Ian McEwan’s latest book, Machines Like Me: A Novel offers an alternative history: Britain has lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher is waging an election campaign against Tony Benn and Alan Turing survived homophobic persecution to achieve breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.
The novel paints a picture of 1980s London that is at once familiar, but at the same time very different – and in doing so it raises some pressing questions. Central to the plot are the world’s first synthetic humans, put on sale for the public to buy. With this device, McEwan questions what it means to be human – if these machines are just like me, does that mean they have rights, like me?
It’s tempting to dismiss this as a ridiculous notion. When the question comes up with friends in the pub (usually after a few drinks), a common response is that we have human rights because we’re human. Robots aren’t human, so they can’t have the same rights as us. But if you think about this, it’s a circular argument. The same logic was used against women’s suffrage – they can’t have the vote, because they’re women. Slaves can’t have freedom, because they’re slaves. Machines can’t have rights, because they’re machines.
But before this can be dismissed as whimsical science fiction, we need to think more about why humans have rights and what it means to be human in the first place. Some might highlight the importance of our births – the fact that we are naturally procreated, whereas machines are made by humans. But if this is true, where does this leave the eight million people who have been born as a result of IVF treatment?
You could highlight our organic nature to sidestep this problem – we are biological beings, whereas machines are made of component parts. But this would mean that people with prosthetic limbs are “less human” – which is clearly not the case. Nor are people “less human” who have commonplace hip and knee replacements. Scientists at my own university have 3D printed the first artificial cornea, and this week Israeli scientists 3D printed an entire human heart. Nobody is suggesting that patients receiving these artificial organs are less human – even though they are no longer 100% organic.
Consciousness may also be a place to look – as humans are able to act on reasons beyond natural impulse or programming. But we are not alone in this ability – other animals can also engage in sophisticated planning and tool usage. And this argument would mean that babies and late-stage dementia patients are in effect “less human” because they lack this feature – which is clearly not the case.
Ultimately, all of these lines of argument have problems that only lead to deeper levels of abstraction. Maybe then what’s required is the ability to be open to a change in how we see the world and ourselves.
Conflict and consciousness
Although the level of machine consciousness portrayed by McEwan is, for the time being, still fiction – many believe that it will be a reality by the end of the century. And as technology develops and machines become more like us, then they may also need to be recognised as having rights like us.
was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He claimed that the reasons humans have rights is because we are prospective agents, able to choose what to do beyond natural impulse or reflex. So if this autonomous agency is the foundation of our rights, and robots are also autonomous agents, consistency requires us to recognise that they too have the same basic rights to freedom and well-being that we claim for ourselves.
This is not to say that robot rights cannot be overridden – all rights conflicts lead to the rights of one party being prioritised over the other. It merely requires us to see that robots are equal parties in any rights dispute. Mistreating a robot agent would not be the same as mistreating a printer for example, it would be more similar to mistreating another human.
Granting legal rights to robots clearly remains a complicated subject, but experiences from other fields shows how the problem is only practical and that it can be overcome. Legal systems have recognised that things as diverse as idols, orangutans and even rivers can have rights – so why not robots? It’s clear then that, like McEwan, the law should start thinking about these questions now instead of playing catch-up once the robots have arrived.
The links below are to articles that takes a look at the shortlist for the 2019 Stella Prize, and finally the winner of the prize, ‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on recent changes at BookBaby, the self-publishing platform.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at 20 books written by 2020 US Presidential Candidates.
Books in South Africa don’t often make headline news. But a controversial subject, protests and disruptions at a book launch, and threats of book burning are sufficient to get South Africans talking about the place of books in society once again.
“Gangster State” is an exposé of current African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule’s alleged murky dealings as premier of the Free State province, and his rise to one of the governing party’s most influential positions. The book has stirred up passionate reactions, both for and against its contents.
This last happened in late 2017 when another investigative reporter Jacques Pauw published a similar book, “The President’s Keepers”. That book dealt with South Africa’s previous head of state, Jacob Zuma, who’s been closely linked to massive corruption. Zuma denies the allegations.
Clearly, this kind of book touches a certain chord in South African society. A quick glance through the top-selling books in the past few years shows that non-fiction, and particularly political non-fiction dealing with very topical events, is the most popular genre.
The trend can be traced back through a number of years, with nonfiction consistently dominating the Nielsen’s BookScan sales charts – the most comprehensive figures collected on book sales through commercial booksellers. This raises the question: why do political books do so well in South Africa?
This isn’t a uniquely South Africa phenomenon. Nonfiction is popular around the world. Celebrities’ memoirs or biographies, as well as history titles, are more likely to become bestsellers than any other kinds of nonfiction. Indeed, Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” caused a paper shortage in the US towards the end of 2018, as it was reprinted in such large quantities and at short notice to keep up with audience demand. This title has now sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Where South Africa differs is in the balance of sales between nonfiction and fiction. In most of the largest publishing markets, fiction is bought at much higher rates than nonfiction. In the US, for instance, average sales for fiction titles are between 4 000 and 8 000 copies, while the nonfiction average is lower, at 2 000 to 6 000 copies.
In South Africa, it’s the reverse. Nonfiction outsells fiction. This is not a new trend, either: political books found a ready audience throughout the apartheid period.
There are a few categories of nonfiction that do particularly well: political nonfiction, South African history (especially political history), religious books – and the ubiquitous cookbooks. The authors that have the edge tend to be journalists rather than academics, probably because their writing is so much more accessible.
Statistically, too, men write more nonfiction than women in South Africa, and so are more likely to produce top-selling titles, as was found by one of my post-graduate students, Kelly Ansara, in her Master’s study of the gender balance in SA publishing.
South African trends
In analysing the publishing lists and sales figures of the local nonfiction publishers – Pan Macmillan, Jonathan Ball, Penguin SA, Tafelberg and Jacana, on the whole – another difference becomes apparent. Books by and about celebrities are not as popular in South Africa as in the US and UK. Their sales are thus less predictable.
For instance, while former Springbok rugby coach Jake White’s “In Black and White” sold more than 60 000 copies in a week in 2008, star rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen’s “Man in the Mirror” was less successful. Comedian Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime”, has been extremely successful, but titles by local musicians and actors such as Bonang Matheba and Somizi Mhlongo have sold comparatively few copies.
The raft of competing titles that hit the shelves after the murder conviction of former Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius did not take off as well as expected. Excellent titles on topics as diverse as climate change and South African art sell a respectable number, but don’t make the bestseller list.
Many of the country’s nonfiction titles sell several thousand copies very quickly, but few of them have staying power. Current interest is intense in topics like state capture and corruption scandals. But it fades quickly, leading to a short shelf-life for a number of political books. Only a few gain the perennial interest and staying power of a title like “I Write What I Like” by Steve Biko or Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”.
Many commentators suggest that the interest in political and current affairs titles reflects a nation trying to make sense of its tumultuous political environment. The huge political and social shifts of the past 20 to 30 years are still influencing South Africans’ daily lives. With one corruption scandal following another, trust in the authorities is low. But citizens still seek authoritative overviews and answers – in the nonfiction titles that line our shelves.
There is little reason to predict that the trend will change. However, if the threats mount, then we may see authors and publishers shifting to less controversial topics. For now, it’s great to see books in the news again.