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technology is moving so quickly these days, that some of her references (even those from barely a year ago) are either out of date, or have been superceded by subsequent events.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?

 

Literary triggers

Reading for pleasure should be a joy in itself. But to read a book and then be drawn into somewhat tangential (and even trivial) thoughts triggered by personal recollections is an added bonus.

That was partly my reaction when reading Jonathan Coe’s marvelous novel “Mr Wilder and Me”. Ostensibly a fictional account about the making of one of Billy Wilder’s final films, set in Greece and France in the mid-1970s, it manages to incorporate many themes – Hollywood, the creative process, migration, family, the Holocaust, ageing, travel – without selling any of them short. Happily, it’s now being made into a film itself, which confirms the strong narrative at the core of the book. I look forward to seeing it when it is released.

For myself, the novel prompted three travel-related memories:

1. Just like a key time in the novel, my first visit to Greece was also a few years after the collapse of the military junta – currency restrictions, banks only open a couple of hours a day, rationing of hot water in the hostel where I was staying, and construction projects abandoned unfinished because of their association with the military regime

2. The narrator’s love of cheese, stemming from an impromptu visit to a Brie maker, brought back memories of many trips to Paris in the 80s and 90s, and visits to bars like La Tartine, and trying the different types of crottin

3. On my first trip to California, I was fortunate enough to have drinks at the Hotel del Coronado, the setting for Billy Wilder’s most famous film, “Some Like It Hot”, and an iconic resort facility in San Diego Bay.

Seemingly unconnected, yet all evoked by a single work of fiction.

Next week: Let There Be Light

My love/hate relationship with Science Fiction

Watching the latest installment of “The Matrix”, I was reminded of my love/hate relationship with Science Fiction. I wouldn’t count myself as a huge SF fan, but I dip my toe in from time to time, and occasionally find a sub-genre, eco-system or franchise that draws me in deeper, whether via television, film or literature. Unfortunately, while the original “Matrix” movie (and maybe the first sequel) managed to be original, entertaining and engaging, by the time of “The Matrix Revolutions” both the plot and the characterisation had run thin. When I saw the trailers and the pre-launch campaign for “The Matrix Resurrections”, I was sufficiently intrigued to want to see it, especially in light of recent geo-political events. Sadly, it was a huge waste of time: the plot was banal, and the story-line disjointed; there were awkward flashbacks to the previous films (in large part to remind us of the actors who originally played the current characters?); and there were far too many retrospective explanations to justify the present “narrative”. The whole thing felt like another Keanu Reeves character had stumbled into a dystopian Lewis Carroll landscape – “Wick in Wonderland” would have been a more suitable title.

“The Terminal Man” by Michael Crichton (image sourced from the author’s website)

Growing up in the UK in the 1960s, my school friends and I avidly watched a bunch of TV programmes that found a young and eager audience for SF. These productions also spawned multiple re-boots, spin-offs and imitators, as well as giving rise to the franchise phenomenon that dominates much of today’s cinema. Those early shows included “Star Trek”, “Lost in Space”, “Planet of the Apes” and “Land of the Giants”. All of these programmes were American, which I suppose made them seem even more exotic, and therefore more appealing, to our impressionable minds.

By contrast, British television had produced the “Quatermass” TV series back in the 1950s, and “Dr Who” (launched in 1963), both of which pre-dated their US counterparts by several years. But in my mind these domestic efforts were firmly rooted in Gothic horror – more H.G.Wells and Jules Verne than Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick? – and therefore they felt less futuristic, especially when we were witnessing the real-life events of the Space Race on the evening news. Which is probably why even Gerry Anderson’s puppet creations such as “Fireball XL5”, “Thunderbirds” and “Captain Scarlet” resonated with me more than Daleks and Cybermen. So to me, British television was more successful in producing psycho-dramas founded upon stories of espionage set against backdrop of the Cold War, with programmes such as “Danger Man”, “The Avengers”, “The Champions” and “The Prisoner” being far more evocative of contemporary themes and fashions, notwithstanding some creaky plot lines.

Later, I would watch classic SF films of the 1950s, such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “The Blob” and “Forbidden Planet” which, despite their technical limitations, are still key reference points for fans of the genre; they also convey elements of Cold War paranoia, and the perennial fear of “the other”. Then, as a young teenager, I found myself reading SF novels, including works by Asimov, John Wyndham, Aldous Huxley, Michael Crichton, Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss and J.G.Ballard. Ballard, of course, preferred to explore “inner space” rather than outer space, and this means his writing contains universal themes that are not constrained by contemporary accounts of futuristic technology. In fact, this theme of “inner space” probably underpins my preferences within the SF genre, as evidenced by 1960s movies I managed to see when I was older, such as “Seconds”, “Alphaville”, and “Fahrenheit 451”.

Despite an aversion for SF that is over-reliant upon technology as a plot technique, I have enjoyed some recent novels that engage with emerging technology such as AI and robotics – great examples would include William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein”.

However, if I was to delineate my personal likes/dislikes of SF in film and on TV, I would probably list them as follows:

  • As a child, I loved the original “Star Trek”, but I’ve never seen a “Star Trek” film or any of the newer TV series
  • I’ve never seen a “Star Wars” film, and have no desire to
  • “Moon” was great, and “Source Code” wasn’t bad either
  • I really enjoyed “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and I appreciated “Contact”, “Arrival”, “Interstellar” and “The Martian”
  • “Gravity” was somehow plausible, whereas “Elysium” was a stretch
  • “2001: A Space Odyssey” is in a class of its own
  • Same with “The Man Who Fell To Earth”
  • I loved the first four “Alien” movies, but I disliked the so-called prequels, and I’ve avoided the “Predator” cross-overs
  • The original “Terminator” film was great, but the sequels prove the law of diminishing returns
  • I really enjoyed “Looper” and in a somewhat similar vein, “Inception”
  • I couldn’t ever get into the “X-files” – but I was hooked on “Twin Peaks”
  • The original “Westworld” movie was fine, but I have no interest in the recent TV series
  • Similarly, I love the original film versions of “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”, but see no point in the later remakes
  • And while I used to watch re-runs of the original “Twilight Zone” series, I’ve not seen the later re-boot; however, “Black Mirror” got my attention
  • “Donnie Darko” yes, “Stranger Things” no
  • Overall, I tend to avoid SF that is more firmly rooted in the sub-genres of horror, fantasy, magic, super heroes (with super powers), space westerns, superstition, disaster themes and most tales of the supernatural (and anything with Kevin Costner….)

Finally, there is room for humour in SF, if done well – such as “Dark Star”, “Mars Attacks!”, and “Tremors”; even the first “Men in Black” effort is head and shoulders above “Wild Wild West”….

Next week: Smart Contracts… or Dumb Software

Literary legacies

As more classic works of literature come out of copyright protection, and enter the public domain, publishers and booksellers can look forward to sales of re-packaged titles, for which they won’t have to pay royalties. With the right combination of content and marketing, it’s as good as free money.

Under the Berne Convention, copyright in published works is the life of the author plus 50 years, although many territories have extend this to life plus 70 years (100 in Mexico!). These periods may be subject to extensions if the executors of literary estates are able to renew the existing copyright (under previous copyright regimes) or by issuing revised editions of existing works which are sufficiently different to the original so as to constitute an entirely separate publication – but these are exceptions.

By allowing copyright to lapse, this should mean key works will always be in print, and even more obscure titles can be revived with little to no production cost. For nearly 20 years, Google Books has been scanning works out of copyright and putting them online. But even this process can run into copyright limitations, and questions of provenance (as illustrated by the treatment of George Orwell’s “1984”). But this has also encouraged some enterprising individuals to sell “reprints” of facsimile copies of scanned titles, when the buyer thought they were purchasing an authentic copy, or a contemporary edition (i.e., newly typeset and printed).

Intellectual property law may be complex, and in need of reform to reflect modern technology and contemporary society. But as copyright works pass into the public domain, there remains the issue of moral rights. These give writers the right to be identified as the author of a work (“attribution”), and to protect their work against inappropriate use (“derogatory treatment”). Moral rights also protect writers against “false attribution” – i.e., a publisher can’t claim a work was written by an author who didn’t actually write it.

Moral rights vary from country to country (e.g., Germany, UK, USA, Australia), but generally do not survive when copyright expires. Which can mean that unscrupulous publishers may feel emboldened to “modify” original texts at will, given some recent examples of key 20th century novels. Surely not what authors and their legacies should be subject to?

Next week: Public Indifference?