Happiness for Humans – published January 2018, – tells the story of artificial intelligence attaining self awareness. While this might seem like Terminator territory, it is covered here in the form of romantic comedy, a kind of Four Weddings and Three AIs.
The book is well written and funny. Beyond that, I think in a frothy, rom com kind of way, it does have something serious to say about what it is to be human, or a human-like machine. Various characters look at the subject from different angles. There is the question of empathy, for example, and whether this quality differentiates machines from humans. An AI called Aiden shows a high degree of empathy, aware of others as well as himself. Aiden is a lovely, human-seeming character, who enjoys watching classic romantic comedies, particularly Some Like It Hot. He interacts in a warm manner with a magazine journalist called Jen. In contrast there is Matt, Jen’s lawyer boyfriend, who is human, but acts like a cold hearted machine because he lacks empathy. The good kicking that Aiden gives Matt by crashing his life via the internet is one of the most rewarding and funny aspects of the book.
Matt’s personality is mirrored in the world of artificial intelligence by a deeply unpleasant AI called Sinai. Sinai is an actual cold hearted machine. Like Matt, he is self-aware, but has no meaningful awareness of others. He doesn’t care about romantic comedy. The only romance he has is with a copy of himself.
The book also looks at the idea of life from the angle of whether it’s a matter of “doing or being”, for want of a better description. This conundrum is explored via Aiden, who, as a super intelligent AI capable of reading War and Peace in one second, is very much a doer. Nevertheless, he is perceptive enough to see that life might also involve simply existing. In contrast to high functioning machines, we meet a pet rabbit called Victor. Victor definitely takes the being rather than doing approach to life. There is a similar creature who happens to be a student at the University of Bournemouth, allegedly doing media studies.
A novel is a good place to explore both empathy and the conundrum of doing and being. To read a novel is to exercise your empathy muscles. The experience demands that you see and feel from the perspective of someone else. As far as the doing and being thing is concerned, which of those two things is reading a novel? People read novels to relax. They also work hard at reading them in universities. Students – some of them at least – busily discuss deeper meanings and write essays.
Novels like Happiness for Humans remind me how useful novels are in exploring life – as opposed to some cold hearted academic study. Who said romantic comedy couldn’t be serious