Interviewer: Empathy, is that a word you could ascribe to this machine?
Ishiguro: This is a very big question – I mean this was one of the fundamental questions that puzzled me all the way through. If I’m writing this character, Klara, do I write her like a, more or less like a human being who is empathetic? And this is one of the things I wanted the reader to think about – does Klara actually have genuine emotions or has she just learnt human emotions and she’s just kind of figuring things out as humans would do…
ABC Book Show interview March 1 2021
Klara, the voice and eyes of the book, is a robot, an Artificial Friend chosen by 14-year old Josie in a world where Artificial Friends are as common as vacuum cleaners. Writing a book based round Artificial Intelligence runs a big risk of over-thinking, getting lost in the weeds of the argument about robots’ potential capacity and the ethical questions it poses. In his uniquely warm and elegant way Ishiguro takes us to the living heart of these questions. Do you believe in the human heart? one character asks…Something that makes each of us special and unique?
Klara has been programmed to do one job – to make sure that the human being who chooses her as an Artificial Friend isn’t lonely. But when she gets out into the real world she’s confronted by new and more complicated demands. Being an intelligent machine, she modifies her thoughts and her behaviour – figuring things out as humans would do. Then we have to ask, how is that different from what we do? Klara the robot is like a child, a very touching child, puzzling about the world, trying to make sense of things because they seem to mean something to others.
Klara is like us too in her instinct that there’s some ruling power behind the world we see. For some people it’s God, for others it’s some other ethical or belief system; for Klara, who is solar-powered, it’s the Sun.
The Sun was pouring his nourishment onto the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and his dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all – that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them. Beggar Man wasn’t yet on his feet but he was smiling and sitting up, his back against the blank doorway, one leg stretched out, the other bent so he could rest his arm on its knee. And with his free hand he was fondling the neck of the dog, who had also come back to life and was looking from side to side at the people going by. They were both hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute…
It’s a hard-edged world, where gene-editing is routine for parents wanting to give their children an advantage, and where gene-edited people consider everyone else an underclass. But in spite of that, Klara’s voice, at once wise and childlike, and the task she sets herself when her child is in danger, give the book something of the magic of a children’s story. In that way it reminded me of The Buried Giant. Klara speaks of her gratitude and respect as the Sun, tired and no longer intense was sinking into the ground. This beautiful piece of work left me with that same feeling of gratitude and respect.