Rumbling thunder of AI, gene-editing | Daily News

Rumbling thunder of AI, gene-editing

For the Ishiguro household, 5 October 2017 was a big day. After weeks of discussion, the author’s wife, Lorna, had finally decided to change her hair colour. She was sitting in a Hampstead salon, not far from Golders Green in London, where they have lived for many years, all gowned up, and glanced at her phone. There was a news flash. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop this,” she said to the waiting hairdresser. “My husband has just won the Nobel prize for literature. I might have to help him out.”

Back home, Kazuo Ishiguro was having a late breakfast when his agent called. “It’s the opposite to the Booker prize, where there’s a longlist and then a shortlist. You hear the rumbling thunder coming towards you, often not striking. With the Nobel it is freak lightning out of the blue – wham!” Within half an hour there was a queue of journalists outside the front door. He called his mother, Shizuko. “I said: ‘I’ve won the Nobel, Shon.’ Oddly, she didn’t seem very surprised,” he recalls. “She said: ‘I thought you’d win it sooner or later.’” She died, aged 92, two years ago. His latest novel Klara and the Sun, in part about maternal devotion and his first since winning the Nobel, is dedicated to her. “My mother had a huge amount to do with my becoming a writer,” he says now.

Writing slope

We are talking on Zoom; he is holed up in the spare bedroom, his daughter Naomi’s undergraduate books on the shelves. His own study is tiny, he says, just big enough for two desks: one for his computer, the other with a writing slope – no one goes in there. Encouragingly, he compares the interview process to interrogation, borrowing from a scene in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that explains how agents are trained to withstand torture by having layers of plausible backstories, “until they are just a shrieking head”. Yet he submits to questioning with good humour; in fact talking for several hours with the exacting thoughtfulness you’d expect from his fiction.

In Nobel terms, at 62 Ishiguro was a relative whippersnapper. Precocity is part of the Ishiguro myth: at 27 he was the youngest on Granta’s inaugural best of young British novelists list in 1983 (with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes et al), appearing again the following decade. In between he won the Booker prize for The Remains of the Day, which was given the full Merchant Ivory treatment in 1993. Indeed, his claim that most great novels were produced by writers in their 20s and 30s has become part of literary legend. “It is Martin Amis who goes round repeating this, not me,” Ishiguro says, laughing.

“He became obsessed with the idea.” But he still maintains that your 30s are the crucial years for novel writing: “You do need some of that cerebral power.” (Which is lucky for Naomi, who at 28 also has her first novel, Common Ground, out this month, much to her father’s delight.) Whenever anybody brought up the question of the Nobel, his standard line used to be: “Writers won their Nobel prizes in their 60s for work they did in their 30s. Now perhaps it applies to me personally,” the 66-year-old notes drily.

Lockdown attention

He remains the supreme creator of self-enclosed worlds (the country house; the boarding school), his characters often under some form of lockdown; his fastidious attention to everyday details and almost ostentatiously flat style offsetting fantastical plot lines and pent-up emotional intensity. And Klara and the Sun is no exception.

Set in an unspecified America, in an unspecified future, it is – ostensibly at least – about the relationship between an artificial “friend”, Klara, and her teenage owner/charge, Josie. Robots (AFs) have become as commonplace as vacuum cleaners, gene-editing is the norm and biotechnological advances are close to recreating unique human beings.

“This isn’t some kind of weird fantasy,” he says. “We just haven’t woken up to what is already possible today.” “Amazon recommends” is just the beginning. “In the era of big data, we might start to be able to rebuild somebody’s character so that after they’ve died they can still carry on, figuring out what they’d order next online, which concert they’d like to go to and what they would have said at the breakfast table if you had read them the latest headlines,” he continues.

- The Guardian