It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holygrail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low—for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love. As soon as it was feasible, we had no choice but to follow ourdesires and hang the consequences. In loftiest terms, we aimed to escape our mortality, confront or even replace the Godhead with a perfect self. More practically, we intended to devise an improved, more modern version of ourselves and exult in the joy of invention, the thrill of mastery. In the autumn of the twentieth century, it came about at last, the first step towards the fulfilment of an ancient dream, the beginning of the long lesson we would teach ourselves that however complicated we were, however faulty and difficult to describe in even our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered. And I was there as a young man, an early and eager adopter in that chilly dawn.
But artificial humans were a cliché long before they arrived, so when they did, they seemed to some a disappointment. The imagination, fleeter than history, than technological advance, had already rehearsed this future in books, then films and TV dramas, as if human actors, walking with a certain glazed look, phony head movements, some stiffness in the lower back, could prepare us for life with our cousins from the future.
I was among the optimists, blessed by unexpected funds following my mother’s death and the sale of the family home, which turned out to be on a valuable development site. The first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression went on sale the week before the Falkland Task Force set off on its hopeless mission. Adam cost £86,000. I brought him home in a hired van to my unpleasant flat in north Clapham. I’d made a reckless decision, but I was encouraged by reports that Sir Alan Turing, war hero and presiding genius of the digital age, had taken delivery of the same model. He probably wanted to have his lab take it apart to examine its workings fully.
Twelve of this first edition were called Adam, thirteen were called Eve. Corny, everyone agreed, but commercial. Notions of biological race being scientifically discredited,the twenty-five were designed to cover a range of ethnicities. There were rumours, then complaints, that the Arab could not be told apart from the Jew. Random programming as well as life experience would grant to all complete latitude in sexual preference. By the end of the first week, all the Eves sold out. At a careless glance, I might have taken my Adam for a Turk or a Greek. He weighed 170 pounds, so I had to ask my upstairs neighbour, Miranda, to help me carry him in from the street on the disposable stretcher that came with the purchase.
While his batteries began to charge, I made us coffee, then scrolled through the 470-page online handbook. Its language was mostly clear and precise. But Adam was created across different agencies and in places the instructions had the charm of a nonsense poem. “Unreveal upside of B347k vest to gain carefree emoticon with motherboard output to attenuate mood-swing penumbra.”
At last, with cardboard and polystyrene wrapping strewn around his ankles, he sat naked at my tiny dining table, eyes closed, a black power line trailing from the entry point in his umbilicus to a thirteen-amp socket in the wall. It would take sixteen hours to fire him up. Then sessions of download updates and personal preferences. I wanted him now, and so did Miranda. Like eager young parents, we were avid for his first words. There was no loudspeaker cheaply buried in his chest. We knew from the excited publicity that he formed sounds with breath, tongue, teeth and palate. Already his lifelike skin was warm to the touch and as smooth as a child’s. Miranda claimed to see his eyelashes flicker. I was certain she was seeing vibrations from the Tube trains rolling a hundred feet below us, but I said nothing.
Adam was not a sex toy. However, he was capable of sex and possessed functional mucous membranes, in the maintenanceof which he consumed half a litre of water each day. While he sat at the table, I observed that he was uncircumcised, fairly well endowed, with copious dark pubic hair. This highly advanced model of artificial human was likely to reflect the appetites of its young creators of code. The Adams and Eves, it was thought, would be lively.
He was advertised as a companion, an intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum who could wash dishes, make beds and “think.” Every moment of his existence, everything he heard and saw, he recorded and could retrieve. He couldn’t drive as yet and was not allowed to swim or shower or go out in the rain without an umbrella, or operate a chainsaw unsupervised. As for range, thanks to breakthroughs in electrical storage, he could run seventeen kilometres in two hours without a charge or, its energy equivalent, converse non-stop for twelve days. He had a working life of twenty years. He was compactly built, square-shouldered, dark-skinned, with thick black hair swept back; narrow in the face, with a hint of hooked nose suggestive of fierce intelligence, pensively hooded eyes, tight lips that, even as we watched, were draining of their deathly yellowish-white tint and acquiring rich human colour, perhaps even relaxing a little at the corners. Miranda said he resembled “a docker from the Bosphorus.”
Before us sat the ultimate plaything, the dream of ages, the triumph of humanism—or its angel of death. Exciting beyond measure, but frustrating too. Sixteen hours was a long time to be waiting and watching. I thought that for the sum I’d handed over after lunch, Adam should have been charged up and ready to go. It was a wintry late afternoon. I made toast and we drank more coffee. Miranda, a doctoral scholar of social history, said she wished the teenage Mary Shelley was here beside us, observing closely, not a monster like Frankenstein’s, but this handsome dark-skinned young man coming to life. I said that what both creatures shared was a hunger for the animating force of electricity.
“We share it too.” She spoke as though she was referring only to herself and me, rather than all of electrochemically charged humanity.
She was twenty-two,mature for her years and ten years younger than me. From a long perspective, there was not much between us. We were gloriously young. But I considered myself at a different stage of life. My formal education was far behind me. I’d suffered a series of professional and financial and personal failures. I regarded myself as too hard-bitten,too cynical for a lovely young woman like Miranda. And though she was beautiful, with pale brown hair and a long thin face, and eyes that often appeared narrowed by suppressed mirth,and though in certain moods I looked at her in wonder, I’d decided early on to confine her in the role of kind, neighbourly friend. We shared an entrance hall and her tiny apartment was right over mine. We saw each other for a coffee now and then to talk about relationships and politics and all the rest. With pitch-perfectneutrality she gave the impression of being at ease with the possibilities. To her, it seemed, an afternoon of intimate pleasure with me would have weighed equally with a chaste and companionable chat. She was relaxed in my company and I preferred to think that sex would ruin everything. We remained good chums. But there was something alluringly secretive or restrained about her. Perhaps, without knowing it, I had been in love with her for months. Without knowing it? What a flimsy formulation that was!
Reluctantly, we agreed to turn our backs on Adam and on each other for a while. Miranda had a seminar to attend northof the river, I had emails to write. By the early seventies, digital communication had discarded its air of convenience andbecome a daily chore. Likewise the 250 mph trains—crowded and dirty. Speech-recognition software, a fifties miracle, had long turned to drudge, with entire populations sacrificing hours each day to lonely soliloquising. Brain–machine interfacing, wild fruit of sixties optimism, could barely arouse the interest of a child. What people queued the entire weekend for became, six months later, as interesting as the socks on their feet. What happened to the cognition-enhancing helmets, the speaking fridges with a sense of smell? Gone the way of the mouse pad, the Filofax, the electric carving knife, the fondue set. The future kept arriving. Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.
Would Adam become a bore? It’s not easy, to dictate while trying to ward off a bout of buyer’s remorse. Surely other people, other minds must continue to fascinate us. As artificial intelligence became more like us, than became us, then became more than us, we could never tire of them. They were bound to surprise us. They might fail us in ways that were beyond our imagining. Tragedy was a possibility, but not boredom.
What was tedious was the prospect of the user’s guide. Instructions. My prejudice was that any machine that could not tell you by its very functioning how it should be used was not worth its keep. On an old-fashioned impulse, I was printingout the manual, then looking for a folder. All the while, I continued to dictate emails.
I couldn’t think of myself as Adam’s “user.” I’d assumed there was nothing to learn about him that he could not teach me himself. But the manual in my hands had fallen open at Chapter Fourteen. Here the English was plain: preferences; personality parameters. Then a set of headings—Agreeableness. Extraversion. Openness to experience. Conscientiousness. Emotional stability. The list was familiar to me. The Five Factor model. Educated as I was in the humanities, I was suspiciousof such reductive categories, though I knew from a friend in psychology that each item had many subgroups. Glancing at the next page I saw that I was supposed to select various settings on a scale of one to ten.
I’d been expecting a friend. I was ready to treat Adam as a guest in my home, as an unknown I would come to know. I’d thought he would arrive optimally adjusted. Factory settings—a contemporary synonym for fate. My friends, family and acquaintances all had appeared in my life with fixed settings, with unalterable histories of genes and environment. I wanted my expensive new friend to do the same. Why leave it to me? But of course I knew the answer. Not many of us are optimally adjusted. Gentle Jesus? Humble Darwin? One every 1,800 years. Even if it knew the best, the least harmful parameters of personality, which it couldn’t, a worldwide corporation with a precious reputation couldn’t risk a mishap. Caveat emptor
God had once delivered a fully formed companion for the benefit of the original Adam. I had to devise one for myself. Here was Extraversion and a graded set of childish statements. He loves to be the life and soul of the party and He knows how to entertain people and lead them.
And at the bottom, He feelsuncomfortable around other people and He prefers his own company.
Here in the middle was, He likes a good party but he’s always happy to come home
. This was me. But should I be replicating myself? If I was to choose from the middle ofeach scale I might devise the soul of blandness. Extraversion appeared to include its antonym. There was a long adjectival list with boxes to tick: outgoing, shy, excitable, talkative, withdrawn, boastful, modest, bold, energetic, moody. I wanted none of them, not for him, not for myself.
Apart from my moments of crazed decisions, I passed most of my life, especially when alone, in a state of mood neutrality, with my personality, whatever that was, in suspension. Not bold, not withdrawn. Simply here, neither content nor morose, but carrying out tasks, thinking about dinner or sex, staring at the screen, taking a shower. Intermittent regrets about the past, occasional forebodings about the future, barely aware of the present, except in the obvious sensory realm. Psychology, once so interested in the trillion ways the mind goes awry, was now drawn to what it considered the common emotions, from grief to joy. But it had overlooked a vast domain of everyday existence: absent illness, famine, war or other stresses, a lot of life is lived in the neutral zone, a familiar garden, but a grey one, unremarkable, immediately forgotten, hard to describe.
At the time, I was not to know that these graded optionswould have little effect on Adam. The real determinant was what was known as “machine learning.” The user’s handbook merely granted an illusion of influence and control, the kind of illusion parents have in relation to their children’s personalities. It was a way of binding me to my purchase and providing legal protection for the manufacturer. “Take your time,” the manual advised. “Choose carefully. Allow yourself several weeks, if necessary.”
I let half an hour pass before I checked on him again. No change. Still at the table, arms pushed out straight before him, eyes closed. But I thought his hair, deepest black, was bulked out a little and had acquired a certain shine, as though he’d just had a shower. Stepping closer, I saw to my delight that though he wasn’t breathing, there was, by his left breast, a regular pulse, steady and calm, about one a second by my inexperienced guess. How reassuring. He had no blood to pump around, but this simulation had an effect. My doubts faded just a little. I felt protective towards Adam, even as I knew how absurd it was. I stretched out my hand and laid it over his heart and felt against my palm its calm, iambic tread. I sensed I was violating his private space. These vital signs were easy to believe in. The warmth of his skin, the firmness and yield of the muscle below it—my reason said plastic or some such, but my touch responded to flesh.
It was eerie, to be standing by this naked man, struggling between what I knew and what I felt. I walked behind him, partly to be out of range of eyes that could open at any moment and find me looming over him. He was muscular around his neck and spine. Dark hair grew along the line of his shoulders. His buttocks displayed muscular concavities. Below them, an athlete’s knotted calves. I hadn’t wanted a superman. I regretted once more that I’d been too late for an Eve.
Copyright © 2019 by Ian McEwan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.