvenile naïveté, Klara’s would be different: she is actually programmed to be Josie’s ‘best friend forever’, so to speak.
I couldn’t help but wonder, can this relationship actually be cultivated in our reality?
I can’t imagine my mother sitting next to a robot instead of me, binging on horrible rom-coms, drowning in popcorn, chocolate and leftovers and insisting that Richard Gere is in fact the most handsome man to ever exist. Ishiguro forces you to challenge your humanity, because as Josie’s father makes it clear, our humanity becomes such an attainable trait, one that Klara continues to move closer to mastering. Because Klara could dissect and deconstruct humanness and eventually even mimic it, I found myself, very much like the characters in the book, uncomfortable.
Major spoiler alert: Klara, this perfect, fictional model of machine learning that is continuously and automatically improving itself, eventually becomes so good at “being human” – so good that Josie’s mother is convinced Klara can “continue” Josie if anything is to happen to her.
If being human is so easily attainable, if being with feelings, emotions, and the capacity to care for one another a trait that can be transferred to machines, what is it that makes humans so special?
Traditionally, this is what I believed set us apart from machines. The story however prompts us to reconsider our empathy as a unique trait and so, I found myself questioning the value and the uniqueness of our humanity altogether. By the end of the novel, you find yourself almost disappointed that what makes us special as humans is teachable and transferable to a machine, one that you are surprisingly rooting for. Ishiguro eventually makes an attempt to salvage this seemingly gruesome reality, isolating what makes us special to artificial intelligence and I was desperate enough, and frankly, scared enough, to believe his arguments.
Klara and the Sun left me confused, perplexed and quite frankly scared. As an anthropologist, I had been taught to trust fiction-writers, especially those whose imagination is courageous and took them as far as Ishiguro’s. I remember one of my professors telling us that those who write science-fiction are those who dare think of a future where humans are not at its center and that is exactly why we should believe them. Ishiguro’s work especially directs us to think of care in the most unconventional ways, as he does not discuss traditional forms of care we think of when we think of technology—like medicine and care facilities—but rather the affective care we expect from other humans.
The faculty of care is shared and is a universal fabric that I believe ties us to one another. The prospect of sharing and even relying on AI for that was novel to me. AI is conventionally concerned with the quest for knowledge and the possibility of transferring that pursuit to machines. What I found to be exciting about Ishiguro’s work is how he instead concerned his AIs with the practice of care and explored the possibility of transferring that to machines. Care is a form of knowledge anchored in emotions and feelings rather than cognition and intelligence. Initially I thought these things to be mutually exclusive, in his writing however, Ishiguro refutes that claim and proves both to be part and parcel of another.
I know Ishiguro’s ideas are not exactly new and I know that the most mundane of conversations regarding AI eventually land on the same set of questions: what is it that makes us human? Is the human mind worth eternalizing through machine? What is it that makes up the human soul and mind? Will machines ever replace humans?
Klara and the Sun takes it a few steps further because it proposes a different and unique question: Can we learn to love robots the same way we love one another? The beauty of the book is that it’s not about whether or not we should, but rather what it would mean if we could.