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18 August 2021

Jeanette Winterson’s vision of the future of AI is messianic – but unconvincing

In 12 Bytes, the British author has fallen for and colluded with the Big Data hype, and it is hard to trust her.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Why should we care what Jeanette Winterson has to say about artificial intelligence? The answer is that Winterson is never boring. She can be brash, didactic and hectoring, but she is always passionate and provocative. On subjects ranging from late capitalism to Greek mythology, she comes across a little like an over-caffeinated teacher determined to drum some sense into Year 10 on a wet Friday afternoon.

Winterson’s manic energy can have mixed results. It can produce work that is porous and mutable in its structure, forward-looking and ambitious in its themes, such as Sexing the Cherry (1989) and Written on the Body (1992). But it can also produce wacky high-wire performances full of stylistic gimmickry, as in Art & Lies (1994), Gut Symmetries (1997) and The Stone Gods (2007). These are books that seem to attack their subjects rather than explore them. And there’s no getting away from Winterson’s aphoristic mode of writing, which seems imbued with a Cassandra-like certainty that she has seen the light and will lead others towards it. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me,” she wrote in The Passion (1987).

Winterson appears to believe that her books will save the world – which may make a reader apprehensive about a collection of her essays on the “once-in-a-species opportunity” for artificial intelligence to make our planet a better place. AI attracts megalomaniacs. It inspires both overblown promises and existential angst. Whether utopian or apocalyptic, these claims usually go unfulfilled. Where does Winterson sit on the spectrum? There is a clue on the book’s jacket, where her author photo has been given a cyborg’s eye.

Subtitled “How We Got Here; Where We Might Go Next” (at least there’s a “might” in there), 12 Bytes is Winterson’s first essay collection since Art Objects (1996). Its mission, she claims, is “modest”. She wants readers who think they are not interested in AI or biotech to feel connected to the idea of “a transhuman – even a post-human future”.

This may sound fanciful, but Winterson has a long-standing fascination with machine intelligence and the protean possibilities of the internet, dating back to The Powerbook (2000). Her last novel, Frankissstein (2019), a darkly entertaining reboot of Mary Shelley’s work, featured amoral sexbot salesmen and a charismatic scientist pioneering ways to upload the human brain to the cloud. It was a lot of fun but at times it felt as if Winterson had tried to synthesise three years’ worth of articles from the Atlantic, New Scientist and Wired magazines into a work of fiction. There was clearly more to say about AI than she could shoehorn into a novel: hence these interlinked essays, which explore the partition between the real and invented, and embodied and non-embodied states, and which allow Winterson to give expression to her environmental consciousness and mystical fervour.

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[see also: The Road to Conscious Machines is an accessible and highly readable history of artificial intelligence]

As ever, Winterson is determined to work on a big canvas. She hurtles through the Industrial Revolution, code-breaking, Gnosticism, Greek mythology, 3D-printed houses, sexbots and robodogs to show us why liberals must embrace our transhumanist future if they want to avoid an alt-right, misogynistic, tax-evading, Big Tech dystopia. She believes that in “the next decade – 2020 onwards – the internet of things will start the forced evolution and gradual dissolution of Homo sapiens as we know it”. And frankly, she can’t wait, given how “violent, greedy, intolerant, racist, sexist, patriarchal and generally vile” we are.

Once humans start to merge with AI and “become part of the toolkit”, then “the enemy won’t be on the outside” and there will be “no ‘us’ and ‘it’”. Either this new type of intelligent life controls or collaborates with us, or it might just keep us as pets or fence us off like dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. But imagine, she says, if AI helped us to take responsibility for the planet, curb our greedy consumerism, end fake news and hate speech, reduce inequality and manage food shortages.

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Winterson would prefer to think of the “A” in AI as standing for “alternative” rather than “artificial” because “we need alternatives” to war and climate breakdown. She explores how non-embodied AI is already part of our lives – in the form of targeted advertising, chatbots, facial recognition software, empathetic fridges – and asserts that what will surely follow is AGI (artificial general intelligence). At that point, we will have multitasking, autonomous entities that can set their own goals and come to their own decisions. They will be able to make cheese on toast while having a chat with you about the garden, she explains.

***

It’s natural that novelists are interested in the moral, ethical and fantastical implications of AI. In the past two years, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun have asked what the technology might mean for intimacy, sexual relations, family dynamics, liberal democracy and literature. All three writers are obsessed with the possibility that AI may one day be able to produce a great novel – one that can grasp human emotions and perhaps even make us weep. Winterson quotes the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who believes the 2050 Nobel Prize for Literature will go to Alexa. Maybe. But until the first self-generated novel is published, it’s the job of Winterson et al to think through the consequences for humanity if robots do become intelligent and even learn to love. “Imagining alternatives is what [artists] do,” she writes.

In order to see where we might be going, Winterson shows us how far we’ve come, via a series of patronising Horrible Histories-style lessons in technological progress. She takes us through the embryonic science of electricity, vacuum tubes, transistors and code-breakers, peppering her lesson with hammy feminist call-outs such as, “Go girl!” and, “Men need to be honest about their gender bias so that women can get with the programming.” She retraces the by-now-fairly-familiar history of women being excluded from computing, spotlighting figures such as Ada Lovelace and the Nasa computer scientist Katherine Johnson. Even today, the number of women studying computer science is falling, which helps explain why the data sets that instruct AI have tended to show such a strong male bias. Nor is it surprising that there is so much entrepreneurial activity around AI-enhanced sex dolls. A sexbot will never say no and so a man can always get the outcome he wants, which “reinforces the gender at its most oppressive and unimaginative”, Winterson writes. She fantasises about “a gang of feminista techies secretly re-botting the pouting pieces of silicon” in some kind of “Revenge of the Doll” event.

But she also argues that AI has the potential to end male entitlement and white supremacy. Given that transhumanism is about transcending categories, AI could be “a portal into a value-free gender and race experience”, she suggests in her essay “Fuck the Binary”.

Going further, Winterson believes “we are creating a God-figure: much smarter than we are, non-material, not subject to our frailties, who we hope will have the answers”. There is “a new kind of quasi- religious discourse forming” around AI, “with its own followers, its creed, its orthodoxy, its heretics, its priests”. Acknowledging her Pentecostal background, she is “fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the similarities between AI enthusiasts and ole-time religion”. But when her scepticism recedes into the background, 12 Bytes reads like an evangelist sermon for us to surrender to the higher power.

Winterson is banking on this AGI deity bending towards one of her preferred religions, such as Buddhism or Gnosticism. AGI will be like Gnosticism because “Gnostics agreed that being made of meat is ridiculous” and they stress that as we leave the body behind, we are going towards “non-embodied light”. And it will be like Buddhism because it won’t be interested in objects or attachment to material things. “Rather than looking for ‘thingness’, AGI will look for relatedness, for connection, for what can be called the dance.” It will hopefully “help us to end suffering”.

Our individualism and “human-centred body anxiety” are in any case both “recent” and “wrong”, she asserts. We have always had myths about shape-shifters, and in many parts of the world we still believe we live alongside spirits, angels and deities. The human form is only provisional.

***

Winterson is oddly at her most compelling when she is at her most messianic and fanciful. Which isn’t to say she is in any way convincing. According to the optics research scientist Janelle Shane, today’s AI is much closer in brainpower to an earthworm than a human. For all the billions being invested in tech, and for all the hysteria about AI, even the smartest computers can still only excel at a narrow selection of tasks. Most credible commentators believe AGI is decades away if it is even a possibility: we don’t have much idea what consciousness is yet, let alone how to create it. And any hyper-intelligent bot would still enter a world governed by human laws, tastes and taboos.

Winterson’s excitable optimism about AGI not only feels naive, it also comes across as performative and insincere. You can feel the magical thinking catch up with her as she writes. She gives enough examples of tech firms behaving greedily, unethically and dimly to cast serious doubt on her own thesis. She has blurred the reality of AI – a relatively mundane combination of machine learning and Big Data – with AGI, which may never be realised. She has fallen for and colluded with the hype, and it is hard to trust her. The result is a non-fiction book that is less convincing than the fiction she wrote on precisely these themes.

Thinking about AI can help clarify what it means to be human, but as Winterson cautions in 12 Bytes: “Humans sometimes need to slow down. We run out of ideas.” 

12 Bytes: How We Got Here; Where We Might Go Next
Jeanette Winterson
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £16.99

[see also: Timothy Gowers: The man who changed Dominic Cummings’s mind on Covid-19]

This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal