Clara and the sun The new novel from the Nobel Prize for Literature tells the story of a robot with artificial intelligence… very human. A look full of poetry and disappointment in a world caught in the grip of colossal turmoil.
Book after book, Kazuo Ishiguro changes place, time, and genre, but retains his masterful art of the unsaid and his themes – memory and its doubts, the value of human life, and our essential isolation. Reconnect with the miserable accents ofalways with me author Today’s leftovers stages in Clara and the sun False friend. Or a robot aiming to keep a teenage girl, Josie, afflicted with a mysterious illness…
While describing a world rife with genetic manipulation, where artificial intelligence has replaced some men, the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature took inspiration from children’s books to create its own narrator, lending this novel a unique tone and grace.
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Madame Figaro. Why did you adopt the robot’s point of view?
Kazuo Ishiguro. – Unlike my other narrators, Clara is a blank canvas without prejudice. It is extremely naive – it is regularly mistaken in its interpretation of human behavior – while learning at an extraordinary speed because it is an artificial intelligence. The emotional quality of the story for me lies in its childish beliefs that the sun, for example, is a good god.
Clara naturally raises the question: What does it mean to be human? There is no need for a philosophical discussion about the soul or what makes us unique, it suffices to make speech a creature that is not human, but almost. Seeing things through the eyes of the robot allowed me to create visual effects. She manages to adopt the “cubist” approach when Clara simultaneously sees several copies of the same face in front of her, for example.
Are you concerned about the consequences of scientific progress if it is not ethically framed?
I think we are at the dawn of a new era. Consider CRISPR (aka “DNA Scissors”, allows you to modify any DNA, editor’s note) For which Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuel Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize. This offers extraordinary benefits to human health, with the potential to treat genetic diseases, cancer, etc. But it also revives the specter of Nazi eugenics…we can change the nature of humans forever, genetically speaking.
It’s the same with artificial intelligence. It was like the time of the industrial age and the invention of the steam engine…I wanted to show a world that had not yet grasped these massive upheavals, and could go in one direction as well as the other. This is our situation today. With the pandemic and other sources of alarm, such as global warming, it is easy to ignore the challenges posed by current science. And a lot of people who are at the forefront of it don’t want to talk about it. The big tech companies that have already invested heavily in this area don’t want legislation or public panic. They prefer to develop all this out of sight. I think genetic modification and artificial intelligence are two formidable weapons to fight upcoming epidemics or extensions of the epidemics we’re going through. But we need to think more about it, and start a discussion.
Did you want to criticize the meritocracy that our democracies promote?
At first glance, the merit system appears to be a more just system than that of caste privilege, which has long dominated many civilizations. But if we study how it works, we see first that no one leaves with the same opportunities and the same capital: we come from different economic and social backgrounds. Then, if merit is, say, a ladder, what do you do with those at the bottom? Should we judge people to be miserable and humiliated simply because they have less intellectual capacity or because they are less efficient at producing money? The question becomes even more pressing if we are able to create a class of individuals who are physically stronger and able to absorb more information than the average… We will then end up with some form of apartheid!
Philosophers like Michael Sandel (Author of The Tyranny of Merit, Ed. Albin Michel, NDLR) We are already beginning to question the meritocratic model, which is dangerous because it gives the impression that it offers moral justification, the “right” to act harshly toward people who are unfit to compete in a fundamentally competitive society, devoid of compassion or humility. Hence it is very practical, in capitalist societies aiming at continued economic growth, to award ‘merit’ and praise only those who contribute to it…look at American society where if you are poor, it is up to you the fault ‘deserved’.
Unity is everywhere Clara and the sun. Is this a way to hold a mirror to the contemporary world?
If the pandemic has amplified phenomena that already exist – I’m thinking of Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone together: more and more technologies, less and less human relations (Ed. L’Échappée) I am interested in a deeper unity, the human condition, at the heart of all my work which I try to understand through all of the first person narratives. We are capable of constructing complex worlds around us, our desires, our memories and our fantasies, but this makes each one of us a kind of fortress.
No matter how deeply we want to comfort someone, to be with him or her, there is a limit that cannot be overcome. We do our best to forget about it. We create structures – families, communities, nations… – to overcome this, but we nonetheless carry our unity with us. While writing I thought of the paintings of Edward Hopper, as well as those of Ralston Crawford and Charles Demuth, who in the 1920s painted images in which humans were lost, as a reaction to the era of Mechanization and Fordism. For our part, we are dealing with new technologies, data collection, algorithms…
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