An AI Origin Story

Nowadays, no TV or movie franchise worth its salt is deemed complete unless it has some sort of origin story – from “Buzz Lightyear” to “Alien”, from “Mystery Road” to “Inspector Morse”. And as for “Star Wars”, I’ve lost count as to which prequel/sequel/chapter/postscript/spin-off we are up to. Origin stories can be helpful in explaining “what came before”, providing background and context, and describing how we got to where we are in a particular narrative. Reading Jeanette Winterson’s recent collection of essays, “12 Bytes”, it soon becomes apparent that what she has achieved is a tangible origin story for Artificial Intelligence.

Still from “Frankenstein” (1931) – Image sourced from IMDb

By Winterson’s own admission, this is not a science text book, nor a reference work on AI. It’s a lot more human than that, and all the more readable and enjoyable as a result. In any case, technology is moving so quickly these days, that some of her references (even those from barely a year ago) are either out of date, or have been superceded by subsequent events. For example, she makes a contemporaneous reference to a Financial Times article from May 2021, on Decentralized Finance (DeFi) and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). She mentions a digital race horse that sold for $125,000. Fast-forward 12 months, and we have seen parts of the nascent DeFi industry blow-up, and an NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first Tweet (Twitter’s own origin story?) failing to achieve even $290 when it went up for auction, having initially been sold for $2.9m. Then there is the Google engineer who claimed that the Lamda AI program is sentient, and the chess robot which broke its opponent’s finger.

Across these stand-alone but interlinked essays, Winterson builds a consistent narrative arc across the historical development, current status and future implications of AI. In particular, she looks ahead to a time when we achieve Artificial General Intelligence, the Singularity, and the complete embodiment of AI, and not necessarily in a biological form that we would recognise today. Despite the dystopian tones, the author appears to be generally positive and optimistic about these developments, and welcomes the prospect of transhumanism, in large part because it is inevitable, and we should embrace it, and ultimately because it might the only way to save our planet and civilisation, just not in the form we expect.

The book’s themes range from: the first human origin stories (sky-gods and sacred texts) to ancient philosophy; from the Industrial Revolution to Frankenstein’s monster; from Lovelace and Babbage to Dracula; from Turing and transistors to the tech giants of today. There are sections on quantum physics, the nature of “binary” (in computing and in transgenderism), biases in algorithms and search engines, the erosion of privacy via data mining, the emergence of surveillance capitalism, and the pros and cons of cryogenics and sexbots.

We can observe that traditional attempts to imagine or create human-made intelligence were based on biology, religion, spirituality and the supernatural – and many of these concepts were designed to explain our own origins, to enforce societal norms, to exert control, and to sustain existing and inequitable power structures. Some of these efforts might have been designed to explain our purpose as humans, but in reality they simply raised more questions than they resolved. Why are we here? Why this planet? What is our destiny? Is death and extinction (the final “End-Time”) the only outcome for the human race? Winterson rigorously rejects this finality as either desirable or inevitable.

Her conclusion is that the human race is worth saving (from itself?), but we have to face up to the need to adapt and continue evolving (homo sapiens was never the end game). Consequently, embracing AI/AGI is going to be key to our survival. Of course, like any (flawed) technology, AI is just another tool, and it is what we do with it that matters. Winterson is rightly suspicious of the male-dominated tech industry, some of whose leaders see themselves as guardians of civil liberties and the saviours of humankind, yet fail to acknowledge that “hate speech is not free speech”. She acknowledges the benefits of an interconnected world, advanced prosthetics, open access to information, medical breakthroughs, industrial automation, and knowledge that can help anticipate danger and avert disaster. But AI and transhumanism won’t solve all our existential problems, and if we don’t have the capacity for empathy, compassion, love, humour, self-reflection, art, satire, creativity, imagination, music or critical thinking, then we will definitely cease to be “human” at all.

The Bibliography to this book is an invaluable resource in itself – and provides for a wealth of additional reading. One book that is not listed, but which might be of interest to her readers, is “Chimera”, a novel by Simon Gallagher, published in 1981 and subsequently adapted for radio and TV. Although this story is about genetic engineering (rather than AI), nevertheless it echoes some of Winterson’s themes and concerns around the morals and ethics of technology (e.g., eugenics, organ harvesting, private investment vs public control, playing god, and the over-emphasis on the preservation and prolongation of human lifeforms as they are currently constituted). Happy reading!

Next week: Digital Perfectionism?


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