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