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In a store in the center of an unnamed city, humanoid robots are displayed alongside housewares and magazines. They watch the fast-moving world outside the window, anxiously awaiting the arrival of customers who might buy them and take them home. Among them is Klara, a particularly astute robot who loves the sun and wants to learn as much as possible about humans and the world they live in.
So begins Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, published earlier this month. The book, told from Klara’s perspective, portrays an eerie future society in which intelligent machines and other advanced technologies have been integrated into daily life, but not everyone is happy about it.
Technological unemployment, the progress of artificial intelligence, inequality, the safety and ethics of gene editing, increasing loneliness and isolation—all of which we’re grappling with today—show up in Ishiguro’s world. It’s like he hit a fast-forward button, mirroring back to us how things might play out if we don’t approach these technologies with caution and foresight.
The wealthy genetically edit or “lift” their children to set them up for success, while the poor have to make do with the regular old brains and bodies bequeathed them by evolution. Lifted and unlifted kids generally don’t mix, and this is just one of many sinister delineations between a new breed of haves and have-nots.
There’s anger about robots’ steady infiltration into everyday life, and questions about how similar their rights should be to those of humans. “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater?” one woman fumes.
References to “changes” and “substitutions” allude to an economy where automation has eliminated millions of jobs. While “post-employed” people squat in abandoned buildings and fringe communities arm themselves in preparation for conflict, those whose livelihoods haven’t been destroyed can afford to have live-in housekeepers and buy Artificial Friends (or AFs) for their lonely children.
“The old traditional model that we still live with now—where most of us can get some kind of paid work in exchange for our services or the goods we make—has broken down,” Ishiguro said in a podcast discussion of the novel. “We’re not talking just about the difference between rich and poor getting bigger. We’re talking about a gap appearing between people who participate in society in an obvious way and people who do not.”
He has a point; as much as techno-optimists claim that the economic changes brought by automation and AI will give us all more free time, let us work less, and devote time to our passion projects, how would that actually play out? What would millions of “post-employed” people receiving basic income actually do with their time and energy?
In the novel, we don’t get much of a glimpse of this side of the equation, but we do see how the wealthy live. After a long wait, just as the store manager seems ready to give up on selling her, Klara is chosen by a 14-year-old girl named Josie, the daughter of a woman who wears “high-rank clothes” and lives in a large, sunny home outside the city. Cheerful and kind, Josie suffers from an unspecified illness that periodically flares up and leaves her confined to her bed for days at a time.
Her life seems somewhat bleak, the need for an AF clear. In this future world, the children of the wealthy no longer go to school together, instead studying alone at home on their digital devices. “Interaction meetings” are set up for them to learn to socialize, their parents carefully eavesdropping from the next room and trying not to intervene when there’s conflict or hurt feelings.
Klara does her best to be a friend, aide, and confidante to Josie while continuing to learn about the world around her and decode the mysteries of human behavior. We surmise that she was programmed with a basic ability to understand emotions, which evolves along with her other types of intelligence. “I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me,” she explains to one character.
Ishiguro does an excellent job of representing Klara’s mind: a blend of pre-determined programming, observation, and continuous learning. Her narration has qualities both robotic and human; we can tell when something has been programmed in—she “Gives Privacy” to the humans around her when that’s appropriate, for example—and when she’s figured something out for herself.
But the author maintains some mystery around Klara’s inner emotional life. “Does she actually understand human emotions, or is she just observing human emotions and simulating them within herself?” he said. “I suppose the question comes back to, what are our emotions as human beings? What do they amount to?”
Klara is particularly attuned to human loneliness, since she essentially was made to help prevent it. It is, in her view, peoples’ biggest fear, and something they’ll go to great lengths to avoid, yet can never fully escape. “Perhaps all humans are lonely,” she says.
Warding off loneliness through technology isn’t a futuristic idea, it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time, with the technologies at hand growing more and more sophisticated. Products like AFs already exist. There’s XiaoIce, a chatbot that uses “sentiment analysis” to keep its 660 million users engaged, and Azuma Hikari, a character-based AI designed to “bring comfort” to users whose lives lack emotional connection with other humans.
The mere existence of these tools would be sinister if it wasn’t for their widespread adoption; when millions of people use AIs to fill a void in their lives, it raises deeper questions about our ability to connect with each other and whether technology is building it up or tearing it down.
This isn’t the only big question the novel tackles. An overarching theme is one we’ve been increasingly contemplating as computers start to acquire more complex capabilities, like the beginnings of creativity or emotional awareness: What is it that truly makes us human?
“Do you believe in the human heart?” one character asks. “I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
The alternative, at least in the story, is that people don’t have a unique essence, but rather we’re all a blend of traits and personalities that can be reduced to strings of code. Our understanding of the brain is still elementary, but at some level, doesn’t all human experience boil down to the firing of billions of neurons between our ears? Will we one day—in a future beyond that painted by Ishiguro, but certainly foreshadowed by it—be able to “decode” our humanity to the point that there’s nothing mysterious left about it? “A human heart is bound to be complex,” Klara says. “But it must be limited.”
Whether or not you agree, Klara and the Sun is worth the read. It’s both a marvelous, engaging story about what it means to love and be human, and a prescient warning to approach technological change with caution and nuance. We’re already living in a world where AI keeps us company, influences our behavior, and is wreaking various forms of havoc. Ishiguro’s novel is a snapshot of one of our possible futures, told through the eyes of a robot who keeps you rooting for her to the end.
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Facebook’s New AI Teaches Itself to See With Less Human Help
Will Knight | Wired
“Peer inside an AI algorithm and you’ll find something constructed using data that was curated and labeled by an army of human workers. Now, Facebook has shown how some AI algorithms can learn to do useful work with far less human help. The company built an algorithm that learned to recognize objects in images with little help from labels.”
New AI ‘Deep Nostalgia’ Brings Old Photos, Including Very Old Ones, to Life
Kim Lyons | The Verge
“The Deep Nostalgia service, offered by online genealogy company MyHeritage, uses AI licensed from D-ID to create the effect that a still photo is moving. It’s kinda like the iOS Live Photos feature, which adds a few seconds of video to help smartphone photographers find the best shot. But Deep Nostalgia can take photos from any camera and bring them to ‘life.’i”
Could ‘Topological Materials’ Be a New Medium For Ultra-Fast Electronics?
Charles Q. Choi | IEEE Spectrum
“Potential future transistors that can exceed Moore’s law may rely on exotic materials called ‘topological matter’ in which electricity flows across surfaces only, with virtually no dissipation of energy. And now new findings suggest these special topological materials might one day find use in high-speed, low-power electronics and in quantum computers.”
A Chinese Province Could Ban Bitcoin Mining to Cut Down Energy Use
Dharna Noor | Gizmodo
“Since energy prices in Inner Mongolia are particularly low, many bitcoin miners have set up shop there specifically. The region is the third-largest mining site in China. Because the grid is heavily coal-powered, however, that’s led to skyrocketing emissions, putting it in conflict with President Xi Jinping’s promise last September to have China reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 at the latest and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”
Mesh Is Microsoft’s Vision for Sending Your Hologram Back to the Office
Sam Rutherford | Gizmodo
“With Mesh, Microsoft is hoping to create a virtual environment capable of sharing data, 3D models, avatars, and more—basically, the company wants to upgrade the traditional remote-working experience with the power of AR and VR. In the future, Microsoft is planning for something it’s calling ‘holoportation,’ which will allow Mesh devices to create photorealistic digital avatars of your body that can appear in virtual spaces anywhere in the world—assuming you’ve been invited, of course.”
Rocket Lab Could Be SpaceX’s Biggest Rival
Neel V. Patel | MIT Technology Review
“At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, [the new] Neutron [rocket] is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well.”
Can Alien Smog Lead Us to Extraterrestrial Civilizations?
Meghan Herbst | Wired
“Kopparapu is at the forefront of an emerging field in astronomy that is aiming to identify technosignatures, or technological markers we can search for in the cosmos. No longer conceptually limited to radio signals, astronomers are looking for ways we could identify planets or other spacefaring objects by looking for things like atmospheric gases, lasers, and even hypothetical sun-encircling structures called Dyson spheres.”
China Charges Ahead With a National Digital Currency
Nathaniel Popper and Cao Li | The New York Times
“China has charged ahead with a bold effort to remake the way that government-backed money works, rolling out its own digital currency with different qualities than cash or digital deposits. The country’s central bank, which began testing eCNY last year in four cities, recently expanded those trials to bigger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, according to government presentations.”
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A New Artificial Intelligence Makes Mistakes—on Purpose
Will Knight | Wired
“It took about 50 years for computers to eviscerate humans in the venerable game of chess. A standard smartphone can now play the kind of moves that make a grandmaster’s head spin. But one artificial intelligence program is taking a few steps backward, to appreciate how average humans play—blunders and all.”
Bitcoin’s Price Rises to $50,000 as Mainstream Institutions Hop On
Timothy B. Lee | Ars Technica
“Bitcoin’s price is now far above the previous peak of $19,500 reached in December 2017. Bitcoin’s value has risen by almost 70 percent since the start of 2021. No single factor seems to be driving the cryptocurrency’s rise. Instead, the price is rising as more and more mainstream organizations are deciding to treat it as an ordinary investment asset.”
Million-Year-Old Mammoth Teeth Contain Oldest DNA Ever Found
Jeanne Timmons | Gizmodo
“An international team of scientists has sequenced DNA from mammoth teeth that is at least a million years old, if not older. This research, published today in Nature, not only provides exciting new insight into mammoth evolutionary history, it reveals an entirely unknown lineage of ancient mammoth.”
Scientists Accidentally Discover Strange Creatures Under a Half Mile of Ice
Matt Simon | Wired
“i‘It’s like, bloody hell!’ Smith says. ‘It’s just one big boulder in the middle of a relatively flat seafloor. It’s not as if the seafloor is littered with these things.’ Just his luck to drill in the only wrong place. Wrong place for collecting seafloor muck, but the absolute right place for a one-in-a-million shot at finding life in an environment that scientists didn’t reckon could support much of it.”
Highest-Resolution Images of DNA Reveal It’s Surprisingly Jiggly
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“Scientists have captured the highest-resolution images ever taken of DNA, revealing previously unseen twisting and squirming behaviors. …These hidden movements were revealed by computer simulations fed with the highest-resolution images ever taken of a single molecule of DNA. The new study is exposing previously unseen behaviors in the self-replicating molecule, and this research could eventually lead to the development of powerful new genetic therapies.”
The First Battery-Powered Tanker Is Coming to Tokyo
Maria Gallucci | IEEE Spectrum
“The Japanese tanker is Corvus’s first fully-electric coastal freighter project; the company hopes the e5 will be the first of hundreds more just like it. ‘We see it [as] a beachhead for the coastal shipping market globally,’ Puchalski said. ‘There are many other coastal freighter types that are similar in size and energy demand.’ The number of battery-powered ships has ballooned from virtually zero a decade ago to hundreds worldwide.”
Report: NASA’s Only Realistic Path for Humans on Mars Is Nuclear Propulsion
Eric Berger | Ars Technica
“Conducted at the request of NASA, a broad-based committee of experts assessed the viability of two means of propulsion—nuclear thermal and nuclear electric—for a human mission launching to Mars in 2039. ‘One of the primary takeaways of the report is that if we want to send humans to Mars, and we want to do so repeatedly and in a sustainable way, nuclear space propulsion is on the path,’ said [JPL’s] Bobby Braun.”
NASA’s Perseverance Rover Successfully Lands on Mars
Joey Roulette | The Verge
“Perseverance hit Mars’ atmosphere on time at 3:48PM ET at speeds of about 12,100 miles per hour, diving toward the surface in an infamously challenging sequence engineers call the “seven minutes of terror.” With an 11-minute comms delay between Mars and Earth, the spacecraft had to carry out its seven-minute plunge at all by itself with a wickedly complex set of pre-programmed instructions.”
A First-of-Its-Kind Geoengineering Experiment Is About to Take Its First Step
James Temple | MIT Technology Review
“When I visited Frank Keutsch in the fall of 2019, he walked me down to the lab, where the tube, wrapped in gray insulation, ran the length of a bench in the back corner. By filling it with the right combination of gases, at particular temperatures and pressures, Keutsch and his colleagues had simulated the conditions some 20 kilometers above Earth’s surface. In testing how various chemicals react in this rarefied air, the team hoped to conduct a crude test of a controversial scheme known as solar geoengineering.”
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