A lunch at Kura Sushi made me think of our interaction with robots and what it means for our future
A quick lunch trip to Kura Sushi in Sacramento with my friend Andrea was more than enjoying various sushi rolls revolving around us on the conveyor belt; it gave us a glimpse into the future when robots will be part of the workforce, bringing drinks to the table and bearing a sign to warn humans not to put trash or dishes on the robot.
As we decided what dishes we wanted, since we could pick anything from the conveyor belt and from the menu, the robot appeared across the table from us to deliver two cups of water to the young couple who seemed engrossed in their conversation, or simply mesmerized about the conveyor belt. After a few seconds of waiting in front of their table, the robot said in an upset but monotonous voice: “I am leaving now.”
As the robot left, the young couple realized that they had missed their water. We all laughed about it.
“A robot with an attitude,” I said with a chuckle.
A few minutes later, the robot reemerged with the two plastic glasses. This time, the young couple noticed and promptly picked up their water.
“It’s stressful to watch for our food being delivered to us,” my friend Andrea said, as we were both on alert to pick up our plates and drinks.
At the end of our lunch, I realized how much this experience has transported me to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun, a book that we discussed last year with my ‘book savages’ friends (the name of the book club that I started during the pandemic).
An observant but naive robot
“The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.” — Klara, the artificial friend
A dystopian science fiction novel by the Nobel Prize author Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun is a delightful, deep story narrated by Klara, an artificial friend and non-human narrator, who matches other narrators in children’s books, according to Ishiguro in one of his interviews.
The novel opens with Klara being in the store that sold different models of artificial friends/robots. She is a keen observer of the world outside of the store windows. Her manager knows that Klara is the most observant and special robot. She describes Klara as having an appetite for observing and learning. Klara’s ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is the most sophisticated of the robots that the manager sold in the store.
When Klara was sold to become Josie’s artificial friend, Klara detected a small sign of sadness in Josie, which was astute for a robot.
As Klara learns more about human behaviors, she marvels at the mundane that humans don’t even think much about, such as social interactions. Klara is also mesmerized by the sun, which is why Ishiguro personified and used the capitalization for the sun. Therefore, Klara believes that the sun can send Josie, her human friend, who was sick, special nourishment to heal her. She also thinks that when the sun sinks behind Mr. McBrain’s barn that happens due to some stairs to the underworld. We must admit that this is not only a robot’s naive take on the sunset but also a beautiful metaphoric look at the sun’s daily routine and ritual.
A study on loneliness
“What was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.” — Klara, the artificial friend character in Klara and the Sun.
Maureen Corrigan in her article Klara and the Sun is A Masterpiece About Love, Life and Mortality Loneliness states that “loneliness is one of the signature emotions in Ishiguro’s novels and that Klara has many opportunities to observe the strategies that humans devise to fight off loneliness and conceal vulnerability.” For instance, when Ishiguro describes a contrived gathering of teenagers, called an “interaction” at Josie’s house, Klara is at first puzzled by the meanness of the kids including, uncharacteristically, Josie. Then, slowly, Klara grasps that: “They fear loneliness and that’s why they behave as they do …”
Additionally, Klara makes the sad realization that “perhaps all humans are lonely. At least potentially,” which is another complex and philosophical observation that definitely transcends the robotic, mechanical, and mindless abilities of the robot delivering drinks at Kura Sushi.
A story of hope
“In the morning when the Sun returns. It’s possible for us to hope.” — Klara
Judith Shulevitz, the author of The Radiant Inner Life of a Robot published in The Atlantic says that Klara is Alexa, super-enhanced. She’s the product that roboticists in a field called affective computing (also known as artificial emotional intelligence) have spent the past two decades trying to invent, as engineers have failed to write software that can detect and simulate human emotions. Yet, with Klara, there is hope because she has the uncanny ability to understand the deepest human feelings and emotions.
Hope in Ishiguro’s novel is like a pack of trail mix coming from humans and artificial friends like Klara. By offering glimpses into mankind’s struggle to fit in society — affluent families like Josie’s parents choose to genetically “lift” their children through gene editing so that they have the best chances to get admitted into top universities, Ishiguro intertwines the themes of hope and love while “The Sun” (Klara capitalizes it) adds kindness and warmth to the human and non-human interactions.
While Klara is the science fiction version of advanced artificial intelligence, we can only hope that human loneliness will lessen in the future and that we will continue to reach out to each other, while robots will keep doing easy mechanical tasks, such as bringing drinks to the table without getting impatient when delivering them.
For now, there is hope in the future of mankind, as long as we keep connecting and accepting that “there are all kinds of ways to lead a successful life,” as Paul tells Rick’s mother, who had chosen not to “lift” her son.
The sun and its kind rays of sunshine can uplift us all. I toast to that and to watching every sunset with the same wonder as Klara while climbing and descending stairs with true hope that everything we do will in the end be worth it.