Klara and the Sun is a science fiction story of a future in which people can purchase an Artificial Friend, an AI humanoid robot, as a companion. It is told from the viewpoint of Klara, who is an Artificial Friend (AF), who is bought as a companion for Josie, a young girl with a health problem and a high status, busy mother. Like much science fiction, it says as much about present day issues as about the future.
This review is more about the connections I took away from reading it than a review of the plot, which can be found in the Wikipedia article referenced above.
Points of View
One of my common themes is the importance of Diversity, in Ecology, in Society and in Software. One of Edward de Bono‘s Thinking Tools is Other People’s Views (OPV), which suggests the value of looking at problems from the viewpoint of the different people involved. Novels which approach the world from a different angle are often memorable because the reader is performing an extra step of building their own world picture of the story, and keeping that in their head as well as the view of the, possibly unreliable, narrator.
In this aspect the book reminded me, in particular, of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time‘, and ‘Flowers for Algernon‘.
Uplift and Epigenetics
A theme of Flowers for Algernon is the concept of uplift – Charlie, the narrator, has his intelligence boosted by an experimental operation. In the world in which Klara and the Sun is set, some people are ‘lifted’ by an unspecified procedure, but higher education is difficult to enter for those, such as Ricky, Josie’s boyfriend, who is not lifted.
The stratification of society is reminiscent of Brave New World, or the caste system, in that some roles will never be available to some people.
Although the mechanism of being lifted is not specified, to me it could be Epigenetic, which relates to the way our genes are expressed to create the proteins and cells which make up our bodies. I found ‘The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance‘ a fascinating introduction to the subject.
My best friend in the early part of secondary school, was a neighbour of an academic at the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception at Edinburgh University. My friend Alan and I would go round there after school and use their computers (in the newly created POP-2 programming language – the first one I learnt) and be shown the work of the researchers there. This was around 1970, so the world of computing was radically different from today. Multiple people could simultaneously use the mainframe computer, an Eliot 4130, with 64KB of memory (less that 1/16 of a typical smartphone).
The department was a blend of research in many fields.How computers can perceive, with a camera which could scan a cup or a cone, or a cylinder and work out which was which. The biological mechanisms of perception, monitoring the signals along the optical nerve of a water flea. There was also a large room with a chair which moved backward and forward on rails with a view of a circle projected onto a screen, which had been used in research into distance perception in space, related to the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous tested by Apollo 9. (more about DMIP here and in this YouTube video).
In the book Klara’s perception of the world sometimes breaks into individual sections, in the same way that those very early programs would attempt to resolve an object into manageable pieces, to analyse, for example, if there was a hole indicating a cup handle.
The wider question of ‘can machines be capable of thinking’ crops up, not just in science fiction, but in Philosophy. Alan Turing, one of my favourite examples of how society’s intolerance of diversity led to an early loss of a genius to the world, considered the problem in his Turing Test. Turing also produced Turing’s Proof, which relates to fundamental limits on whether all yes-no questions can be answered. Gödel had covered similar themes in his Incompleteness Theorem, which is described in Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. This book also covers questions of how intelligence develops, and what we mean by intelligence. In ‘I am a Strange Loop‘ Hofstadter relates self awareness to Feedback Loops, another of my areas of interest, briefly mentioned in ‘The Reasoned Feedback Loop‘. He also wrote, with Daniel Dennet, ‘The Mind’s I‘, which covers various philosophers’ positions on the self, and another big topic – Free Will.
The subject of Free Will is reflected on in Raymond Smullyan‘s essay ‘Is God a Taoist?‘ (full text at the link). This raises the question ‘Does Klara have Free Will ?’
There is a view that machines can never be capable of ‘true’ intelligence, comprehensively put by Roger Penrose in ‘The Emperor’s New Mind‘. He takes the reader through many of the areas of computability as Hofstadter, but concludes that quantum mechanics provides an essential differentiating factor between human and electronic brains. The book was published in 1989 (my edition in 1990), so a lot has changed in quantum computing in the time since it was published.
The roots of theology
Klara essentially creates her own theology, based on the power of the Sun. It is interesting to note that everything else in the world is secular, which might lead to her lacking mental tools to evaluate belief systems.
Transparency and Confidentiality
The interplay between transparency and confidentiality weaves its way through the book. Klara forms an action plan, based on her self created religion. She refuses to tell anyone what the plan is, and I did find initially find this dubious. In order to prevent Artificial Intelligence Systems, even the simple ones under development today, from developing an erroneous world view it is important for them to be able to explain how they reached their conclusions (or have some kind of debugging equivalent). On the other hand, remembering examples of supermarket IT systems which deduce pregnancies before they are public knowledge, it is possible that an Artificial Friend might become aware of some situations earlier than a human would. It would not then be a good thing if they told their companion child, for example, that their parents were divorcing, based on the AF’s observations of the parent’s behaviour.
Solar Powered Robots
Although there is an implication that Klara is Solar Powered, the limits on the energy available from sunlight, David MacKay‘s book ‘Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air‘ describes the energy being delivered to the earth’s surface as about 1000W per square metre. This is a peak when the sun is shining. Making allowances for not permanently standing in full sunlight, and wearing clothing, I do not think Klara can be dependent on solar power for energy. I prefer to believe that there may be something akin to Vitamin D, which she, and other AFs get from the sun.
The book, however, is not about the technical details of how to build a solar robot, or even a artificial intelligence system. It is about love, choice and sacrifice and well deserves its 2021 Booker Prize nomination.