As many people continue to wonder about the different aspects of technology, specifically, the most recent field of artificial intelligence, a new book has made a timely appearance, Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book covers many new topics and ideas relating to artificial intelligence as well as an array of familiar “human” ideas and concepts that have been present for centuries. A few common themes within this book have been the learning capabilities of technology, its comparison to human nature and ability to imitate it, and the way in which this technology affects human relationships both with the technology and with other people, particularly family. The presence of artificial intelligence in this novel presents itself as a device known as an Artificial Friend, a very human-like machine with an ability to quickly learn and assume human qualities, seemingly including human emotions.
A theme that seems to take a backseat to the more prevalent concepts of humanity, relationships, loyalty, and connection, is that of privacy. Reading through, it is practically impossible to miss Klara’s (the artificial friend purchased for Josie, the main character) constant references to her desire to “give privacy” to the members of her new family. Klara, whose point of view the story is told through, mentions this so often in fact, that one could amusingly presume her ‘giving of privacy’ to be an agenda second only to serving and helping Josie. Not very long after coming to live with Josie, Klara recalls this instance on page 38: “…the mother had come back earlier than usual, and she and Josie were talking on the highstools of the Island – and to give privacy, I’d gone to stand beside the refrigerator.”. Again on page 40, Klara recalls “I was present, as Josie liked me to be, but wishing to give privacy, stood in the shadows, my face turned to the refrigerator.”. In both of these instances, Klara declines to inhabit the space near Josie and her mother, Chrissie, out of fear that it would somehow infringe on their privacy. Based on the frequency and context of Klara’s concern for this, it could be reasonably concluded that many of her references to what she considers privacy may only be a matter of comfort. While standing by the fridge, for example, Klara is still able to hear their conversation, and the only positive aspect that would result from that action would be the humans’ peace of mind knowing that someone (or something) is not looming over their shoulder, as opposed to their privacy in its actual sense. One indication that Klara’s sense of “giving privacy” entails giving comfort is her thoughts during her visit to Rick when delivering a message from Josie, on page 93: “I saw Rick was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and I wanted to leave to give privacy, but Miss Helen then went on speaking to me.”. Her desire to give privacy in this situation seems to have been a direct result of noticing Rick’s discomfort. Therefore, it is likely that Klara sees giving privacy, in this case, or in other cases, the illusion of privacy, as a means by which to achieve comfort in her companions and acquaintances. Klara is so self-conscious of her potential to lessen others’ privacy that in the situation just mentioned where a letter is being delivered to Rick, Klara, upon first meeting Rick at the door, leads anxiously with this disclaimer, almost as if failure to do so will result in her untimely demise: “Excuse me,’ [Klara] said quickly. ‘I didn’t wish to take your privacy. I came on an important errand.” (page 89). Klara then mentally takes note that “He didn’t seem angry, but said nothing and went on watching me.” as if she was already expecting him to be furious with her for invading his privacy. Regardless of the other human feelings such as comfort that Klara seems to categorize under “privacy”, it is clear that Klara has been instilled from day one with the instinct to provide people the courtesy of privacy, whatever-all that entails, whenever possible.
Aside from Klara, the human-like device seemingly always concerned about privacy, there is another device of artificial intelligence whose mere existence immerses itself into the overall issue of privacy, and that is the life-like birds engineered and constructed by Rick. Klara, upon meeting Rick for the first time on page 42, observes the following: “[Rick] had in his hands a circular device and was looking at the sky between the two houses where a group of birds was flying in formation, and I quickly realized these were machine birds. He kept his gaze on them and when he touched his control, the birds responded by changing their pattern.” These birds being designed by Rick were one of his main projects; an endeavor that consumed much of his time. This was so much so the case that later on in the book, when Rick comes to see Josie who is in poor health at the time, Josie upon waking asks him only of how his birds are coming along, as if it’s the only thing she can think of to ask, just to make conversation.
In his attempt at getting into the Atlas Brookings college via the approval of the chairman of a certain scholarship committee, Rick presents his ‘bird project’ as the main substance of his portfolio. This interaction prompts an important dialogue between Rick and Vance that opens up an interesting question regarding these birds.
‘Now, Rick,’ Mr. Vance said, ‘I’m very ignorant about these matters. Even so, I’m getting the impression your drones have high surveillance capabilities.’
‘The birds are data-gathering, that’s right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be used for privacy-invasive activity. They have many potential applications. Security, even babysitting. Then again, perhaps there are people out there we need to keep an eye on.’
‘Like criminals, you mean.’
‘Or paramilitaries. Or weird cults.’
‘I follow you. Yes, these are all very interesting. You don’t see any real ethical issues here?’
‘ I’m sure, sir, there are all kinds of ethical issues. But in the end, it’s for legislators to decide how these things get regulated, not people like me. For now, I just want to learn as much as I can, so I can take my understanding to the next level.’
‘ That’s well said.’ Mr. Vance nodded and continued looking through Rick’s notebook”
While it certainly seems reasonable that a technology such as this would fall under scrutiny for privacy invasion, its inherent reason for even existing being undercover surveillance, it is also equally as interesting that such scrutiny is taking place at a time when the exact same measure has already been applied to a different creature whose existence poses even more of a threat to privacy: humans themselves, remodeled as life model decoys. This is a conflict of morals that cannot be ignored – that Rick and Vance would be casually discussing the troubling and worrisome ethical implications of creating life-like robot birds, all the while being in the very presence of a life-like robot human, Klara, overlooking and listening in on their very conversation. The conclusion to be drawn from this situation is either that the two characters do not see the irony of their own conversation – or that there is somehow a disconnect – something that would distinguish Klara’s potential to “surveil” and “take privacy” from that of the birds’ whose development are being proposed. It has already been established that Klara has an inherent inclination to avoid engaging in any “privacy-invading activity,” and given Rick’s attribution of regulatory responsibility of his birds to “legislators”, it can be wondered whether Klara’s behavior or this sort is also attributable to some level of programming that was proactively implemented due to legal requirements and to an extent that was so cautious of not invading privacy that it was perhaps excessive, and possibly even counterproductive to the device’s goals of aiding her companions. Klara, seemingly having the ability to independently audit her process of thinking, even wonders this herself. On page 76, Klara has this thought: “I did my best to give privacy by remaining on the Button Couch and fixing my gaze over the fields. I couldn’t help hearing what was being said behind me, and though I sometimes thought I shouldn’t listen, I remembered it was my duty to learn as much about Josie as possible, and that by listening in this way, I might gather fresh observations otherwise unavailable to me.”. Klara is acknowledging the conflict in her own thought process regarding how to prioritize her goals: helping Josie, and providing privacy. Furthermore, Klara never actually explains why she has such a desire to “give privacy”, rather, she simply attributes her decisions to that core reason. At one point, Klara even confesses that this root instinct to give privacy does not come from any objectively identifiable reason, but rather some abstract pressure: “I knew the Sun was now very near me, and although I thought at times I should stand up, as when receiving a customer, something else suggested I would steal less privacy – and be less likely to cause annoyance – if I remained seated.” (page 104). This unidentifiable “something else” mentioned by Klara, even further proves that the instinct is the root of some sort of programming, as opposed to a part of Klara’s own thought process, which is where many of her other decisions seem to have originated from, as opposed to from programming, with a clear example of this being her assertion that the nourishment from the light of the sun would cause Josie to recover from the sickness she was facing.
In relation to this assumption made by Klara of both the sun’s life, and furthermore, healing capabilities, a question is raised as to why, given the continued and likely improved presence of the internet as confirmed by Rick’s mention of its existence during this time (“I’ve used various information sources that I found online.” – Rick, pg 153), Klara was not equipped with some means of accessing a global database of information, with which to communicate both to and from, in order to continually enhance and update her knowledge. Had such a capability been present in Klara, and given that if one existed she would have known of it, Klara would have certainly referenced it extremely often throughout her experiences, especially as a means to further understand the capabilities of the sun. The fact that this level of technology would have been available at this point in time, but was not utilized in devices of artificial intelligence, substantiates even further the notion that Klara’s abilities were intentionally limited, and her thought process isolated during development, most likely on the sole account that allowing such capabilities would have resulted in privacy-related incidents and concerns. Given that such is the case, this would explain why Rick and Vance are able to, in their right minds, discuss the privacy-related implications of life-like birds while having their conversation overheard by a life-like human.
Privacy, though an important concept to consider in these ways, is not the only matter of ethics under threat throughout the book. Deception, mainly through the vehicle of self-deception that Josie’s mother fabricates in anticipation of Josie’s death, but also through a hinted intention to deceive others, is another issue which questions the ethical questions raised by the use of this technology. Mr. Capaldi, on page 126 says to Paul “There are always ethical choices around any work. That’s true, whether we get paid for it or we don’t.” but the extent to which Jossie’s mother Chrissie recognizes and attempts to abide by these ethical boundaries is put into question by her implication the Klara’s “continuation” of Josie would apply not only to carrying on her relationship with Chrissie, but also her relationship with Rick. On page 133, Chrissie says this when she’s alone with Klara:
“Look, there’s something else you might consider. Maybe it doesn’t mean so much to you, me loving you. But here’s something else. That boy. Rick. I can see he’s something to you. Don’t speak, let me speak. What I’m saying is that Rick worships Josie, always has done. If you continue Josie, you’ll have not just me but him. What will it matter that he’s not lifted? We’ll find a way to live together. Away from…everything. We’ll stay out there, just ourselves, away from all of this. You, me, Rick, his mother if she wants. It could work. But you have to pull it off. You have to learn Josie in her entirety. You hear me, honey?’
‘Until today,’ I said. ‘Until just now. I believed it was my duty to save Josie, to make her well. But perhaps this is a better way.”Rick, of course, has not made so much as a remote indication at any point in this book that he would entertain such an idea, and Chrissie’s assertion that in order to “pull this off”, Klara would have to “learn Josie in her entirety”, seems to further confirm her belief that this future relationship between “Josie” and Rick would only work if Klara was to imitate Josie so accurately that not only would Chrissie be able to justify her self deception because of the extreme similarity between Josie and her new counterfeit, but Rick would actually be mislead to believe that nothing has changed! This revelation of the extent to which Chrissie is imposing her plan on those around her, without their knowledge, is a surprising deviation from what previously had been assumed to be nothing more than a way for her to cope with her loss, and introduces deception as a huge theme since, despite its relatively infrequent appearance, its usage in this case would have had a tremendous effect on the trajectory of the rest of the novel. Thankfully (and supposedly), Josie did end up pulling away from her sickness and recovering, and this replication of Josie was a scenario that never had to be observed. Nonetheless, the theme of deception – and privacy, both contributing to the overall theme of ethical decency and idealism, plays a substantial role all throughout the book, as explored by both of these passages. These themes will become even more prevalent and disagreed upon as time progresses, technology expands, and scenarios such as those discussed in this book become ever more common.