Ian McEwan talks of man, machine and love in new book

Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan

New Delhi: Love, mystery and robots meet in critically-acclaimed author Ian McEwan's new book which also warns of the power to invent things beyond our control.

"Machines Like Me" occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans.

With Miranda's assistance, he co-designs Adam's personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever - a love triangle soon forms.

McEwan's subversive new novel, published by Penguin imprint Jonathan Cape, poses fundamental questions: What makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart?


The figure of acclaimed computer scientist Alan Turing is central to the novel - his survival ushers in the Internet age at a much earlier date and leads to the rise of AI.

But McEwan does not think that his influence on our own world is underestimated.

"No, I think he's received his magnificent due. As the digital age has reached into every corner of our lives, we look back at the theoretical work Turing did in the 1930s and have grasped how insightful and far-reaching it was," he says.

According to the author, his aim in the book is to make the '80s different rather than better or worse.

In the novel, the narrator Charlie and his neighbour and lover Miranda are both involved in the creation of the AI Adam's personality, and he then takes on a life of his own.

On the characters, McEwan says, "Characters in fiction evolve. In a loop, that's hard to describe, they both drive the course of events and are shaped by them. They sometimes surprise their creator. In 'Machines Like Me', the narrator box-ticks his way through to the creation of Adam's personality. Later he learns that Adam comes with all sorts of pre-dispositions, and also, a wired-in machine-learning experience that will guide and shape him."

He is also of the view that we are a very long way off in creating an AI like Adam in reality.

"We don't even have an efficient way yet of storing electricity. Adam can run 17 km in two hours. To propel a 165-pound robot through that distance would need a huge and heavy battery. The human brain, at just over a litre, with perhaps a 100 billion neurons, and an average axon spread to 10,000 synapses firing 10 times a second - and all of it running without overheating on 25 watts - the power of one dim light bulb - what a piece of work!"

He argues that "nature has a more than 3 billion year start on us. But my Adam and Eve will come one day. Perhaps sooner than we think."

In this novel, the Beatles have reformed, and some famous works of literature have unfamiliar names.

McEwan says the premise was that if science is in a different place in 1982, then politics, literature and everything else will be shifted too.

"Enjoyable, but I tried to keep this trope to the background, otherwise it would drown out the central moral issue - a rape and its consequences - that are at the heart of the novel. So - practically the whole world, real or imagined didn't make it into my pages," he says.

McEwan has authored 17 books. His first published work, a collection of short stories "First Love, Last Rites", won the Somerset Maugham Award. His novel "Amsterdam" won the 1998 Booker Prize.