In almost any book about artificial life, there comes a moment when the humans, like Victor Frankenstein, are obliged to confront the full reality of what they’ve created. That moment is somewhat delayed in Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’s new novel set in an alternative 1980s London, where the narrator, Charlie, has just purchased Adam, one of the first batch of truly lifelike artificial humans. Gazing at his new purchase as it charges up for the first time and thinking of Miranda, the young woman upstairs whom he has recently fallen for, Charlie registers the ontological distance between himself and the android: Adam has “a semblance of breath, but not of life. A man newly in love knows what life is.” But that distinction begins to erode a few weeks later, when Adam reveals that he too has fallen in love with Miranda. Charlie’s initial response, understandably, is to deny the possibility (“existentially, this is not your territory”), and he decides to reinforce his point in the simplest way possible—by reaching for Adam’s off button, or “kill switch.” Before he can, though, Adam grasps him by the wrist, and “the grip was ferocious.” It is not the declaration of love, then, but the hand-lock, tinged with beastliness by the unexpected word “ferocious,” that forces Charlie to recognize that he is dealing with a fellow life form, perhaps even a superior one.
But wait, haven’t we seen this before? At a climactic moment in Beowulf, the monster Grendel experiences an almost identical realization. Reaching out to seize and devour Beowulf, Grendel is stopped by “a handgrip harder than anything he had ever encountered in any man” and knows he has met his match; sure enough, the hero kills Grendel by tearing his arm off at the shoulder.1 The novel’s allusion to this moment is easy to miss. Reading of Adam’s grip on Charlie’s wrist, most readers will recall, not Beowulf, but an earlier moment of significant hand-touching in the novel itself, when Charlie establishes an unexpected connection with a child on a playground. (“I put my hand out to the boy and to my surprise he raised his and slotted his fingers between mine. I felt flattered.”) But the Beowulf reference resurfaces more pointedly a few pages later, when Adam, after apologizing for breaking Charlie’s wrist, tells him smilingly, “the next time you reach for my kill switch, I’m more than happy to remove your arm entirely, at the ball and socket joint.”
Charlie describes this as Adam’s “first attempt at a joke,” but it’s a complex joke and a complex moment. Is it McEwan who is thinking of Anglo-Saxon poetry here, or is it Adam? Adam often spends his solitary hours reading literature, and he develops a taste for poetry in particular. He tells Charlie of his delight in discovering Philip Larkin (“I treasure this ordinary voice and these moments of godless transcendence!”); he quotes Shakespeare, Milton, Tagore. Before long he begins to write his own poems, a series of haiku all about his feelings for Miranda.
Adam’s penchant for poetry is one of the finest touches in McEwan’s exceptionally fine novel. The question of whether a machine could write poetry is not a new one.2 Nor is the question of whether machines can love, which forms a recurrent trope of AI fiction.3 But Machines Like Me stands out in making clear just how closely questions of poetry, love, and human nature intertwine.
A major moment in 20th-century thinking about love came in 1936, when C. S. Lewis asserted that love, as we experience it today, was invented by poets. The feelings of passion that now feel so intrinsic, Lewis wrote, are really just internalized versions of concepts that first appeared in the 11th century, in the poetry of Provençal troubadours. Although Lewis’s argument appeared in a scholarly tome about medieval allegory by a then-obscure Oxford don, his idea quickly gained notoriety. Lewis’s claim threatened to disenchant love, exposing it as something purely factitious. Many soon leapt to love’s defense, however, pointing out evidence of its universality and timelessness.
In the end, the defenders carried the day. Bucking the general trend of 20th-century intellectual history, love increasingly came to be seen not primarily as a cultural construct but as something more rarefied: an essential and inescapable part of human nature.
The argument came full circle, though, a few decades later. In the late 20th century, scientists of various disciplines, including neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, began turning their attention to love. Perhaps the chief exponent and popularizer of the new research has been the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher. In a series of books—including Why We Love (2004) and the recently revised and reissued Anatomy of Love (1992; 2016)—Fisher synthesizes the work of many researchers, herself included, to offer a scientific account of love. Fisher’s books offer a complex and nuanced picture, but they rest on two basic claims: first, that the effects of love can be understood as a series of neurochemical processes; second, that they can be understood as the result of straightforward natural selection (or, whenever that fails to explain the outcome, of sexual selection).
Fisher’s ideas have been far more widely disseminated than Lewis’s ever were: her books sell well, her TED talks have been viewed millions of times, and she serves as advisor to the dating service Match.com. A new handbook aimed at middle-school students clearly derives from the ideas Fisher discusses; it advises lovestruck teens and tweens to understand their feelings in terms of the chemical compounds associated with them.4 None of this raises an outcry. Yet the writings of Fisher and her colleagues threaten to disenchant love more than Lewis ever did. They agree with Lewis’s critics that love is universal among humans. But if Lewis seemed to ascribe everything to nurture, the scientific explanations tend to attribute everything, even more dishearteningly, to nature.
It would be predictable to say that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes, but it would also be true. And here’s where we get back to Lewis’s original, overlooked term: poetry. Poetry has been the vehicle of choice for expressions of love since long before the medieval troubadours, precisely because it strikes a balance. Poetry, like music, includes an important mathematical or scientific dimension, a hardwired base for its flights of fancy. (That’s why children are sometimes poetic or musical prodigies, but almost never master playwrights; and why it’s easier to imagine a computer producing a plausible poem than a novel.) Similarly, love too is at least partly hardwired and runs along preprogrammed neural networks (a fact that no one denies when it comes to, say, maternal love). But in each case, the effect transcends the traceable mechanical cause.
The beauty of poetry and love—and the key to their relation to each other—lies in the way they both manage to draw individual inspiration out of predictable patterns. They strike a balance between Fisher’s world of biological determinism and Lewis’s world of human agency, or to put it differently, between matter and spirit, between fate and free will.
The beauty of poetry and love—and the key to their relation to each other—lies in the way they both manage to draw individual inspiration out of predictable patterns.
Machines Like Me engages directly with these concepts and debates. At one point, feeling euphoric with love, Charlie lists Fisher’s favorite chemicals—“endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and the rest”—only to dismiss them as sufficient explanations of his emotions: “It seemed objectionable that [his feelings] should have a material base.”5 But Charlie is equally skeptical of his own training in anthropology at university, where he was taught that culture always overrides biology—that nurture is everything, or as he puts it, that human nature is “nothing but software.”
All of this makes for a heady read; Machines Like Me is undoubtedly a novel of ideas. But the ideas don’t overwhelm the narrative elements. Instead, they all knit together as tightly and naturally as the fingers of two clasped hands. Above all, love and poetry are threaded together throughout the novel. They appear as parts of the plot, as objects of discussion and reflection, and also in momentary flashes—as when, early in the novel, before Adam has even achieved consciousness, Charlie reaches toward him for the first time: “I stretched out my hand and laid it over his heart and felt against my palm its calm, iambic tread.”
It is the robot Adam who offers the most memorable account of the relation between poetry, love, and humanity. By this point, he has already composed two thousand haiku, a fact that Charlie takes as self-disqualifying. “Two thousand! The figure made my point—an algorithm was churning them out.” Charlie also objects to the genre of haiku itself, with its simple symmetry and facile appearance of profundity: “Too cute, too devoted to not making much sense, too undemanding of their author as they played on empty mysteries of the sound-of-one-hand-clapping sort.” Not enough of the two-handedness, in other words, that characterizes real human relationships, whether of love or enmity. Charlie voices these criticisms to Adam and encourages him to branch out to other poetic forms.
But in an imaginative tour de force, Adam responds with a defense of haiku as the genre par excellence of human connection, as it will exist in a more fully integrated future. “Nearly everything I’ve read in the world’s literature describes varieties of human failure,” he tells Charlie, “above all, profound misunderstanding of others.” All that will vanish, however, as humans become more and more wedded to the devices they invent, and communication becomes total and perfect. “When the marriage of men and women to machines is complete, this literature will be redundant because we’ll understand each other too well … Our narratives will no longer record endless misunderstanding. Our literatures will lose their unwholesome nourishment. The lapidary haiku, the still, clear perception of things as they are, will be the only necessary form.” As a vision of the future, this is no doubt terrible. But as a tribute to poetry’s insight into a world that is necessarily mechanistic as well as numinous, it is superb.
Robot and Juliet
Like McEwan’s other novels, Machines Like Me is a riveting—perhaps it would be better to say gripping—and emotionally draining book. Nevertheless, once you’ve reached the last page, I urge you to push on to the back matter, where a surprise awaits.
The final word of the book belongs to “A Note About the Type,” which describes Walbaum, a font named after its inventor, Justus Erich Walbaum (1768–1839). “Young Walbaum began his artistic career as an apprentice to a maker of cookie molds,” the note informs us. “How he managed to leave this field and become a successful punch cutter remains a mystery. Although the type that bears his name may be classified as modern, numerous slight irregularities in its cut give this face its humane manner.”
All of this information is true, as far as I can tell, and other books from the same publisher include similar notes. But somebody—is it McEwan himself?—is surely having fun with the phrasing. A maker of interchangeable cookie cutter parts who evolves, none knows how, into the producer of the “humane face” that we have just been contemplating for the past three hundred pages—it seems too perfect not to be a joke. (And all the funnier for appearing, I assume, only in the print version; those reading the book on a machine are denied this little treat.)
Joke or not, the note sums up a lot of what makes this novel ring so true. One of Adam’s haiku—we are privy to a handful over the course of the book—contains 18 syllables rather than the usual 17. Adam “apologize[s] in advance for the rogue syllable in the third line, and promise[s] to work on it further.” But he needn’t have apologized. As so often, in poetry as in love, it’s the irregularity, the combination of common patterns and unexpected deviations, that creates all the charm.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Seamus Heaney’s translation (2000). In McEwan’s version, the roles are significantly reversed, with the human Charlie taking the part of Grendel. ↩
- Already in 1677, an Englishman named John Peter produced a set of tables, or grids of letters, capable of producing half a million individual lines of Latin verse. Peter’s invention was satirized by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. ↩
- Consider the tagline of the 2001 Steven Spielberg film, A.I.: “His love is real. But he is not.” ↩
- Matt Lilley, Why We Love: The Science of Affection (Compass Point, 2019); not to be confused with Fisher’s book of the same title (but not subtitle). ↩
- Later, there is an in-joke about Fisher, when a programmer performs one of her most famous experiments on Adam. Fisher’s experiment involved using an fMRI machine to scan the brains of people while they looked at a photograph of their beloved. As a control, she also had them look at a picture of a non-beloved person, and she “cleansed” their minds between exercises by asking them to count backward from a four-digit number in increments of seven. Adam is subjected to a very similar test, only he is asked to count backward from 10 million in increments of 129. ↩