The Radiant Inner Life of a Robot
The Atlantic|April 2021
Kazuo Ishiguro returns to masters and servants with a story of love between a machine and the girl she belongs to.
Judith Shulevitz

Girl AF Klara, an Artificial Friend sold as a children’s companion, lives in a store. On lucky days, Klara gets to spend time in the store window, where she can see and be seen and soak up the solar energy on which she runs. Not needing human food, Klara hungers and thirsts for the Sun (she capitalizes it) and what he (she also personifies it) allows her to see. She tracks his passage along the floorboards and the buildings across the street and drinks in the scenes he illuminates. Klara registers details that most people miss and interprets them with an accuracy astonishing for an android out of the box. A passing Boy AF lags a few steps behind his child, and his weary gait makes her wonder what it would be like “to know that your child didn’t want you.” She keeps watch over a beggar and his dog, who lie so still in a doorway that they look like garbage bags. They must have died, she thinks. “I felt sadness then,” she says, “despite it being a good thing that they’d died together, holding each other and trying to help one another.”

Klara is the narrator and hero of Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel. Ishiguro is known for skipping from one genre to the next, although he subordinates whatever genre he chooses to his own concerns and gives his narrators character-appropriate versions of his singular, lightly formal diction. I guess you could call this novel science fiction. It certainly makes a contribution to the centuries-old disputation over whether machines have the potential to feel. This debate has picked up speed as the artificially intelligent agents built by actual engineers close in on the ones made up by writers and TV, film, and theater directors, the latest round in the game of tag between science and science fiction that has been going on at least since Frankenstein. Klara is Alexa, super-enhanced. She’s the product that roboticists in a field called affective computing (also known as artificial emotional intelligence) have spent the past two decades trying to invent. Engineers have written software that can detect fine shades of feeling in human voices and faces, but so far they have failed to contrive machines that can simulate emotions convincingly.

What makes Klara an imaginary entity, at least until reality catches up with her, is that her feelings are not simulated. They’re real. We know this because she experiences pathos, a quality still seemingly impervious to computational analysis— although as a naive young robot, she does have to break it down before she can understand it. A disheveled old man stands on the far side of the street, waving and calling to an old woman on the near side. The woman goes stock-still, then crosses tentatively to him, and they cling to each other. Klara can tell that the man’s tightly shut eyes convey contradictory emotions. “They seem so happy,” she says to the store manager, or as Klara fondly calls this kindly woman, Manager. “But it’s strange because they also seem upset.”

“Oh, Klara,” Manager says. “You never miss a thing, do you?” Perhaps the man and woman hadn’t seen each other in a long time, she says. “Do you mean, Manager, that they lost each other?” Klara asks. Girl AF Rosa, Klara’s best friend, is bewildered. What are they talking about? But Klara considers it her duty to empathize. If she doesn’t, she thinks, “I’d never be able to help my child as well as I should.” And so she gives herself the task of imagining loss. If she lost and then found Rosa, would she feel the same joy mixed with pain?

She would and she will, and not just with respect to Rosa. The nonhuman Klara is more human than most humans. She has, you might say, a superhuman humanity. She’s also Ishiguro’s most luminous character, literally a creature of light, dependent on the Sun. Her very name means “brightness.” But mainly, Klara is incandescently good. She’s like the kind, wise beasts endowed with speech at the dawn of creation in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. Or, with her capacity for selfless love, like a character in a Hans Christian Andersen story.

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