12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson review – how we got here and where we might go next

How will our relationships change when we share the planet with an intelligence that is on a par with ours, but that doesn’t weep or get drunk? Photograph: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images/Tetra Images RF

Science and nature books

Twelve essays drawing on years of research into artificial intelligence ask challenging questions about humanity, art, religion and the way we live and love

Fri 23 Jul 2021 09.00 BST

In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, a scientist creates life and is horrified by what he has done. Two centuries on, synthetic life, albeit in a far simpler form, has been created in a dish. What Shelley imagined has only now become possible. But as Jeanette Winterson points out in this essay collection, the achievements of science and technology always start out as fiction. Not everything that can be imagined can be realised, but nothing can be realised if it hasn’t been imagined first.

Take artificial intelligence. For now AI is a tool that we train to address specific tasks such as predicting the next Covid wave, but plenty of people have imagined that it could be something categorically different: a multitasking problem-solver whose capacity to understand and learn is equal or superior to ours. Many labs are working on this concept, which is called artificial general intelligence (AGI), and it could be a reality within decades. That’s how far imagination in technology has brought us. What can the artistic imagination add?

Perhaps meaning. How will our relationships change when we share the planet with an intelligence that is on a par with ours, but that doesn’t weep or get drunk or ejaculate? How will that non-biological being relate to the rest of nature? Will it solve the problems that we have failed to solve, or create new ones? Should we fear it, fall in love with it, pray to it – or all three?

Winterson is excited about the future of AI. She reads the tech heads’ journals, rummages in their algorithms, attends their conferences (“By the afternoon I am sweating under the mental pressure of translating non-language”). In a debate about transhumanism – the idea that humanity can break through its biological limits, for example by merging with AI – she’s the one defending it against the doom-mongers. What worries her is that we’ll drag our toxic old baggage into this brave new world, and put the technology to the wrong uses – give it the wrong meaning. 12 Bytes is her attempt to warn us off that, by examining where we’ve come from, and asking where we’re going.

Her starting point is the first industrial revolution, the one that gave us steam and mass production but also black cities and a miserable, sickly underclass. The inequality was exacerbated by the enclosure of the common land, which from 1800 became easier for large landowners than for smaller fry. Fast forward 200 years. Now we’re the means of production, as tech companies spin our data into gold, and those same companies are busy carving up outer space – once also considered a common good. The Luddites of the early 19th century weren’t against progress, they were against exploitation, which was only reined in through hard-fought campaigns and legislation.

There is a strong feminist slant here, as you might expect from the author of Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body. The 19th-century industrialists paid women (and children) less than men for the same work, setting up a corrosive competition that has echoed down the decades. Winterson draws a direct line from that, through the forgotten female computer programmers of the post-second world war era, to today’s female undergraduates who are occasionally lectured by male computer scientists that they don’t have the brains to enter the field. Garbage in, garbage out: no wonder the algorithms that instruct AI show a strong male bias. Winterson wants to know why we are still dealing in fixed gender categories. “Fuck the binary” is the title of one of these essays.

Transhumanism is about transcending categories, and as such it has a natural appeal for the gender-fluid, who never felt at home in any body. That was a theme of her 2019 novel Frankissstein, a reimagining of Frankenstein, and she returns to it here. As soon as a human can have a relationship with an intelligent, non-biological life form, preconceptions about gender and sexuality will explode in ways they haven’t yet, despite a thriving sex robot industry. In fact, sex bots pander to some of the most retrograde of these preconceptions. Sex doll Harmony from RealBotix isn’t equipped with the female pleasure organ, the clitoris – or if she is, it isn’t well advertised – but her AI-enabled head does have 18 mood settings, including gentle, jealous, teasing and chatty. Scrolling down through the comments on the RealBotix website, Winterson found several urging the company to retire the chatty mode.

But robots may only be a transitional stage for AI, on the way to a disembodied, “pure” AGI that would be all around us as well as inside us. And what would be novel about that? Our ancestors were forever being jostled by angels and ghosts. The harassment didn’t stop when they went to heaven, but at that point they jettisoned their own bodies. We are more wedded to our own physicality now than we ever were in the past.

The best of these essays are the most personal, the ones in which Winterson’s life allows her to spot connections that others might miss. Having grown up in an evangelical household, she is fascinated by the religious echoes she hears in the debate around AI. It has its believers and its sceptics, its high priests and its creed: “You know the basics: This world is not my home. I’m just passing through. My Self/Soul is separate from the Body. After death there is another life.”

As the boundary between human and nonhuman becomes blurred, we’ll have to reassess what we mean by human, but that’s nothing to worry about, she thinks. You might balk at the idea of an AI personal assistant with whom you communicate via an implant rather than an earpiece, but the real problem is not the implant, it’s the fact that the AI is reporting back to Mr Zuckerberg – and that’s a problem now. In the struggles ahead, one of the things we should fight for is that our inner lives are off limits.

All of this is thought-provoking and necessary – and sometimes very funny – but there’s no scenario here that someone hasn’t already imagined; no Shelleyan leap. I am not sure what that leap would look like, but one way to stimulate it might be to think about how we define intelligence. Intelligence doesn’t have to be biological, as Winterson says, and yet ours is very much embodied, and very much embrained. So why is our test of “artificial” intelligence that emerges from non-biological matte still the Turing test – that is, fooling a (human) interlocutor into thinking the AI is human? Why are we the benchmark?

Ironically, Alan Turing devised his test 70 years ago as a way of proving that computers were capable of original thought. It was his response to Ada Lovelace, who is sometimes called the first computer programmer and who, more than a century earlier, had said she didn’t think they would ever acquire leap capacity. Lovelace’s own leap was to realise that the first computer, the “analytical engine” that Charles Babbage designed but never built, would be capable of more than just calculation. But working with the little she had, she couldn’t imagine it ever doing what her father, the poet Lord Byron, excelled at.

Perhaps there is some mathematical formula that describes how far we can leap, imaginatively, given the reality we start from. At any rate, it seems to have its limits – for scientists and artists alike. Sixty years ago the word “alien” conjured up creatures that were small and green but otherwise exceedingly familiar. Now scientists agree that if extra-terrestrial life exists, it’s likely to be simpler and stranger – more like the single-celled organisms that constituted the first life on Earth.

Given the trouble we’ve had defining human intelligence – witness the long-running controversy over IQ tests – could we ever imagine what intelligence might mean for a humming web of connections, an internet of things? Science fiction writers have had a go, but they still tend to ask the question from the human perspective: what would it mean for us to live with such a mind? The nature of that mind, any goals and values it might have, are either humanised or left obscure.

Then again, Winterson might be on to something when she suggests that in a future defined by connectivity and hybridity, love will be more meaningful than intelligence. Could love actually be intelligence, in a disembodied world? Maybe that’s romantic flim-flam. Maybe it’s a pointless question since it leads to another: what is love? But it has a certain appeal – not least because it could launch us on a new imaginative journey, and because in imagining something, we make it possible.

12 Bytes is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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Laura Spinney