Like many in our generation (the over-the-hill crowd) we grew up with The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001 Space Odyssey and The X-Files. So it’s not completely out of character for us to comment on a science fiction novel. Never the less, we are a bit out of our natural element thus we humbly ask for your forbearance.
Given our many years in finance it should be no surprise that we have an interest in the economy of the future and in this particular case Artificial Intelligence. Finding the “Next-Big-Thing” is what every investor dreams of and we are no exception.
Martin Rees, British cosmologist, astrophysicist, past President of the Royal Society and member of the House of Lords recently “claimed that aliens are set to be replaced by robots and humans are next.”
Speaking about future society, he explained: “What will we expect this life to be like? I think if we were to detect anything … it would not be a flesh and blood civilization like ours. It will be something robotic and electronic.”
“Given that they would be more likely to be machines than living beings anyway, it’d be hard to gauge what they’d be interested in,” he said about their motive.
Klara and the Sun is a novel that explores what those motives might be and a host of other questions that arise when we think about what a world populated by robots might be like. We remember years ago reading Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut by J.D. Salinger (not J.D. Vance thank Zeus) where the daughter (Ramona) of an unhappy neurotic woman (Eliose) entertains herself with her “imaginary friends.” Klara, an AF (Artificial Friend), is the latest edition of Ramona’s Jimmy Jimmereeno and what an advanced edition Klara is.
Klara becomes the AF for Josie, a young girl who has been “lifted” (genetically altered for greater success) but who has become ill as a result.
Reading Kazuo’s story teaches us how a robot might learn, think, reason, feel and behave. We also inevitably begin to think about questions of human/robot interaction such as can we have emotional connections to a machine, can a machine have them for us, what is the nature of humanity and how human can a machine ultimately be?
The title is an expression of Klara’s special relationship to the sun. Klara prays to the sun like the Greeks prayed to Zeus because she sees it like the Greeks saw Zeus as a life-providing source.
While Klara has been cleverly programmed, she also learns by observation. At one point Josie’s mother says to Klara: ‘It must be nice sometimes to have no feelings. I envy you’ to which Klara responds: ‘I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.’
Learning by observation can be seriously flawed if not carefully carried out. For example the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (before that therefore because of that), the fallacy of composition (what is true for one is true for all), and the failure of the ceteris paribus assumption (other things equal). Klara makes all of these errors just as we humans do.
There is humor in Kazuo’s novel. We can’t help but wonder, for example, if the “Melania Housekeeper” character is meant to be a play on Melania Trump. Kazuo gives no direct reason for us to believe that but there are obvious connections.
While learning about the inner world of robots, we learn a lot about human nature as well, for example, how people change in social situations. At a party where the lifted kids are meant to learn how to socialize [since they are home schooled they need socialization training] Klara observes:
And it was very interesting, for instance, to observe the different shapes the children made as they went from group to group.’
‘The trouble is,’ he [Rick, Josie’s “unlifted” friend] went on, ‘she doesn’t stay the same. I thought if I came today – stupid, really – I thought she might not…change. Might stay the same Josie.’
‘I can see Rick is afraid Josie might become like the others. But even though she behaved strangely just now, I believe Josie is kind underneath. And those other children. They have rough ways, but they may not be so unkind. They fear loneliness and that’s why they behave as they do. Perhaps Josie too.’
There is an interesting discussion about the heart, the heart in the sense of a soul, between Josie’s father and Klara.
‘The heart you speak of,’ I [Klara] said. ‘It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’
‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms,’ he [Josie’s father] said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?’
I [Klara] considered this for a moment, then said: ‘Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul [Josie’s father] is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn. Josie’s heart may well resemble a strange house with rooms inside rooms. But if this were the best way to save Josie, then I’d do my utmost. And I believe there’s a good chance I’d be able to succeed.’
At this point in the book Klara, a robot, believes she could actually become Josie in every way with enough time and observation if asked to do so. Later, not to spoil the book, Klara revises her opinion and that self-realization on Klara’s part provides a poignant ending for the novel.
If you are intrigued by a future where human and artificial intelligence mix and influence each other, Kazuo’s novel shows that a thorough understanding of the ethical dilemmas, the balance between reason and emotion, and the essence of our humanity can benefit from an artistic as well as a scientific approach.
One final point that impressed us is how a robot might die? How should it die? A man (Henry Capaldi) who Josie’s mother hired to transform Klara into Josie in the event of Josie’s death wants to disassemble Klara to see how she “thinks” and Josie’s mother, who has a love-hate relationship with Klara, refuses to allow it.
“ … do I have your permission to just ask her?” says Henry.
“No, Henry, you don’t. Klara deserves better. She deserves her slow fade.”
“But we have work to do here. We have to resist this backlash …”
“Then go resist it elsewhere. Find some other black boxes to prize open. Leave our Klara be. Let her have her slow fade.”
This is a key moment in the novel. Josie’s mother seems to accept Klara as something more than a machine. She feels compelled to protect Klara. But Klara doesn’t seem to feel anything. She simply observes.
The Mother had stepped in front of me, as though to shield me from Mr. Capaldi, and because in her anger she’d taken her position hurriedly, the rear of her shoulder was almost touching my face. As a result, I not only became very conscious of the smooth woven fabric of her dark sweater, but was reminded of the moment she’d reached forward and embraced me, in the front of her car, the time we’d parked beside the Grind Our Own Beef café.
What is Klara? What do we think she is, what does she think she is? Is she the same at the end of the story as at the beginning? Read the book and tell us what you think. Enjoy!