Loneliness and the friendship of technology

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robot friend

I’m now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, which is about AI, and tonight I watched a webinar organised by the independent bookshops’ challenge to Amazon, bookshop.org, in which he was interviewed about it from his home by an independent bookseller in Bath.

He was fascinating. I’m half way through the book, and the themes are in a Venn diagram with my newest novel Perfect Girl’s simulants, which makes it especially pertinent to read.

Like Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun is emotional, deep, and about teenagers and technology.

Its narrator is an Artificial Friend, which are as common as perhaps games consoles nowadays. She is a robot designed to help teenagers not feel lonely. Her perspective on humans and on the world is illuminating.

In my novel Perfect Girl, simulants are artificial humans designed to be better than the humans they replace. I use it to discuss the effect this might have on our attitude to disability and illness. Its narrator is a teenager with cerebral palsy.

This evening, Ishiguro discussed loneliness, as a defining characteristic of what it is to be human.

Today, after one year of lockdown, I definitely feel lonely because I miss people. My partner goes to work, where she interacts with her clients and other staff, but I see no one but the odd shop keeper, apart from online.

As an only child I’m perhaps better equipped than most to handle solitude, and don’t mind it that much. In fact being an only child probably helps a person to be a writer, as it is a lonely activity specialising in inventing imaginary people.

But all the same, this lockdown is, in Wales, now almost 4 months old, and the lack of real human connection, one year since the start of the first lockdown, is wearing.

Still, at least I am healthy and fit, and not living alone but with someone who loves me, and I have not lost anyone close to the virus, all things to be grateful for, but I miss my sons very much and look forward to the time when I can see them in person again.

If I were living alone, I might be grateful to be able to buy or hire a Klara, as long as I were sure my personal data were not being collected.

I know people who treat Siri or Alexa as a companion, sharing things with them that I would find impossible to share with a corporation. It doesn’t seem to bother them.

I am grateful instead that I can imagine characters and scenarios, as a way of connecting with what it means to be human.

And I am grateful for technology like Zoom and Telegram, that enables connection. They are now our firm social scaffolding, despite, pre-pandemic, being blamed by some for being used by teenagers as a substitute for face-to-face communication, and so being anti-social.

If Ishiguro is correct, and loneliness is a baseline human quality, anything which makes us feel less lonely is welcome. The question of whether we can ever really know another person, which Ishiguro also raised in the webinar, remains open.

For those who do treat Siri or Alexa as a companion, Apple or Amazon may know them better than they know themselves… or at least differently.

Technology is a boon in many ways. But, as present opposition to Facebook shows, we also need strong legislatures who are able to curb the anti-social, or exploitative tendencies of some who wield it.

This is also a theme of Perfect Girl. I hope Ishiguro also discusses it in the remaining half of Klara I have yet to read.

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