Ian McEwan at 70: 'Just when things are slowing down, you get the chance of another love affair'

23rd Apr 19 | Lifestyle

Novelist Ian McEwan talks about the 'human' robot in his latest novel and why science has some way to go to make machines feel real love.

On Chesil Beach Screening - London

Fans of prize-winning author Ian McEwan might imagine him to be a rather dour character, based on some of the difficult subjects and bleak settings of his novels.

He has tackled moral and ethical complexities within topics ranging from war and sexual repression to euthanasia and climate change, while his novels adapted for screen, including Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Enduring Love and The Children Act have provided drama for cinema-goers.

Yet speaking to him today, he doesn’t seem even slightly morose. Quite the opposite, especially when he talks about the joy of his grandchildren and his happy marriage to writer Annalena McAfee. Even turning 70, which he did last year, has its good points, he reflects.

“I decided at the age of around 68 to start thinking of myself as 70. When you go for a swim in a really cold pool in June, you have to go in very slowly, otherwise you might have a heart attack,” he jokes.

“When it came around, I gave a big party with a really good band and lots to eat and drink, and it’s been fine. I tell myself I’m not going under with number magic, because being 70 is much like being 69. I hope the same is true of 71.”

Ian McEwan and Saoirse Ronan at a special screening of On Chesil Beach (Matt Crossick/PA)
Ian McEwan and Saoirse Ronan at a special screening of On Chesil Beach (Matt Crossick/PA)

He is able to separate his world of fiction from his everyday real life, he explains.

“I know from my experience at the moment that I could be very happy in my personal life while around me, here we are in a constitutional political crisis,” the Booker Prize-winning author and Remain campaigner says simply. “They are often in compartments.”

His latest book, Machines Like Me, is set in London in 1982, but in a different history to ours. Britain has lost the Falklands War to Argentina and the islands are now known as Las Malvinas; computer scientist Alan Turing has not killed himself in 1954, but is still alive and a national hero, while Tony Benn has become Prime Minister.

McEwan says he often considers how easily history could have taken a different course.

“The present could so easily be different. Here we are waiting to see whether we’ll be in the EU, or will have a deal, or will stay – and these can be down to quite small things, just one vote.

“What is true in the political landscape is also true of things in personal lives. Had your mum stayed in to wash her hair, she wouldn’t have met your dad. Everything forks and divides at every moment. I wanted to play with that.”

The most dramatic development in Machines Like Me is that of synthetic robots, known as Adams and Eves, creations of artificial intelligence that look like humans and have become available to buy.

a leave versus remain flag (iStock/PA)
The path of history could easily take a different course, says McEwan (iStock/PA)

We’re introduced to Charlie Friend, a computer enthusiast who’s in love with his girlfriend Miranda, a bright student who lives in the upstairs flat. When Charlie inherits some money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans.

Soon enough, though, Adam messes with Charlie’s personal life – sleeping once with Miranda – learns how to de-activate his ‘kill’ switch, and challenges the notion that machines cannot understand the human heart. The novel also questions how machines are supposed to learn from us when we, the human race, send out so many mixed messages.

But McEwan reckons we are still a long way off creating a truly effective ‘human’ robot. “We’ve got a very long way to go to getting the equivalent of a human brain, which only weighs just over a kilo, doesn’t overheat and runs on the strength of a dim lightbulb.”

Robot at a computer (iStock/PA)
Robots have a long way to go to truly replicate humans, he says (iStock/PA)

He continues: “Of course, AI can do things that we can’t, like amass huge forms of data and draw conclusions from it. Nor can we operate at their speed or have their faultless memory, but we can do lots of other things that they can’t possibly do – feel empathy, fall in love, write novels and so on.

“But we are already talking to these machines. I was at a dinner the other day and some young parents were talking about whether they should make their children say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ when they were speaking to Siri. I thought, ‘Now there’s a modern problem!’”

The fact human beings have flaws is going to be another obstacle to creating the perfect human robot, he anticipates.

“When we come to make these creatures, we all want them to embody our notion of what’s good. We know how to be good, but our great difficulty is being good all the time. We have all of religion and philosophy, and even ‘over the garden fence’ gossip.

“We know what we approve of and disapprove of. I can well imagine that we will make our artificial humans to be kindly and rather moral. But what happens when we find out that Adam has a very different idea of justice from Charlie and Miranda?”

McEwan also questions some of the AI additions in his own real life.

Alexa on a sideboard (iStock/PA)
Ian McEwan is thinking of unplugging his Alexa (iStock/PA)

“We have an Alexa machine which now and then butts in to the conversation. A friend told me that a lot of the conversation we have with Alexa is recorded and fed back into the network, so I think I’m going to unplug mine.”

McEwan is keen to keep control. He says he looks after himself more as he gets older, watches what he eats and does plenty of exercise, hiking and playing tennis.

“I stayed out of hospital all my adult life, except for a couple of sports injuries, and now I’m just beginning what the great American writer Gore Vidal called ‘the hospital years’.

“When I meet with old friends and we’re sitting around the table, we say, ‘Three minutes on health and then we’re moving on’.”

But he does have regrets about getting older, he admits. He has two grown-up sons and two stepdaughters, and grandchildren too, so his home in the Cotswolds is frequently busy.

“I feel regret that just when I’ve got things reasonably well organised in my life, you’ve got to check out. Just when you’re beginning to like the hotel, you’ve got to move on.

“And I really like the hotel. I have three grandchildren born in the last four years – and they are an absolute delight. My sons are very happily married to lovely women, and two lovely stepdaughters and their children.”

His life has clearly become richer since his grandchildren came along.

“No-one tells you that just when you think things are beginning to slow down and the whole show might be over, you get a chance at another love affair, which is children. It’s another explosion of love you didn’t count on. It wasn’t in your programme. It’s absolutely delightful.

“Nearly everyone I know who has become a grandparent in their 50s, 60s or 70s expresses this delight and surprise at how they are completely taken. They always thought they would be too old for another love affair, and suddenly there is one.”Not something you could easily replicate with any sort of robot – at least not in our lifetime.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99. Available now.

© Press Association 2019