Machines Like Me - by Ian McEwan

Apart from my moments of crazed decisions, I passed most of my life, especially when alone, in a state of mood-neutrality, with my personality, whatever that was, in suspension. Not bold, not withdrawn. Simply here, neither content nor morose, but carrying out tasks, thinking about dinner, or sex, staring at the screen, taking a shower. Intermittent regrets about the past, occasional forebodings about the future, barely aware of the present, except in the obvious sensory realm. Psychology, once so interested in the trillion ways the mind goes awry, was now drawn to what it considered the common emotions, from grief to joy. But it had overlooked a vast domain of everyday existence: absent illness, famine, war or other stresses, a lot of life is lived in the neutral zone, a familiar garden, but a grey one, unremarkable, immediately forgotten, hard to describe.

An old friend of mine, a journalist, once said that paradise on earth was to work all day alone in anticipation of an evening in interesting company.

It was no longer proper to assume that anything at all had ever happened in the past. There were only historical documents to consider, and changing scholarly approaches to them, and our own shifting relationship to those approaches, all of which were determined by ideological context, by relations to power and wealth, to race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

There’s a special dispensation in the sensuousness of an unshared bed, at least for a while, until sleeping alone begins to assume its own quiet sadness.

The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise. True of the smallest and largest concerns.

In humans, recombination is infinitely subtle and then, crudely but disarmingly lopsided. The parents merge, like fluids stirred together, but the mother’s face might be faithfully replicated in her child just as the father fails to pass on his gift for comedy.

Arguing with the person you love is its own peculiar torment. The self divides against itself. Love slugs it out with its Freudian opposite. And if death wins and love dies, who gives a damn? You do, which enrages you and makes you more reckless yet. There’s intrinsic exhaustion too. Both know, or think they know, that a reconciliation must happen, though it could take days, even weeks. The moment, when it comes, will be sweet and promises great tenderness and ecstasy. So why not make up now, take the shortcut, spare yourselves the effortful rage? Neither of you can. You’re on a slide, you’ve lost control of your feelings, and of your future too. The effort will be compounded so that eventually, every unkind word must be unsaid at five times cost. Reciprocally, extending forgiveness will require a feat of selfless concentration.

In my twenties, some of my most cheerful times were spent getting ready to go out. It was the anticipation rather than the thing itself. The release from work, the bath, music, clean clothes, white wine, perhaps a pull on a joint. Then stepping out into the evening, free and hungry.

The pads of my fingers were well wrinkled by the time I got out. An adaptation, I’d read, of our sea- and river-loving ancestors to enable them to catch fish. I didn’t believe it, but I liked the story, the way it lay beyond disproof. We didn’t catch fish with our feet, so toes didn’t need to wrinkle like that.

‘The world is so connected now, however crudely, and change is so widely distributed that progress is hard to perceive. I don’t like to boast, but one of those changes is right in front of you. The implications of intelligent machines are so immense that we’ve no idea what you – civilisation, that is – have set in motion. One anxiety is that it will be a shock and an insult to live with entities that are cleverer than you are. But already, almost everyone knows someone cleverer than themselves. On top of which, you underestimate yourselves.’

‘You won’t allow yourselves to be left behind. As a species, you’re far too competitive. Even now, there are paralysed patients with electrodes implanted in the motor strip of their brains who merely think of the action and can raise an arm or bend a finger. This is a humble beginning and there are many problems to solve. They’ll certainly be solved, and when they are, and a brain–machine interface is efficient and cheap, you’ll become a partner with your machines in the open-ended expansion of intelligence, and of consciousness generally. Colossal intelligence, instant access to deep moral acumen and to everything known, but more importantly, access to each other.’

‘It could be the end of mental privacy. You’ll probably come to value it less in the face of the enormous gains. You might be wondering what relevance any of this has to the haiku. It’s this. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been surveying the literature of scores of countries.’

‘Nearly everything I’ve read in the world’s literature describes varieties of human failure – of understanding, of reason, of wisdom, of proper sympathies. Failures of cognition, honesty, kindness, self-awareness; superb depictions of murder, cruelty, greed, stupidity, self-delusion, above all, profound misunderstanding of others. Of course, goodness is on show too, and heroism, grace, wisdom, truth. Out of this rich tangle have come literary traditions, flourishing, like the wild flowers in Darwin’s famous hedgerow. Novels ripe with tension, concealment and violence as well as moments of love and perfect formal resolution. But when the marriage of men and women to machines is complete, this literature will be redundant because we’ll understand each other too well. We’ll inhabit a community of minds to which we have immediate access. Connectivity will be such that individual nodes of the subjective will merge into an ocean of thought, of which our Internet is the crude precursor. As we come to inhabit each other’s minds, we’ll be incapable of deceit. Our narratives will no longer record endless misunderstanding. Our literatures will lose their unwholesome nourishment. The lapidary haiku, the still, clear perception and celebration of things as they are, will be the only necessary form. I’m sure we’ll treasure the literature of the past, even as it horrifies us. We’ll look back and marvel at how well the people of long ago depicted their own shortcomings, how they wove brilliant, even optimistic fables out of their conflicts and monstrous inadequacies and mutual incomprehension.’

‘Shakespeare, Charlie. Your patrimony. How can you bear to walk around without some of it in your head?’