The Books Briefing: Boundaries Between Humans and Machines Are Vanishing

Works that consider the implications of a life so intimately tied with technology: Your weekly guide to the best in books

a robot
TOMASZ WIECH / AFP / Getty

Klara and the Sun, a recent novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, follows a humanoid robot named Klara who is tasked with providing companionship to a sickly child. In simple language that is almost poetic, the deeply observant Klara breaks emotion down into its constituent parts to understand others’ feelings—and, ultimately, her own.

Ishiguro’s work joins a number of others considering the implications of a life so intimately tied with technology. As artificial intelligence grows more prevalent, countless questions emerge. Some are ethical. For example, in the book Atlas of AI, the researcher Kate Crawford considers the dubious practice of using AI to distill emotion from human facial expressions, which often reinforces preexisting biases. Writing about at-home smart devices like Amazon’s Alexa in Radical Technologies, the urbanist Adam Greenfield warned that such technology might fundamentally change our consumption patterns—for the worse.

Other concerns, however, are almost existential, exploring what once seemed to be an impermeable boundary between humans and machines: the ability to experience emotion. The 2013 film Her, which tells the story of a man who falls in love with a Siri-like disembodied voice, though fictional, is clearly grappling with real-world questions—and comes to a decisive conclusion: Not only is it possible that machines might be able to feel, but they might be capable of greater emotion than even we are. In contrast, the work Pharmako-AI, which was co-written by a human (K Allado-McDowell) and a language-processing software, avoids any comparison, instead revealing the collaborative possibilities of working with an intelligence that is so unlike our own.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of a hand grasping its own shadow

Na Kim

The radiant inner life of a robot

“The nonhuman Klara is more human than most humans. She has, you might say, a superhuman humanity.”

📚 Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro


illustration of two faces

Irene Suosalo

Artificial intelligence is misreading human emotion

“There is no good evidence that facial expressions reveal a person’s feelings. But big tech companies want you to believe otherwise.”

📚 Atlas of AI, by Kate Crawford


painting of a family playing a board game with a smart device in the background

Roberto Parada

Alexa, should we trust you?

“As smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives.”

📚 Radical Technologies, by Adam Greenfield


Joaquin Phoenix in the film "Her"

Warner Bros.

Why Her is the best film of the year

“By the end of the film, the central question [the director Spike] Jonze is asking seems no longer even to be whether machines might one day be capable of love. Rather, his film has moved beyond that question to ask one larger still: whether machines might one day be more capable of love … than the human beings who created them.”

🎥 Her, directed by Spike Jonze


illustration of a typewriter with a paper sticking out of it containing a smiley face made out of numbers

Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

What AI can teach us about the myth of human genius

“Why do we obsessively measure AI’s ability to write like a person? Might it be nonhuman and creative? Might its profound difference constitute a form of creativity we could collaborate with and learn from?”

📚 Pharmako-AI, by K Allado-McDowell


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she just finished is Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney.

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