Review of The Machine is Learning

Let me be upfront about what I think about this novel: this is an important and greatly relevant piece of literature that raises some pivotal questions pertaining to the ultra-modern world we live in now. It’s a comparatively thin book and if you read without your smartphone nearby, you should be able to finish the book in one sitting. But then, the questions will haunt you. You won’t be able to pick up your phone and start scrolling mindlessly that you would have inadvertently done. You’ll keep wondering if you have read anything like this before. The answer would be a firm no. The tech-man relation and how it affects your head is the focus of this book.

(Now is a good time to let you know that there will be spoilers from now.)

Saransh, the narrator and the protagonist is working on a project that uses machine learning to predict normal human behaviour which will finally make the humans redundant. The question Saransh will try to answer is whether he should be part of such a project and even if he is, whether there is an alternative where this new tech and people it aims to make redundant can flourish together. The wheel of capitalism will make technologies that will try to minimise human involvement and humans will get involved into more interaction oriented jobs. The intelligent jobs. What happens when intelligence itself can be cultivated artificially? This is a unique situation to mankind and there will be a lot to discuss.

The start of this discussion happens in the novel when Jyoti, whom Saransh has met via Tinder comes to know his work and questions its intentions. Saransh who hails from a small town, who has struggled to reach Mumbai from Muzaffarnagar, knows in his heart the point Jyoti is trying to make (this perhaps is one of the reasons he falls for her), but still argues for the importance of technological advancement and inevitability of leaving some people behind. Jyoti argues there must be a way to do both: make the tech work and still keep the people.

Finally they will realise it would not be possible; the corporate God (the narrator compares the corporate culture to religion, daily commuting in large groups to pilgrimage, the honking to the chants, the grandiosity of temples to the tall glass buildings placed on a higher ground) is ruthless. They realise that a technology that can track your digital activity, learn about you and then predict your personality is all too powerful. That the machine is learning constantly about you to one day be able to replace some of you. This is what makes the title fear-inducing, daunting and cool.

So what Jyoti suggests is to suffer for the loss of those people who will be left behind, to feel guilty if nothing more. Saransh questions whether such an approach makes any real impact to the situation. This, the heated argument with his colleague Mitesh and the urge to impress Jyoti has made him do what the reader has been wanting for a long time: turn around and try to stop the wheel. Later, he tries to understand why he has done so. The moving image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian kid, face-down on a beach and palms skyward, helps him to understand why he felt so angry and then guilty for violence happening elsewhere, in the least conflicted era of mankind. The frequent philosophical debates between Jyoti and Saransh often reminded me of a Dostoevskian narrative. Though, I would have liked the arc of the complacent Saransh to the rebellious Saransh a bit longer.

In the final chapter of the book, after inevitably failing to stop the machine, when Saransh says how his expertise in eliminating human involvement will land him another good job, we will realise this is how the modern hero will behave in this world: caught up in a vicious cycle like Sisyphus. There can be no better ending for this novel.

I’ll finish this review by congratulating Tanuj Solanki for his courage, his keen observation and really, really good characterization throughout this lucid, highly readable book. A must read.

And I’ll just leave this here:

I think of the one game –the fourth of the five-match series – in which Lee Sedol beat AlphaGo. Somebody should talk about the beauty of that.