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Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel laureate in Literature, talks about his latest novel “Klara and the Sun”, ...
2021-03-10 09:00:00

An Old Writer Looks at the New World
An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro

Photo by Andy Kelly/Unsplash
An Old Writer Looks at the New World
An Old Writer Looks at the New World

In Klara and the Sun, his first book since receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro depicts a world to be, where machines will have the same emotions, dreams and need for love as humans do.

Read in 17 minutes

Sylwia Stano: What have you done to prevent yourself from being struck by hubris after winning the Nobel Prize?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I hope I might be protected to some extent by the advice I’ve had from other Nobel Prize winners. I haven’t met many writers who have won the Nobel Prize, but I have met a lot of scientists who have. Among the scientific community, people have identified something called the ‘genius syndrome’. There is an acknowledged phenomenon of scientists who think that because they won the Nobel Prize, they are a genius at everything. This becomes embarrassing. It’s very obvious that they don’t know anything about these areas and they make fools out of themselves. It’s more obvious in the science field. But I think possibly people who win the Nobel in Literature are just as vulnerable to that. So I had to protect myself against not so much hubris, but the ‘genius syndrome’. I had to remember that I was given my Nobel Prize for doing something quite small. Just my little bit of work. I should understand that I’m not able to now branch out into all kinds of things. I should be quite humbled, as well as very grateful.

How has winning the Nobel Prize changed your life and the way you write?

I’m not sure about that. It was a wonderful experience. A fantastic honour. I feel quite embarrassed that I was given that prize when there are so many great writers who have not won it. I’m very grateful, but I feel like it happened in a parallel universe to a different version of me. And when I come back to my study, it’s exactly the same. It’s very untidy, there is paper everywhere, my problems as a writer are exactly the same. In fact, they are usually quite large. I don’t seem to have become any more intelligent or any more imaginative. Often the reverse, I think.

As far as this book, Klara and the Sun, is concerned, I was one-third of the way through it when the Nobel Prize struck me. Almost like a lorry or something – hitting me while I was walking in the street. I wasn’t expecting it in any kind of way. But after about six months – during which I had to give my attention fully to the Nobel Prize – I returned to the novel. Because it was already firmly on its tracks and I’d been planning it for a long time, I don’t think that the Nobel Prize had any effect whatsoever on this particular novel.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic had any effect on your writing?

I had just finished Klara and the Sun and handed it in by December 2019. I did some post-submission work on it. Editing and all those things writers have to do – debating and arguing with various editors from different parts of the world; is there too much of this, is there not enough of that. But by March 2020, this work was finished. So the pandemic didn’t really touch Klara and the Sun. Some people have already remarked to me that perhaps there are many echoes of the pandemic in the kind of dystopian setting of Klara and the Sun. That is purely coincidental. At least I think so.

I must say that the past year has been fuelled by huge things in the world. Not just the pandemic. We had all the events in the United States, the George Floyd murder and all the stuff around the election campaign, which is still really on-going. We have had Britain leaving Europe. I must say it’s a time when it feels like many things are changing. Particularly to somebody of my generation, brought up on liberal humanist traditions, it feels like perhaps things were never the way we thought they were in the first place. There are large areas of the world that we have misread.

So I would want things like the pandemic and all the other things that have happened to have an effect on my writing. It wouldn’t be a good thing if I just said that there’s no difference. I think a pandemic is a huge thing. A symbolic thing, as well.

Why symbolic?

The pandemic seems to remind us – in a brutal, often tragic way – that we can’t really do very much unless we cooperate. We can’t beat this pandemic at the medical, social or economic levels either, unless we have very strong institutions of international cooperation. This is so blindingly obvious! It has made us realize how almost fictional the borders are that we have erected in between our communities. I’m hoping that if even one good thing comes out of the pandemic, it is that it will remind us that we need to work together.

Why did you choose to write from the perspective of artificial intelligence – AI – and how did you come up with the idea of an artificial friend? What was the inspiration?

I have been interested in artificial intelligence as a subject for some time. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to have had very interesting conversations with some of the leading people in the field. Once I was invited to the headquarters – the cutting edge – of the artificial intelligence companies. I was developing an interest in that field and also in some of the debates about the dangers and the opportunities of AI. But it was just an interest.

Klara came from a different direction altogether. She came from the world of children’s literature. Those colour books that we read to young children, four to five year olds. One reason is that I find in those books a kind of strange logic. A very weird, crazy logic that seems very natural and is permitted in that world. In young children’s literature it is very natural, for instance, for the moon outside of the bedroom window to be a creature that speaks through the window, or for a child to just open the window, put up a ladder and walk across to the moon. And sit on it.

I found that fascinating and liberating. It occurred to me that if I had an artificial intelligent creature at the centre of my novel, a lot of that licence would become open to me. Klara could start her life almost like a baby, knowing almost nothing about the world, but learning very, very fast. As small children do, she would often put together the limited pieces of evidence that she could see and come to some kind of odd conclusions. That happens quite a lot. Even as Klara becomes more and more sophisticated about some things, she remains very childlike in her beliefs about other things. In many ways, I would say Klara is related to the kind of teddy bears, soft toys or dolls that might be the main character in a small children’s book, just as much as she is related to the androids or robots of science fiction.

What kind of research did you do for the novel?

I was very fortunate in that. I’ve been invited, mainly because of my earlier novel Never Let Me Go, to a number of discussions where scientists wanted to debate the social implications of various breakthrough scientific discoveries.

I am also very interested in the area of gene editing. This and artificial intelligence are the two very important areas of science where we are having major breakthroughs right at this moment. As far as AI is concerned, I had a series of conversations with one of the greatest minds of AI. We would often sit in a small, local café near where I live in London, and sometimes it was slightly embarrassing because we were talking and people could overhear us. We must have sounded like completely crazy people! I’m sure people thought that we were absolutely insane!

One thing is relevant for the writing perhaps. Artificial intelligence has moved on greatly since the days when human beings just programmed computers. The kind of things that used to beat chess grandmasters – that was a very old fashioned way of AI. There was then an era of what was called supervised learning – AI that learned with the aid of human beings supervising it every step of the way. For instance, the AI would be shown pictures of cats and dogs, and the human being would give it a tick if it correctly identified a dog. We have now for some time been in the era of a different generation of AI. They learn by a process called ‘reinforcement learning’, where they are just given a mission or a task and they teach themselves. Their power is so great that they can process literally millions of books in a few minutes. Klara is somebody like that.

What are the greatest learning challenges for AI?

Often AI programmes, seen to be brilliant in many aspects way beyond our human capabilities, often cannot do very simple things. For instance, AI would struggle – I was told – to understand how you make a cup of tea. That kind of task is very difficult, because an AI would learn how to make a cup of tea in a particular kitchen. If you asked the AI to make a cup of tea in a different kitchen, it would not know how to do it, because the refrigerator is a different distance from the kettle and the window is on a different side of the room. So the AI gets very confused. While as human beings we are very good at understanding what making a cup of tea means! We can just enter a kitchen that we have never entered before and we can discard all the information that is irrelevant in making a cup of tea.

We just make the cup of tea.

I found it very appealing that an AI character can be a mixture of super intelligence and ignorance. In particular, I thought I could give Klara these very childlike qualities that would remain with her. Despite all this sophistication, she’d develop as the story goes on.

Photo by Lukas/Unsplash
Photo by Lukas/Unsplash

Can you talk about the influence AI is having on our lives and how you think it may develop in the future?

When I’m talking about AI, to some extent I’m falling victim to the ‘genius syndrome’ that I described earlier. But I understand that there are enormous benefits to AI. Artificial intelligence will help us in many areas. On the other hand, there are three main areas of concern.

One is the question of employment. I think there is a consensus that AI will cause us to lose the majority of jobs. Unlike in the past – when automation destroyed some jobs, but created new ones, too – I think there is a feeling that this time there will be no replacement jobs. We have to abandon the model that we have had for centuries, where the majority of people actually work. We have to find some other kind of system. The people who don’t work will have some kind of spiritual crisis, because for so long human beings in societies have relied on the idea that each individual contributes to the welfare of the larger community. People who are not able to do this suffer a complete loss of status and prestige – and self respect. I think it’s a big challenge for society, what we do with that.

The second thing is the black box problem that many people talk about. The black box problem is that AI often comes to conclusions that we respect, yet we don’t understand how these conclusions were reached. One of the things that really worries me is that inside the black box we will hardwire prejudices and biases. In the past, we’ve been able to unpack things like racism or we could get rid of the idea that slavery was an OK institution. We got rid of different kinds of assumptions. The danger is that we will bake a generation’s prejudices into the AI and we won’t be able to take them out.

The third thing is that AI poses a threat to liberal democracy. But I don’t personally think that there is a threat of AI robots taking over the world.

Klara and the Sun seems to have a clear connection with your novel Never Let Me Go. Can you talk a little about that connection?

I wasn’t conscious of Klara and the Sun being a kind of companion book when I was writing it. But there is some sort of relationship. Not just because both of them seem to take place in a sci-fi dystopian near future. They have many things in common. Both novels are quite concerned about the question of the human soul. Do human beings have a soul? And what is the meaning of human love? I possibly wrote Klara and the Sun as a kind of reply to Never Let Me Go. As I’ve gotten older – and Never Let Me Go was published 16 years ago – I’ve cheered up a little bit. Never Let Me Go seems to me to have a very sad vision. There was something in me that wanted to reply to that sadness. I wanted to write a book that expressed hope and optimism. It’s kind of an emotional thing.

An important topic of Klara and the Sun seems to be love. Love remains classic. Do you think that basic instincts will not change with great scientific advances?

I don’t know what love will be like for future generations. But when you look at ancient Greek tragedy or other literature from a long time ago, it’s surprising how contemporary it feels. Particularly around the relationships people have with each other. Hector and his wife in the Iliad – it actually feels so contemporary! I would like to think there is something universal and eternal about the way we relate to each other – not just in what we narrowly call love, but in all our typical relationships that we have within the family and among friends.

I suppose in Klara and the Sun I’m posing that question. The steps that we seem to have made in technology and in areas like artificial intelligence and gene editing – will this actually change our view of what an individual human being is? We live in a world where every time we try to do some shopping online or when we try to watch something on the television, suddenly some mysterious forces recommend us various programmes that have been selected for us, and interestingly we feel that actually they got it right. This is exactly what I want to see!

It is becoming more and more normal to accept that perhaps we are a set of algorithms – much more than we thought before. Algorithms that are predictable to some extent. This can change the view of our uniqueness. At the moment, I love my wife and my daughter because they are unique, I think. If they were somebody else, I wouldn’t love them. But instead of the idea that we have a unique soul inside of the body – which is very hard to locate scientifically, but we just believe is somewhere – we are moving towards thinking that we are just a set of algorithms that could be quantified and set out. If you had powerful enough machines, you would be able to more or less recreate them! Indeed, you could actually investigate and excavate in any human individual all of the desires and wishes and impulses and intellectual habits.

Will this start to change the way we think about each other within the family?

I wrote just a simple story about a mother who fears that her daughter is ill and might die. She is faced with the question, is her daughter irreplaceable? Or in this kind of modern age, can she actually be preserved? Beyond death. Not in some kind of ghoulish Edgar Allan Poe way, but could all the things that make her unique be preserved as data? It’s not so much the possibility of doing this that interests me. My question is: what does it do to human love?

Can AI also replace human novelists?

One of the embarrassing conversations in the London café people could overhear was this one. I was asking if there was an AI programme called Tolstoy 3 that could write novels. Not just things that are superficially like novels, but novels that actually move people. Make people cry, make people laugh, make people have a real insight into the world. The Tolstoy 3 doesn’t exist, but at a superficial level, yes, I think AI can do that.

If we are talking about books that we really value… Artificial intelligence has solved or mastered human empathy. It has understood human emotions to an extent that it can – let’s just use this word – manipulate readers’ emotions. To me that is a very interesting border to cross. Not only because my job would be threatened. That’s not so important – as long as we’ve got interesting books. But I think that once AI can do that, then of course a political campaign could be run very effectively by an AI that understands human emotions; it could identify where the huge frustrations are in the society. How could you manipulate the emotions of the electorate? When an AI can write books that make you cry or laugh, I think AI is probably in a position to come up with a big idea – the next big idea! Like communism, Nazism or capitalism. Or something like money, whatever it is. Around which human and devil will circle and fight. That’s why that question about Tolstoy 3 is very interesting.

To what extent is Klara and the Sun also a novel about religion?

Maybe it is not about religion per se. Religion is a very complicated, very nuanced and layered human phenomenon. But at some fundamental level, Klara’s relationship with the sun is very much like human beings’ relationship with God – or all the kinds of gods human societies have created. Klara is a solar powered machine, and so it would be natural for her to think the sun is the source of all the nourishment and all the good things. There is a small step from that to believing that the sun is a powerful, protective figure that watches over her wherever she goes and will help her when she really needs help.

It felt natural to me that this human instinct would be there, for a god. That human beings would retain at least this wish for some protective, powerful being. And I have to say that during these really difficult months of the pandemic, I’ve noticed in myself – and I’m not a religious person, I’ve never been a religious person in any sense – but I can identify this wish for something to come and rescue me that is much more powerful than any government or any group of health experts. I want to believe that there is something over and above. In our secular age, we put a lot of our ideas about god, or similar ideas that Klara has about the sun, onto science. That’s a hope I haven’t quite let go yet. I’m hoping the science will come and help us.

What do you think will change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

We are all going a little bit crazy in this situation, so this may sound a little bit overdramatic. We have been observing this strange time. I don’t want to blame the Americans for everything, but there has been this strange disregard for fact and truth that has been growing in a lot of parts of the world – particularly in the United States. We seem to have reached a point where we are told that it is true that half of America believes that Donald Trump won the election and it was stolen from him. Although there is not a shred of evidence. I think a lot of people feel it doesn’t really matter because they ‘feel the truth’. It seems that for some time we’ve been drifting towards this strange definition of truth that lies in what you feel.

At the same time, we have watched science really help us and guide us and hopefully rescue us from this pandemic. I am very aware that in the scientific world there is a completely different attitude to the truth. People disagree all the time, but there is rigour there. There is a system within which arguments take place. Evidence has to be presented in a very disciplined way and theories reviewed. It’s almost like a trial. If you lose the argument you just say, Yes, I lost the argument. You are right. We can use what you have discovered and we can now move on.

I grew up in a society that divided scientists and artists. Even though my father was a scientist, I distanced myself very much from the scientific way of approaching things. I’ve always said – and included this in the Nobel lecture – that what’s really important about stories, about novels, films is that we share feelings.. We’re not just sharing facts or arguments or ideas. We are exchanging the emotional dimension of those things. That is why we need novels rather than simply non-fiction or brilliantly-argued texts. We still need stories, because we still need to tell each other how it feels to live.

When people ask me what is most important to me when I write novels, I always say that I am able to convey feeling and emotions in my work to other people. This past year has made me feel rather uncomfortable about this. I’m wondering if what I do has somehow contributed to this situation where people are saying all that matters is what you feel.

Why was it important for you to write Klara and the Sun?

I’m now 66 years old. I was born nine years after the end of World War II. So I grew up in the generation that grew up in the shadow of World War II. With parents that came through it. The Cold War often became very tense. We feared nuclear war! A lot of these fears appeared to disappear at the end of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall came down. The world since 1999 seems to be a different one. My generation spent so much time thinking in this old way; in an old context. It’s quite difficult for us to see the world as it developed post-1999. With my daughter, Naomi Ishiguro, who is also a published novelist and short story writer, I often have these discussions. She says to me that, typically of my generation, I don’t really understand climate change, which is a really urgent question for her generation. She often says to me: “You are a very bright person dad, but even you are very complacent. You just pay lip service to climate change. You don’t engage with it. You don’t understand the issue.”

That’s absolutely right. I can’t see the world very well as it is now, because I spent too long growing up in the old world. This is why I look to the next generation of writers. I think they will be able to see more clearly the new world as it is opening up. A world that can include things like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and big data. The new generation of writers will also know how to express these fears and hopes in a different kind of literature. Meanwhile – and Klara and the Sun is an example of this – there is an exhausted writer from the older generation trying very hard to look at the post-Cold War world; the new world. All I can see is kind of fog. I’m starting to see little shapes. And I’m writing them down. But I think the younger generation will be able to see much more clearly. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Kazuo Ishiguro. Photo: © Lorna Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro. Photo: © Lorna Ishiguro

“Klara and the Sun” is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. The world premiere of the book was on 2nd March 2021.

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