Are you familiar with Moore’s Law of technological advancement? If you don’t know it by name, chances are you’ll recognise it through experience. In simple terms, the law argues that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will continue to double every two years. In short, the computer systems we use - be it in everyday machines, or in science and industry - have been getting more efficient at what they do, at a steep yet steady rate.
As we approach the end of the 21st century’s second decade, one of the key fields of technological advancement is in artificial intelligence; developing computers which have the capability to think for themselves. This may sound daunting, perhaps a bit dystopian, but chances are you’ve already taken advantage of artificial intelligence already today. Perhaps you listened to a ‘discover weekly’ selection on Spotify, used Google Maps to pick your route somewhere, or even found this article via a search engine. All of these are examples of artificial intelligence in action.
For writers and authors, artificial intelligence has long been a source of inspiration. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, and N.A. Sulway’s Rupetta, the idea of manufactured beings which become capable of human emotion has become a well established fiction trope. In the coming months at Southbank Centre, we host two celebrated authors whose respective latest novels each explore the complexities of marrying artificial intelligence with human emotion. But rather than looking to the future one looks at an alternative vision of Britain’s recent past, whilst the other takes its cues from Shelley’s 19th Century text.
Set for release on 23 May this year, Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein has been billed as an audacious exploration of identity, technology and sexuality. Spanning three centuries and multiple narratives, the book launches us all into a modern-day nightmare about just how close to a future in which humans are no longer the smartest beings, we really are.
The scene is set in 1816, when nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writes a story about creating a non-biological life-form. From ‘the fearless and therefore powerful’ monster of Frankenstein we are taken to Brexit Britain where a young transgender doctor is falling in love with a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.
We also meet the recently divorced Ron Lord, now living with Mum again, who is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere. And in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life. Funny and furious, Frankissstein is a love story about life itself.
Ian McEwan’s latest novel Machines Like Me is set in an alternative 1980s London, one in which Britain has lost the Falklands War, prompting Margaret Thatcher to battle Tony Benn for power, and the country to make an unexpected departure from Europe.
Side-stepping some of the prescient political parallels, of greater relevance to McEwan’s plot is scientist Alan Turing who, rather than having suffered a tragically early death, is alive and thriving in this alternate world. Turing’s work in artificial intelligence has led to the production of a ‘manufactured human’ with ‘plausible intelligence and looks’. Only 25 of the ‘robots’ are available, with our narrator, Charlie, one of the first to purchase one.
Charlie, in the early throes of a relationship with his upstairs neighbour Miranda soon finds himself in an unexpected love triangle involving his newly purchased synthetic human. Could a machine really understand the human heart? And what is it that truly makes us human? These two questions duly sit at the heart of a novel which explores the complex morality at the heart of artificial intelligence, as well as the future of the novel, and the role of chance in history.
Ian McEwan joined journalist Martha Kearney to reflect on his life in writing and his latest novel, Machines Like Me, at Southbank Centre on 15 April.
The venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International, Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.