I’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently and what it will be like. Perhaps it’s because for the last year with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of change and adaptation to new things and at the same time a lot of the days have had a certain sameness to them with lockdowns and stay-at-home orders meaning we can’t do a lot of the things we might like to (though here at VPL we do have lots of online programs to keep people entertained and informed!). And while some people’s lives are busier than ever, many of us have just had a lot more time than usual to think about what the future holds for ourselves and for all of humanity.
With the future on my mind, earlier this year I stumbled across a mention of World Futures Day — which futurists of the world can’t entirely seem to decide between calling World Futures Day and World Future Day — and it prompted me to read and think about our ever-changing world even more, as well as to make a list of suggested books to read for World Futures Day. (These futurists also haven’t entirely landed on a consistent day of the year for World Futures Day, but it’s always celebrated in early March and most people seemed to agree on March 1 for this year. Seriously though, futurists? Get your act together and pick a fixed day of the year!)
Without explicitly thinking about it, the World Futures Day book list I put together is made up entirely of non-fiction books. And while there are certainly lots of great non-fiction books about how new and evolving technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) will affect businesses, work, and the environment, when it comes to how these technologies will affect people, I think fiction — in books, TV, and movies — is where the most compelling ideas are explored. Which brings me to Klara and the Sun.
When I heard a new book by Kazuo Ishiguro would be released this year and that it would be a science fiction novel told from the perspective of a robot known as an “artificial friend” or AF , I knew it would be one I’d read as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. While I was late to read Ishiguro’s modern classic Never Let Me Go, only getting to it last year, it quickly became a favourite and I hoped reading his new book Klara and the Sun would live up to the experience of reading Never Let Me Go. For me, it definitely did.
Klara and the Sun is great. It is somewhat slow-moving at times, so it won’t be for everyone, but the AF Klara is a fantastic character. It’s fascinating to see through Klara’s eyes and watch her relationships with people develop over time and her understanding of the world grow, though just like many of us humans, she has some clear blind spots that she will never fully understand. The story starts off with Klara in a store alongside other AFs, each one unique and hoping to be chosen by a child to be purchased and taken home to be their friend. Klara does indeed get chosen to be an AF for Josie, a 14-year-old who is ill and desperately wants her as a companion. The novel follows Klara and her relationships with Josie and the people in Josie’s life while slowly revealing important details about the world they live in. Over the course of the story, the reader discovers the reason for Josie’s illness and what may happen to her and to Klara.
I would definitely recommend Klara and the Sun to anyone interested in science fiction that focuses on ideas, characters, and relationships. If you can’t get a copy of Klara and the Sun quite yet, here are some other great stories with similar themes.
Exhalation, by Ted Chiang This collection of stories includes the novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which won the Hugo award for Best Novella in 2011 (though I can’t see it winning any awards for best title!). The “software objects” in this story are AI creatures known as digients that live in virtual worlds humans can visit. Unlike many AI entities in fiction, digients start off as relatively simple beings that need to be trained by humans, similar to how people might train their pets. As the software behind digients develops, they become better at learning to the point that they have intelligence beyond pets, more comparable young children. But what will happen when new, distinct virtual worlds become more popular? Will people leave behind their digients for the newer, smarter versions available there? Or will they feel a responsibility to the artificial creatures they’ve raised?
Marjorie Prime The main character in this movie is a woman in her 80s who is experiencing the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease and whose family has hired a service to generate a holographic AI recreation of her late husband to keep her company and help her relive memories of their life together. This is a dark and quite sad film, but an interesting exploration of the idea of AI companions for people experiencing dementia or other illnesses. While holographic AI recreations of deceased family members are likely a bit down the road, AI robots designed to be companions to the elderly aren’t just the future, they’re already here. For a lighter touch on AI companions for seniors, check out the movie Robot & Frank.
Ex Machina One of my favourite science fiction movies, Ex Machina follows Caleb, a programmer for a search engine company who is invited to spend a week at the remote home of the company’s reclusive CEO. There he is introduced to Ava, an artificially intelligent robot, and told that his job it to test her to see if he feels that she is conscious and capable of human-like thought even though he knows she’s a robot. Of course, while Caleb is testing Ava, perhaps she’s testing him as well? This is a great movie with impressive visual effects and a very cool soundtrack.