The Impact of Humanoid Robots on Work and Class Divisions in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun

Image source: Penguin Random House

Automation – the process by which machines are introduced to take the place of human labor – has been going on for hundreds of years. But according to “Automation Nation,” a three-part report broadcast on BBC Radio in June, current advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may mean that the effects of automation will soon be more far-reaching than they have been to date. James Manyika, Director of McKinsey Global Institute, explains it this way: “In automation of the past we were mostly either complementing or replacing mostly physical work; either making machines faster, lifting things we couldn’t lift… And some would argue that with artificial intelligence we’re doing more than that. We’re starting to get at some things that we thought of as knowledge work or cognitive tasks — understanding things, understanding images — things that some would argue were the preserve of human beings.” [1]

In his latest novel Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro speculates both about what such advanced machines might be like and what kind of effects they might have on the human beings around them. [2] The narrator of Klara and the Sun is an Artificial Friend (or AF), a humanoid robot intended as a companion for a young adult. Klara comes from the B2 design series, and as a result she has some issues with absorbing enough of the solar energy she needs to power her mental and physical functions. But unlike the replicants in Blade Runner or the androids in Star Trek, Klara never seems to think about the fact that she was created by or derived from human intelligence; instead, as a solar-powered being, she has a deep reverence for the sun, referring to “his great kindness” (267) and describing the sun’s rays as “special nourishment.” (39)

As the novel opens, Klara is waiting at a store under the guidance of Manager for a young person to choose her as a helper and companion. She wants to be displayed in the window at the front of the store, not only because, like other AFs, she is more likely to be seen by a potential buyer there and not only because the sun’s energy can reach her there more easily, but also so she can look out onto the street and clearly see what’s going on in the world.

Klara observes everything and then reflects on what she observes. When she sees two older people, Coffee Cup Lady and Raincoat Man, cross the street to embrace each other, she speculates that they have been separated for a long time and are renewing an important, long-lost love. Her speculations grow deeper and more metaphysical when she sees Beggar Man — who is usually to be found greeting passers-by from the blank doorway between two tall buildings — lying in a doorway with his dog all day long. Klara believes that they have died, but the next day she sees “that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun has saved them,” as man and dog are sitting up, interacting with people, and “hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute.” (39) Based on the way she processes the scenes she witnesses, it’s clear that Klara is capable of explaining events and telling stories in a complex and engaging way.

At the store, when a girl named Josie tries to convince her mother to buy Klara, Manager says that no other AF exceeds “[Klara’s] appetite for observing and learning[; h]er ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her… As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in the store…” (43) But as the story unfolds and the reader continues to see the world from Klara’s point of view, it’s hard to estimate how far into our future Klara’s world is supposed to be and what kinds of political and social rules apply. Klara, though intelligent and rational, is a newly created being who can’t help but be naive about the way society functions.

To the reader, however, it quickly becomes clear that class divisions are very much a part of life in the world of the novel. Josie’s family is prosperous enough (Klara describes the mother’s work wardrobe as “high-rank clothes” (52)) that Melania Housekeeper lives with them and helps to care for Josie, among her other tasks. We learn that Josie’s potential to have a good life, provided that she doesn’t succumb to poor health, is greater than that of her friend and neighbor Rick because Josie’s mother has chosen to have her “lifted.” This genetic editing procedure seems to have caused a number of Josie’s physical problems but, if it succeeds, she could get into a good school and ascend to a higher status. Rick, on the other hand, has not been lifted and so is unlikely to do as well, even though he is very bright and good with machines. In a world where artificial beings like Klara have remarkable intelligence and can do many of the things human beings can do, some parents have chosen to use risky medical procedures to help their children compete and succeed. (Parents who go to extremes to ensure their children’s success in life don’t represent a new phenomenon, of course. In 2019, for example, the College Admissions Scandal rocked the academic world , but it was the parents who paid the price for this risky ambitious behavior, not the children.)

As we can see at an interaction meeting, which has been organized to help lifted teen-agers practice their social skills, lifted children are privileged children. At the meeting a number of the young people exhibit a sense of entitlement, and they argue about whether their B3 AFs are better than Klara, who is a B2. Expressing a cruel disregard for her well-being, they consider tossing her through the air to see if she lands on her feet and are generally rude and bullying to her until they are stopped by Rick, the only person at the meeting who hasn’t been lifted. Though he shares a “plan” with Josie for their future life together, Rick isn’t really Josie’s social equal – it’s uncertain if he can get into a good school and therefore there are doubts about his prospects in life.

Class issues come into sharper focus in the novel in a few short but clear glimpses of the world outside Klara’s day-to-day experiences. At one point Rick’s mother accuses Josie’s father, who has lost his job as an engineer and is unable to better himself, of living in a community with fascist tendencies: “It’s just that you did say you were all white people and all from the ranks of the former professional elites. You did say that. And that you were having to arm yourselves quite extensively against other types. Which does all sound a little on the fascistic side…” (229) As this short scene indicates, the unemployment that is a major fact of life in Klara’s world creates worrisome social discord.

Probably because remarkable artificial beings like Klara are a major cause of this widespread unemployment, there is prejudice against AFs. We see this in a scene that takes place outside a theater where Josie, Rick, their family members, and Klara are waiting to meet a man who might help Rick get into a quality school. A woman standing nearby asks if they intend to bring “this machine” (meaning Klara) into the theater. When a short argument breaks out over whether or not this is her business, the woman says, “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater.” (238) Earlier, the group was approached by a man with a petition who says, “‘We’re protesting the proposal to clear the Oxford Building. There’s currently four hundred and twenty-three post-employed people living inside it, eighty-six of them children. Neither Lex-dell nor the city have offered any reasonable plan regarding their relocation.’” (236) The term “post-employed” implies that these people will never find jobs again, but we know that even garden variety unemployment in our own world can lead to homelessness and despair. It’s hard to see how unemployment could fail to be a problem in a world where beings like Klara can do so many things a human being can do and do them so well.

In fact, Klara seems quite capable of passing the Turing Test, and she does have reactions to the world around her that seem as complex as those of a human being. For example, toward the end of the novel, Rick talks to Klara about what he calls “AF superstition.” (287) He is referring to the times when he has helped Klara get to Mr. McBain’s Barn, a partially open structure, deep in tall grass, behind which the sun appears to set when seen from the window at Josie’s house. Klara tells Rick she needs to go there so Josie will get well, and though he doesn’t really understand what she means, Rick carries Klara on his back through the field. Once inside the barn, in an unspoken flow of words that could only be described as praying, Klara asks the sun to “Please make Josie better. Just as you did Beggar Man.” After waiting for a while in the barn that she seems to regard as her place of worship, she says: “The sky was turning into night, with stars visible, and I could tell that the Sun was smiling towards me kindly as he went down for his rest. / Out of gratitude and respect, I continued to stand at the back opening until his last glow had vanished into the ground.” (164-165) Klara even offers to make sacrifices to please the sun, saying that she will disable a polluting piece of equipment she calls a Cootings Machine which she had earlier seen the “overhaul men” using on the street as she stood in the window of her store.

In many stories about humanoid robots – or androids – these advanced machines have to be programmed with restraints, such as Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, because otherwise they might harm or dominate the humans they are superior to in so many ways. But in Klara and the Sun, the AFs are interested in doing their jobs well, don’t have the desire to dominate, and speak often of kindness. Unlike Data in Star Trek: the Next Generation or the replicants in Blade Runner, AFs have no interest in being like human beings. But because they are capable of doing so many complex tasks, they threaten human well-being in another way – by taking away good jobs.

Daniel Susskind, moderator of the Automation Nation program and co-author of The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts says, “[H]istorically, automation has in many countries resulted in something called the hollowing out effect, where very high-paying, high-skilled jobs aren’t easily automated, and neither are low-paying ones. But a lot of the decent-paying jobs in the middle of the labor market are.” [3] But things seem to have gone beyond that state in Klara’s world. Though there are still human street workers, window cleaners, taxi drivers, housekeepers, and Diner Managers, many jobs that require human beings to have advanced degrees and specialized knowledge, such as the engineering job Josie’s father once held, seem to be endangered. While Klara’s mental abilities are astonishing, her vision and mobility would hamper her usefulness as a menial worker — her vision is divided into “boxes” and she has trouble negotiating rough terrain. And in fact, in The Future of the Professions, Susskind argues that doctors, lawyers, engineers and many other professionals could be affected by the coming of artificial intelligence.

In Klara and the Sun, in order that their children can compete with artificial humans, Josie’s mother and other parents are willing to alter their offspring’s genetic makeup – to have them lifted – even though this could result in death or illness. The desire to ascend to a higher status, to distinguish oneself from others, is a major motivator in the novel. Yet, even as people create ever more class stratification and struggle to compete with artificial beings, the sun shines equally on everyone – Beggar Man and his dog, Josie who has been lifted and Rick who has not, Klara and other AFs – but Klara seems to be the only one who cares.    

Notes

[1] “Automation and the future of jobs,” Part 2 of Automation Nation at The Compass on BBC Radio, presented by Daniel Susskind, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct2g7j

[2] Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021

[3] See [1] above.