In his latest novel, Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan considers if robots are capable of emotion.
"I've had a life-long interest in science fiction," he said. "I'm interested in the science fiction that's here on earth. Put me down for earth-bound science fiction."
It's therefore unsurprising that the science depicted by McEwan is one of sensibility and feeling. His protagonist, Charlie, buys a robot named Adam who takes 16 hours to charge and costs £86,000 to buy. Adam takes on human qualities with "life-like skin" that is "warm to the touch" and a love of poetry. In brief, Adam becomes indistinguishable from a human.
The book explores the tension that would arise for a society in which humans co-exist with robots. It doesn't, however, occur in the future. Machines Like Me is a novel written in the past. McEwan edits known fact to present an alternative history in which Alan Turing doesn't die, Margaret Thatcher has a shorter tenure and the war in the Falklands doesn't happen. The author said he wanted to veer away from predicting the future. "By setting it in the past," he said, "I set myself free."
Despite placing his novel in the 20th century, McEwan was quizzed on the future. "How will humans live with robots?", he was asked. "I think we have to get beyond the idea of the perfect servants," he said. "I think they [robots] are going to be too smart to be servants, very, very quickly."
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Photograph by Sam Hardwick