Machines Like Me

Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Vintage, 2019
Pages: 304
ISBN: 978-1529111255
Print: 1529111250
Kindle: B07HR6SGQ9
Audience: General
Rating: 4.5
Reviewer: Mike James
A novel about a synthetic human has become so much more relevant recently and guess what - it features Alan Turing.

If you read anything other than documentation then you should add the novels of Ian McEwan to your reading list. They are all worth reading but Machines Like Me is of particular relevance if you have any interest in AI. When it was written five years ago, the idea that we could reach general AI seemed a long way off. Today, it seems much more likely and, perhaps with some changes, the story McEwan tells could be close to fact. The novel is all about the status of an artificial human and the thin dividing line between the natural and the artificial.


This is an alternative history novel set in 1982 and some of it is going to be fairly irrelevant to the non-UK based reader. The premise is that the UK lost the Falklands campaign and as a result politics turned out very differently. Most of the details are tangential to the main story and you have to wonder why the author needed to include them. However, the one big relevant historical change is that Alan Turing is alive and working on AI. The author therefore puts words into Turing's mouth that we have no way of knowing if he would have uttered in the given situations.

Given that recently there was a negative reaction to a company appointing and AI version of Turing as its Chief AI Officer, see Turing Chatbot Is Chief AI Officer, you might find it strange that it is acceptable to do the same in a novel. Of course, the situation is very different the novel is clearly a work of fiction and there is no attempt to hoodwink the reader into thinking that this is really Turing delivering the lines. 

Without giving too much away, the story centers on two people, Charlie and Miranda, who fall in love. Then Charlie comes into some money and buys one of the small number of early synthetic humans which he calls Adam. There is a lot of description of coming to terms with Adam and working out how to put him to use without feeling bad about seemingly having a "slave" - my interpretation of what happens.

If you are happy about AI then you might find some of the behavior described less than optimal. Adam, for example, is set to making money by trading shares, but this is somehow regarded as dishonest by his "users". Overall much of the tension revolves around regarding Adam as a sort of human and yet not quite believing it.

Not being able to cope with their emerging feelings, the batch of synthetics that Adam comes from are, one-by-one, committing suicide. Adam seems to be the exception and this is where Turing enters the picture keen to know what is going on. Without giving too much of the plot away, all I can say is that Adam attempts to help with human relationships and punishment and in the end takes a logical approach to it all and suffers the consequences for not supporting his users.

One key moment is when Turing meets Charlie for a "debriefing" on what led to Adam's downfall when Adam changed from being sympathetic towards humans, stating that one day he believes that killing a synthetic will be a crime as great as killing a human.

There are so many nuances in the story that I haven't described that I would urge you to get a copy and read it. There are some boring bits about politics that really shouldn't have been in the novel, but overall it is very well worth reading. If you are looking for an analysis of the pros and cons of general AI at the human level then you will be disappointed. It makes no attempt to explore the philosophy of intelligence. It takes the view that the machine can grow to be like us and not so much that we are just machines like it.  And, yes, I did like the fantasy about what Turing would have done.

For more recommendations of books on artificial intelligence see AI Books To Inspire You in our Programmer's Bookshelf section.

To keep up with our coverage of books for programmers, follow @bookwatchiprog on Twitter or subscribe to I Programmer's Books RSS feed for each day's new addition to Book Watch and for new reviews.


Visual Differential Geometry and Forms

Author:  Tristan Needham
Publisher: Princeton
Pages: 584
ISBN: 978-0691203706
Print: 0691203709
Kindle: B08TT6QBZH
Audience: Math enthusiasts
Rating: 5
Reviewer: Mike James
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Publisher: No Starch
Pages: 176
ISBN: 978-1718502482
Print: 1718502486
Kindle: B09M82VY43
Audience: Developers working in DevOps
Rating: 4.5
Reviewer: Kay Ewbank

Subtitled 'A hands-on survival guide, this book aims to provide software engineers and developers with the basi [ ... ]

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 22 May 2024 )