The Radiant Inner Life of a Robot

illustration of a hand and shadow or a hand
Na Kim

This article was published online on March 2, 2021.

Girl AF Klara, an Artificial Friend sold as a children’s companion, lives in a store. On lucky days, Klara gets to spend time in the store window, where she can see and be seen and soak up the solar energy on which she runs. Not needing human food, Klara hungers and thirsts for the Sun (she capitalizes it) and what he (she also personifies it) allows her to see. She tracks his passage along the floorboards and the buildings across the street and drinks in the scenes he illuminates. Klara registers details that most people miss and interprets them with an accuracy astonishing for an android out of the box. A passing Boy AF lags a few steps behind his child, and his weary gait makes her wonder what it would be like “to know that your child didn’t want you.” She keeps watch over a beggar and his dog, who lie so still in a doorway that they look like garbage bags. They must have died, she thinks. “I felt sadness then,” she says, “despite it being a good thing that they’d died together, holding each other and trying to help one another.”

Klara is the narrator and hero of Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel. Ishiguro is known for skipping from one genre to the next, although he subordinates whatever genre he chooses to his own concerns and gives his narrators character-appropriate versions of his singular, lightly formal diction. I guess you could call this novel science fiction. It certainly makes a contribution to the centuries-old disputation over whether machines have the potential to feel. This debate has picked up speed as the artificially intelligent agents built by actual engineers close in on the ones made up by writers and TV, film, and theater directors, the latest round in the game of tag between science and science fiction that has been going on at least since Frankenstein. Klara is Alexa, super-enhanced. She’s the product that roboticists in a field called affective computing (also known as artificial emotional intelligence) have spent the past two decades trying to invent. Engineers have written software that can detect fine shades of feeling in human voices and faces, but so far they have failed to contrive machines that can simulate emotions convincingly.

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What makes Klara an imaginary entity, at least until reality catches up with her, is that her feelings are not simulated. They’re real. We know this because she experiences pathos, a quality still seemingly impervious to computational analysis—although as a naive young robot, she does have to break it down before she can understand it. A disheveled old man stands on the far side of the street, waving and calling to an old woman on the near side. The woman goes stock-still, then crosses tentatively to him, and they cling to each other. Klara can tell that the man’s tightly shut eyes convey contradictory emotions. “They seem so happy,” she says to the store manager, or as Klara fondly calls this kindly woman, Manager. “But it’s strange because they also seem upset.”

“Oh, Klara,” Manager says. “You never miss a thing, do you?” Perhaps the man and woman hadn’t seen each other in a long time, she says. “Do you mean, Manager, that they lost each other?” Klara asks. Girl AF Rosa, Klara’s best friend, is bewildered. What are they talking about? But Klara considers it her duty to empathize. If she doesn’t, she thinks, “I’d never be able to help my child as well as I should.” And so she gives herself the task of imagining loss. If she lost and then found Rosa, would she feel the same joy mixed with pain?

She would and she will, and not just with respect to Rosa. The nonhuman Klara is more human than most humans. She has, you might say, a superhuman humanity. She’s also Ishiguro’s most luminous character, literally a creature of light, dependent on the Sun. Her very name means “brightness.” But mainly, Klara is incandescently good. She’s like the kind, wise beasts endowed with speech at the dawn of creation in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. Or, with her capacity for selfless love, like a character in a Hans Christian Andersen story.

To be clear, Klara is no shrinking mermaid. Her voice is very much her own. It may strike the ear as childlike, but she speaks in prose poetry. As the Sun goes on his “journey,” the sky assumes the hues of the mood in the house that Klara winds up in. It’s “the color of the lemons in the fruit bowl,” or “the gray of the slate chopping boards,” or the mottled shades of vomit or diarrhea or streaks of blood. The Sun peers through the floor-to-ceiling windows in a living room and pours his nourishment on the children sprawled there. When he sinks behind a barn, Klara asks if that’s where the stairs to the underworld are. Klara has gaps in her vocabulary, so she invents names and adjectives that speak unwitting truths. Outfits aren’t stylish; they’re “high-ranking.” Humans stare into “oblongs,” an aptly leaden term for our stupefying devices. Klara’s descriptive passages have a strange and lovely geometry. Her visual system processes stimuli by “partitioning” them, that is, mapping them onto a two-dimensional grid before resolving them into objects in three-dimensional space. At moments of high emotion, her partitioning becomes disjointed and expressive, a robot cubism.

In keeping with the novel’s fairy-tale logic, a girl named Josie stops in front of the window, and where other children see a fancy toy, she recognizes a kindred spirit. She begs her mother to buy Klara, but her mother resists. Klara is a B2 model, fast growing obsolete. A shipment of B3s has already arrived at the store. B2s are known for empathy, Manager says. Still, wouldn’t Josie prefer the latest model? the mother asks. The answer is no, and Klara happily joins the family.

Klara’s sojourn in Josie’s home gives the novel room to explore Ishiguro’s abiding preoccupations. One of these is service—what it does to the souls of those who give it and those who receive it, how power deforms and powerlessness cripples. In The Remains of the Day, for instance, Stevens, a butler in one of England’s great houses, worships his former master in the face of damning truths about the man’s character. Stevens grows so adept at quashing doubts about the value of a life spent in his master’s employ that he seems too numb to recognize love when it is offered to him, or to realize that he loves in return.

An adjacent leitmotif in Ishiguro’s fiction subjects the parent-child relationship to scrutiny. What are children for? Do their begetters care for them, or expect to be cared for by them, or both at once? The answers are clear in Never Let Me Go, a novel about clones given a quasi-normal childhood in a shabby-genteel boarding school cum gulag, then killed for their organs. Klara and the Sun resists conclusions. Parents are at once domineering and dependent. They want to believe they are devoted, but wind up monstrous instead. Children are grateful and forgiving, even though they know, perhaps without knowing that they know, that they’re on their own. Josie is lucky to have Klara, who acts like a parent as well as a beloved friend. But who will take care of Klara when and if she’s no longer needed?

Ishiguro’s theme of themes, however, is love. The redemptive power of true love comes under direct discussion here and in Never Let Me Go, but crops up in his other novels too. Does such love exist? Can it really save us?

Critics often note Ishiguro’s use of dramatic irony, which allows readers to know more than his characters do. And it can seem as if his narrators fail to grasp the enormity of the injustices whose details they so meticulously describe. But I don’t believe that his characters suffer from limited consciousness. I think they have dignity. Confronted by a complete indifference to their humanity, they choose stoicism over complaint. We think we grieve for them more than they grieve for themselves, but more heartbreaking is the possibility that they’re not sure we differ enough from their overlords to understand their true sorrow. And maybe we don’t, and maybe we can’t. Maybe that’s the real irony, the way Ishiguro sticks in the shiv.

Girl AF Klara is both the embodiment of the dehumanized server and its refutation. On the one hand, she’s a thing, an appliance. “Are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” asks a woman whose home she enters. On the other hand, Klara overlooks nothing, feels everything, and, like her predecessors among Ishiguro’s protagonists, leaves us to guess at the breadth of her understanding. Her thoughts are both transparent and opaque. She either withholds or is simply not engineered to pass judgment on humans. After all, she is categorically other. Her personality is algorithmic, not neurological.

She does perceive that something bad is happening to Josie. The girl is wasting away. It turns out that she is suffering from the side effects of being “lifted,” a Panglossian term for genetic editing, done to boost intelligence, or at least academic performance. Among the many pleasures of Klara and the Sun is the savagery of its satire of the modern meritocracy. Inside Josie’s bubble of privilege, being lifted is the norm. Parents who can afford to do it do, because unlifted children have a less than 2 percent chance of getting into a decent university. The lifted study at home. Old-fashioned schools aren’t advanced enough; at 13, Josie does mathematical physics and other college-level subjects with a rotating cast of “oblong tutors.” Josie’s neighbor and best friend, Rick, who has shown signs of genius in his home engineering experiments, has not been lifted, which means he will not be encouraged to cultivate his talent and is already a pariah. At one point, Josie persuades Rick to accompany her to the “interaction meeting” that homeschooled children are required to attend to develop their social skills, of which they have few. Unsurprisingly, the augmented children bully the non-augmented one. Meanwhile, out in the hall, their mothers discuss the servant problem (“The best housekeepers still come from Europe”) and cluck about Rick’s parents. Why didn’t they do it? Did they lose their nerve?

Josie’s and Rick’s parents leave Klara to perform the emotional labor they aren’t up to. Rick’s mother suffers from a mysterious condition, possibly alcoholism, that requires him to take care of her. Josie’s father is not around. He and her mother have divorced; he has been “substituted”—another euphemism, meaning “lost his job”—and has abandoned the upper-middle class to join what sounds like an anarchist community. Josie’s mother pursues her career and devotes her remaining energy to a blinding self-pity. She feels guilt about what she’s done to Josie and resents having to feel it; she’s already working on a scheme that will lessen her grief should Josie die. (This involves a more malign form of robotics.)

We can tell that she makes Klara uncomfortable, because every time Klara senses that things are not as they should be, she starts partitioning like mad. At one point, Klara and “the Mother,” as Klara calls her—the definite article keeps the woman at arm’s length—undertake an expedition to a waterfall, leaving Josie behind because she’s too weak to go. Being alone with the Mother is disconcerting enough, but when they arrive at their destination, the Mother leans in close to make a disturbing request. Suddenly her face breaks into eight large boxes, while the waterfall recedes into a grid at the edge of Klara’s vision. Each box of eyes expresses a different emotion. “In one, for instance, her eyes were laughing cruelly, but in the next they were filled with sadness,” Klara reports.

Klara’s optical responses to right and wrong are the affective computer’s version of an innate morality—her unnatural natural law. They’re also another way that Ishiguro turns robot stereotypes on their head. Many hands have been wrung (including mine) about nanny bots and animatronic pets or pals, which will be, or so we prognosticators have fretted, soulless and servile. They’ll spoil the children. But Klara does nothing of the sort. She’ll carry out orders if they’re reasonable and issued politely, but she does not respond to rude commands, and she is anything but spineless. No one instructs her to try to find a cure for Josie; she does that on her own. Everyone except Klara and Rick seems resigned to the girl’s decline. The problem is that the plan of action Klara comes up with is so bizarre that the reader may suspect her software is glitching.

Oddly enough, given its subject matter, Klara and the Sun doesn’t induce the shuddery, uncanny-valley sensation that makes Never Let Me Go such a satisfying horror story. For one thing, although Klara never describes her own appearance, we deduce from the fact that humans immediately know she’s an AF that she isn’t humanoid enough to be creepy. (Clones, by contrast, pass for human, because they are human.) Moreover, this novel’s alternate universe isn’t all that alternate. Yes, lifting has made the body more cyborgian while androids have become more anthropoid, but we’ve been experiencing that role reversal for some time now. Otherwise, the setting parallels our own: It has the same extreme inequalities of wealth and opportunity, the same despoiled environment, the same deteriorating urban space. Even the sacrifice of children to parental fears about loss of status seems sadly familiar.

And Klara and the Sun doesn’t strive for uncanniness. It aspires to enchantment, or to put it another way, reenchantment, the restoration of magic to a disenchanted world. Ishiguro drapes realism like a thin cloth over a primordial cosmos. Every so often, the cloth slips, revealing the old gods, the terrible beasts, the warring forces of light and darkness. The custom of performing possibly lethal prosthetic procedures on one’s own offspring bears a family resemblance to immolating them on behalf of the god Moloch.

We can perceive monstrosity (or fail to perceive it), but Klara can see monsters. Crossing a field on the way to the waterfall with the Mother, Klara spots a bull, and grows so alarmed that she cries out. Not that she hadn’t seen photos of bulls before, but this creature

gave, all at once, so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.

Klara is allowed to stand in the pattern of the Sun. Ishiguro has anointed her, a high-tech consumer product, the improbable priestess of something very like an ancient nature cult. Gifted with a rare capacity for reverence, she tries always to remember to thank the Sun for sustaining her. Her faith in him is total. When Klara needs help, she goes to the barn where she believes he sets, and there she has the AI equivalent of visions. Old images of the store jostle against the barn’s interior walls. So do new ones: Rosa lies on the ground in distress. Klara fears that her petition may have angered the Sun, but then the glow of the sunset takes on “an almost gentle aspect.” A piece of furniture from the store, the Glass Display Trolley, rises before her, as if assumed into the sky. The robot has spoken with her god, and he has answered: “I could tell that the Sun was smiling towards me kindly as he went down for his rest.”

All fiction is an exercise in world-building, but science fiction lays new foundations, and that means shattering the old ones. It partakes of creation, but also of destruction. Klara trails a radiance that calls to mind the radiance also shed by Victor Frankenstein’s creature. He is another intelligent newborn in awe of God’s resplendence, until a vengeful rage at his abusive creator overcomes him. In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro leaves us suspended over a rift in the presumptive order of things. Whose consciousness is limited, ours or a machine’s? Whose love is more true? If we ever do give robots the power to feel the beauty and anguish of the world we bring them into, will they murder us for it or lead us toward the light?