Graphic for the Klara and the Sun Book Review Read-a-Loud at peachybooks today, with the red book cover showing a hand holding a sun, with a forest of trees in the background and rays of sunshine emitting through the trunks
Blog Roll, Saturday in Stereo, science fiction, Sciences

Is AI An Answer To The Loneliness Epidemic?

Where will this technology take us? This week on Saturday in Stereo listen to the Peachy Books review for Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, written and read aloud by PeachyTO.

Please visit the Peachy Books YouTube channel or click on the video below to check it out. If you enjoy the reading, I’d be thrilled if you would ‘like,’ subscribe, and hit the notification bell; it will help my channel to grow, and you’ll be the first to know when the latest Read-a-Louds are available. Thank you so much for your support!

To find the written review for Klara and the Sun and see the Sunshine bookmark I was inspired to make, please click here.

Graphic for the Peachy Books review of Klara and the Sun showing the book cover superimposed on a black and white image of a smoke stack emitting pollution into the darkened sky and the the tagline underneath in yellow lettering on a red rectangle says: Read the Peachy Books review for this sci-fi blockbuster today!
Blog Roll, book reviews, science fiction

Book Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Listen to the review here

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

*Some Spoilers Within*

While looking to expand my reading horizons and unaware of where to start, I spotted this bright red book in my library stack. Perfect timing; I can tackle one of my overdue books and commence my journey into sci-fi with a trusted author.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a thoughtful writer, melodically attuned to the jangly realness of the human journey. His mega-hits: Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, are still with me a decade later, so needless to say, I felt pumped for an encore. 

Artificial intelligence and gene editing are chilling realities, the former leading the charge in controlling the masses with manipulated computer algorithms, while the latter threatens to produce designer babies. And to be clear, this is the current human experience in reference, not Ishiguro’s world. This new techno-feudalism that our AI evolution is ushering us into as a society is smelling pretty funky. 

But, back to the book, I was thrilled to learn that these two modern-technology themes were the basis of its foundation.

In my review of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, I share some of the concerns and appreciation I noted regarding DNA manipulation, as well as the ground-breaking strides that have taken place within the field. 

Klara and the Sun was my foray into AI, and since reading it last month, I feel haunted by the questions Ishiguro has left me with surrounding AF (artificial friend) engineering and how it could mould our future. 

Will these machines stifle physical human contact even more than the internet has? Can the chemistry and connection achieved through the human heart be mimicked or even supplanted by androids with their keen AI and programming? In the end, will more humans end up alone?

‘”Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”’

It is through the eyes of Klara, one of the older model humanoid AFs in the shop fronting the busy metropolitan street, that we begin Part 1 and the slow burn through this dystopian tale. 

With AFs in rotation for display in the window, they all eagerly await a turn to soak up the Sun’s solar energy and draw in curious onlookers and passersby. Manager discourages them from looking at the people unless they approach the AF first, and only then the AF must respond in kind. 

Josie had engaged Klara in the display window a couple of times in previous weeks and had taken a shine to her. The excited AF secretly waited and wished that the girl would one day return and take her home. 

That day finally arrived, and although the Mother was inclined to purchase one of the newer B3 models, there was only one friend that Josie had in mind. 

After Manager informed the Mother of Klara’s exceptional observational abilities, and the Mother had the droid perform a few strange requests to her satisfaction, it seemed that mayhaps she was the perfect fit for the sickly child after all. And so began, along with Part 2 of the novel, the start of her life with her new human family.

Klara is, technically, a robot, but suppress the urge to refer to her that way, as using the R-word is improper etiquette. She is nurturing, respectful, loyal, and encouraging, a desirable host of traits for a companion to a child, by any measure. 

As a devout solar-charged android, Klara’s faith in the Sun and Its power is present throughout and at times seemed reminiscent of a human worshipping their God. She calls upon the divine light to intervene and heal the ill children in the way a mother would pray to her maker for the life of her ailing child. 

Quote from Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro with a window frame and a brilliant sun and some clouds: 'The Sun, noticing there were so many children in the one place, was pouring in his nourishment through the wide windows of the Open Plan.'

Just like Man, she seemingly struggles with her faith and even commits acts of sacrifice in an attempt to lessen the dreaded Pollution, in reverence to the great Sun.

‘And it was clear the sun was unwilling to make any promise about Josie, because for all his kindness, he wasn’t yet able to see Josie separately from the other humans, some of whom had angered him very much on account of their Pollution and inconsideration, and I suddenly felt foolish to have come to this place to make such a request.’

In Ishiguro’s scarcely delineated world, there seem to be many children in need of healing. From what I could surmise, the gene-editing chosen by the parents with ‘Courage’ comes at the cost of a weakened immune system for the modified child.

Roll the dice for a chance at a future where the odds will be forever in your favour! 

But if, against all odds, you choose to let your child enjoy their youth in health with minimal risk of serious illness, unlike the children of families with ‘Courage,’ the institutional deck will be eternally stacked against them. The system design accordingly offering them no other option than to assume their rightful role as a modern-day serf. 

Josie is one of the ‘lifted’ children, thanks to the Mother’s bravery. She is tutored through her ‘oblong’ in place of attending school, only rarely interacting in person with other socially awkward children in strangely crafted social settings, in the hopes of preparing for the social element of college one day. 

As she struggles to maintain her health throughout, sometimes not well enough to even sit up in bed, Klara’s primary responsibility is to keep vigil and help the girl find comfort.

Josie’s best friend and neighbour Rick is not ‘lifted’ and provides Josie a peek into an old-school childhood filled with running, playing, and exploring. 

Rick is always eager to hang out with Josie when her health will allow it. They are smitten and prefer each other’s company over all else, Klara presenting as a 3rd wheel at times. One of the sadder parts of the book for me was observing the forces aligned to pull them apart when they want nothing more than to be together.

Although the parents of the unedited aren’t appointed the antithetical moniker Cowardly, the message seems clear: not being brave enough to put your children’s life on the line marks you as a traitor to your community and deserving of a lower station in society as a consequence. 

Damn! That is not a world I would want to live in! 

Ishiguro must have written this book pre-pandemic, but it seems to parallel the virus hell we’re in quite aptly. Between children schooling in isolation via computer screens to divisive narratives of intolerance strategically placed to shame dissenters into submission if they dare choose not to have their children ‘lifted,’ or currently, Covid-vaccinated, this all seems eerily familiar. 

Josie’s relationship with the Mother was fascinating for me. I craved more access to their thoughts and motivations; wished for some changing points of view between Klara, the Mother, and Josie. But that would take the focus off Klara, and she is the star of this show.

Klara’s omnipotent ability to understand the manipulation-volley between the Mother and Josie so accurately through mere observation was freaky. Will future robots be so advanced that they can anticipate human behaviour, even while the flawed human is dizzied by emotion? That’s some scary shit and doesn’t leave us much of a fighting chance in a future battle against the machines. 

Quote from Klara and the Sun by Kazu Ishiguro: 'The danger topics were themselves ways the Mother had devised to make certain emotions appear inside Josie's mind.' with two wooden bendable puppet people

Ishiguro’s expertise in the psychology of people and their motivations is one of the things I love about his writing. In Klara and the Sun, we are offered a window into a humanoid’s grid-squared mind, and it was fun to see the inventiveness of his descriptions as he attempted to understand and convey the robot as he does the man. 

Coming from a subhuman vantage point, so much of this story feels fresh and new, if not under-developed. I never realised how much I thirsted for other-worldliness in a story until having read it, this point alone proving a win for the genre. In short, I’ve been missing out!

That said, other than for Klara, there was never any real connection to the characters formed. I didn’t care for nor dislike them, they were just…meh. I wonder if this is intentional, to let Klara and her star shine? Maybe it was because people had become less admirable due to their dystopian circumstances; more polarised; less likable? Am I blaming the author for sharing a world that is too unappealing and upsetting to appreciate on its merits? Maybe. 

The measure of an important book, in my view, is the amount of time I spend thinking about it after I’ve closed the cover. Klara and the Sun bringing to mind topics such as AI, DNA manipulation, pollution, and modern feudalism have left this piece of speculative fiction hovering around me and jumping out from behind corners ever since I put it down; a literary haunting.

I’m not one to reread a book, but this one is headed to the Future-Book-Club list to be properly analysed at a later date. I prefer to take comfort in the solace of differing perspectives from respected readers in my midst, which serves as a great way to attempt neutrality and remain questioning. But most importantly, other people help make processing grave concepts more fun and slightly less frightening, as you collectively share the burden of the conclusions. 

Have you read Klara and the Sun? What do you think about gene-editing and AI becoming part of the everyday human experience? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these important yet jarring technological advances, so let’s talk in the comments!

This is the Sunshine Bookmark Klara’s devotion to the Sun inspired me to make.

Crochet Sunshine beaded bookmark photographed on a white background on top of rust coloured sand dunes as a backdrop
Cover for the book review for The Code Breaker with crochet bookmark of a spike protein.
book reviews, non-fiction, Sciences

Book Review: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

Book Cover for The Code Breaker - Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson

The Code Breaker – Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and The Future of The Human Race by Walter Isaacson

‘”We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future…” He was going to say “future World controllers,” but correcting himself, said “future Directors of Hatcheries.”‘ – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (as quoted in The Code Breaker)

As of the writing of this review, it has been fifteen long, isolating months since my family and I have been in the perpetual Groundhog Day that is Coronavirus lockdown. We haven’t hugged our families, there have been no birthday parties in the backyard, no friends over to play. But we have kept the roof over our heads, our bellies are full, and we fiercely love each other – possibly more now than ever before – as we continue to forge our path through this crazy labyrinth of plague and despair. It is the journey through said maze that has led me to The Code Breaker, as I try to understand what direction is best chosen for my family.

I have never been against vaccination, and can safely say that everyone in my house is fully immunized for all the standard diseases. That said, after having heard that there was a new type of technology being used for the Corona shots, a type of injection that would change my DNA and insert a microchip in my body (Whoa!), I was quick to put on the brakes. I then pondered that it may be time to delete a few of my YouTube subscriptions.

To be clear, I don’t have a tendency to get my science from conspiracy hypotheses, memes, or my friend Sarah who flunked out of grade eleven biology; I like to make informed decisions. Not to knock Sarah, though, because I have no postsecondary science knowledge to draw on, myself. I do, however, like to read, so I thought the best place to start would be to try and understand what the mRNA vaccines were about. I can somewhat confidently say that after having read about the revolutionary CRISPR technology, and Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues’ discoveries in Walter Isaacson’s extremely thought-provoking and enlightening book, I am not going to win any Nobel prize for scientific comprehension, but I think I have a handle on the basics. I’m essentially saying that I no longer feel like the machines are trying to take over… at least not yet.

This almost 500-page book was not like reading a textbook, where if you aren’t passionate about the subject, it just drones on and you have to pry your eyelids open with your fingers – or maybe that was just me in college, but I digress. Not only a story about the fascinating life of Doudna, and the crazy ride through competition and innovation that she and her collaborators and opponents lived through over the past few decades, we are also invited to question how we feel about these new frontiers that humanity is being dragged into with the advent of somatic and germline gene editing.

From the first chapter, I had an emotional connection to the story, as I felt grateful that Doudna had the internal fortitude not to listen to the many teachers who in various different ways insisted that “Girls don’t do science.” She shares that at the time it was hurtful to her, but it also stiffened her resolve and caused her to focus on her goals. She remembered telling herself “I will show you. If I want to do science, I am going to do it.”

Doudna, under the tutelage of Jack Szostak, was a pioneer in the research of RNA as a major player in the origins of life, monstrously widening the scope from how it had once been considered a dull intermediary to the proteins doing the lion’s share of the work in human cells. Ever the valorous adventurer, she gave into curiosity and took the risk of doing her doctoral research in this ground-breaking area of study, while other biochemists were choosing to focus on the sequencing research for DNA with regard to The Human Genome Project.

She credits Jack for sharing his guiding principle: Never do something that a thousand other people are doing. She said, “I learned from Jack that there was more of a risk but also more of a reward if you ventured into a new arena.”

In 1989 Doudna received her PhD from Harvard. She then went on to do her postdoctoral studies in Colorado, with Tom Chech, a man that she both respected and admired, namely for his discovery of self-splicing introns, and for leading the very best RNA biochemistry lab, at the time.

On the heels of Doudna and her future husband – then workmate in Chech’s lab – Jamie Cate, unveiling their grand discovery of the three-dimensional structure of RNA, she suffered the news that she would lose her father to melanoma. Sadly, the cancer had metastasized to his brain, and he was given only a short time to live. He was her biggest champion, and in the last months of his life she regaled him with the details of their massive breakthrough.

“It was only after he died that I realized how influential he was in my decision to become a scientist.”

As sad as those days were for her, their groundbreaking findings were the catalyst to Doudna and her colleagues putting in place the tools that could edit genes. During a TV interview for a science news show, when explaining what the implications of such technology could be, she said, “One possibility is that we might be able to cure or treat people who have genetic defects.”

As RNA discoveries continued to flourish, so did the significance and necessity such findings would have in the future of vaccines. Spanish Molecular Biologist Francis Mojica discovered palindrome-like, repeating segments of DNA, in the 90s, and ended up creating the defining acronym – CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), which was excepted on November 21, 2001 as the appropriate moniker.

‘Mojica found that bacteria with CRISPR spacer sequences seemed to be immune from infection by a virus that had the same sequence. But bacteria without the spacer did get infected. It was a pretty ingenious defense system, but there was something even cooler: it appeared to adapt to new threats. When new viruses came along, the bacteria that survived were able to incorporate some of that virus’s DNA and thus create, in its progeny, an acquired immunity to that new virus. Mojica recalls being so overcome with emotion at this realization that he got tears in his eyes. The beauty of nature can sometimes do that to you.’

After marriage and the birth of their son, Doudna and Cate were both offered a professorship at UC Berkley. Part of Doudna’s genius was her ability as an effective leader. The emphasis she put on assembling a team in her lab that had chemistry (pardon the pun), so that ideas would collaborate and flow instead of egos or combative competition causing objectives to be stifled, was cherished by her underlings.

‘The camaraderie in the lab was not an accident: in hiring, Doudna placed as much emphasis on making sure someone was a good fit as she did assessing their research accomplishments.’

While she preferred and encouraged her team to be self-sufficient and independently driven, she still offered guidance and had a knack for asking creative questions, that lead to big ideas and new projects. She offered the right amount of challenge to inspire her team to be bold and brave in their endeavours. Her engagement in a project would increase when it came nearer to completion, as her excitement would see her wanting a competitive edge over other labs who may beat hers to a discovery.

The truly revolutionising work came when Jennifer Doudna and Martin Jinek collaborated with Emmanuelle Charpentier and Krzysztof Chylinski, as they attempted to figure out the mechanisms of the CRISPR-Cas9 enzyme. It was determined that – as Jinek informed Doudna – “Without the tracrRNA, the crRNA guide does not bind to the Cas9 enzyme.” Doudna would go on to win the Nobel Prize with Charpentier in 2020, for their pioneering work in CRISPR gene editing.

‘This amazing little system, it quickly became clear, had a truly momentous potential application: the crRNA guide could be modified to target any DNA sequence you might wish to cut. It was programmable. It could become an editing tool.’

How CRISPR Works diagram as published in The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The race to prove that CRISPR-Cas9 could work in human cells became fierce, and was realised in roughly six months in five different labs within the scientific community. Although, admittedly, the scientific and technical jargon became difficult to follow at times, there was often an under thread of competition and excitement that kept me reading. It almost became a sport, and I was in the stands rooting for my team to be first to the finish.

Doudna’s most direct opponent in the field of CRISPR research and technology appeared to be Feng Zhang. Although healthy competition can inspire innovation and unleash creativity, I couldn’t help but wonder how much ego and competitiveness had slowed progress of this very important research. They seemed to have differing skill sets, and that had they worked together in the race to turn CRISPR into a human gene-editing tool, things may have happened smoother and/or sooner. Putting a practical need for alliances aside, intellectual property disputes and competition for patents and prizes made for an interesting and sometimes even thrilling journey throughout The Code Breaker.

Somatic editing – changes that are made in targeted cells of a living patient and do not affect reproductive cells – is currently being used for gene editing, and is helping to eliminate blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia, aiding in the detection and treatment of cancer, as well as assisting in a cure for a form of congenital blindness. While it is true that I am no expert in … well, anything really, (except maybe crochet,) I can see nothing wrong ethically with carrying out these kinds of treatments, most certainly if funding can be made available through all socioeconomic communities. With insurance companies being as lucrative as they are, is it naive of me to think that with government regulation this could be attainable? If the incidence of lengthy and expensive diseases were minimised within the population, and therefore are not bogging down the healthcare system, are expensive price tags for somatic gene editing not worth it in the long run? Or maybe pharmaceutical companies that pull in billions on the backs of said diseases would have a complaint that governments and the lobbyists couldn’t ignore.

While somatic gene editing gets a pass with me until I can be convinced otherwise, germline editing – inheritable changes made through reproductive cells – on the other hand, has me in full-force hypervigilance mode. As amazing as these new heights being reached by CRISPR were, like any great technology, there is the possibility that it could be weaponised and used for nefarious reasons. This was when the book started to weigh heavy on my psyche, and I found myself putting it down to discuss the ethics with my husband. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that these advances would be in the same vein as the splitting of the atom, or the proliferation of the internet. How does one truly feel about such important and life changing technologies that could also be the authors of the world’s destruction?

‘…in 2016 when James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, issued the agency’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” and it included for the first time “genome editing” as a potential weapon of mass destruction.’

Moral and ethical questions concerning the usage of genetic engineering to produce children of specific qualifications and lacking undesirable features, leaves a lot for discussion and thought. Although one may be inclined to feel that gene modification and selection is playing God and should be left to chance, another may think it cruel and unusual not to use every tool in the workbench to make sure all living beings have a fair chance at a good life. Imagine for a moment being able to eliminate schizophrenia from the gene pool.

Another important factor to consider is the ability for germline editing to further erode equality of opportunity within society. Could the expense of the technology, and differing regulatory standards in certain countries lead to genetic tourism? If you have the money, just travel to one of the countries that offer the procedure and design your genetically modified little human. How could any governing body or judicial system possibly regulate such a thing?

The thought that I kept coming back to as Isaacson was weighing out the pros and cons was what would be the dreaded possible unintended consequences… What would happen to: personal drive, empathy, humility, sense of accomplishment through grit and determination, sacrifice, tolerating discomfort, personal responsibility, or healthy living? If we don’t seriously consider all that could come from this, do we deserve whatever we get? It felt as though there should have been an international referendum on this, but as documented in the case of the CRISPR twins in China – which you’ll find chronicled in the book – the cat was already out of the bag.

“Ingenuity without wisdom is dangerous.”

It’s hard to imagine how a gene supermarket, with price points only affordable to the already rich and privileged, would result in anything other than a super-elite class. Those unable to keep up would merely be serfs whose only existence would be to serve the master class. Bio-techno-feudalism, as it were. That is not the world I want to live in.

Doudna: “We could create a gene gap that would get wider with each new generation,” she says. “If you think we face inequalities now, imagine what it would be like if society became genetically tiered along economic lines and we transcribed our financial inequality into our genetic code.”

‘By limiting gene edits to those that are truly “medically necessary,” she says, we can make it less likely that parents could seek to “enhance” their children, which she feels is morally and socially wrong.’

Speaking of supermarkets, as an aside, one of my favourite questions laid out in the book references genetically modified food and one of its unintended consequences: ‘Will we become less flavorful, like our tomatoes?’ Maybe if more people are fed, and fewer left starving, the taste is less important? … If only it were that black and white.

Nearing the end of the book we reach the vaccination information. It was heartening to see a shift in the behaviour amongst the CRISPR scientists when they became less worried about competition and were willing to share their work, as they became impassioned by the urgency to defeat the coronavirus. The fundamental breakdown of what the mRNA vaccine technology can do for humanity and the future of plague and disease in the world is nothing short of miraculous. I am truly amazed by what these genius scientists have uncovered to help to defend mankind, and how their hard work could see us not locked down in our homes every time a novel corona virus comes on the scene.

‘…basic function that RNA performs in the central dogma of biology: serving as a messenger RNA (mRNA) that carries genetic instructions from DNA, which is bunkered inside a cell’s nucleus, to the manufacturing region of the cell, where it directs what proteins to make. In the case of the COVID vaccine, the mRNA instructs cells to make part of the spike protein that is on the surface of a coronavirus.’

I’m really glad that I took the time to wrestle with The Code Breaker and its big questions, and I would recommend that others do the same if they are interested, as this is the world we live in now, like it or lump it. You don’t have to be science minded to follow, as long as you give yourself the space to not understand everything to the T… cell (haha), and who knows, you may just find you’ve learned something. Upwards of 90% success rate or not, for my family I am inclined to think that more time is needed to see how these vaccines will react to people’s immune systems in the long-term, especially those with autoimmune disorders, as we have in our household. The data collected regarding their use in humans is obviously very limited in scope, given they have been in use for under a year at this point. With time and confidence this could truly be the thing to save us, and as long as the technology stays in the right hands, it won’t be the thing to destroy us.

What are your thoughts on the gene editing possibilities that this technology offers humanity? Do you trust in the world to use this revolutionary science fairly, or will it be manipulated and weaponised by the fortunate few against the masses?

A bookmark representing a spike protein, that I had fun creating after reading The Code Breaker.