Saturday, September 25

12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson Review: How We Got Here & Where We Could Go Next | Science and Nature Books


In The 1818 novel by Mary Shelley Frankenstein, a scientist creates life and is horrified by what he has done. Two centuries later, synthetic life, albeit in a much simpler form, has been created on a plate. What Shelley envisioned has only now become possible. But as Jeanette Winterson points out in this collection of essays, the achievements of science and technology always begin as fiction. Not everything that can be imagined can be done, but nothing can be done if it has not been imagined first.

Think artificial intelligence. For now, AI is a tool that we train to tackle specific tasks like predicting the next wave of Covid, but many people have imagined that it could be something categorically different: a multitasking problem solver whose ability to understand and learn is equal to 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 our imagination has taken us in technology. What can artistic imagination contribute?

Maybe meaning. How will our relationships change when we share the planet with an intelligence on par with ours, but who does not cry or get drunk or ejaculate? How will this non-biological being relate to the rest of nature? Will it solve the problems we haven’t been able to solve or will it create new ones? Should we fear him, fall in love with him, pray to him, or all three?

Winterson is excited about the future of AI. She reads the diaries of the CIOs, delves into their algorithms, attends their lectures (“In the afternoon I’m sweating under the mental pressure of translating a non-language”). In a debate about transhumanism, the idea that humanity can break its biological limits, for example, by merging with AI, she is the one defending it against the traffickers of fatalities. What you are concerned about is that we will drag our old toxic baggage into this blissful new world and give technology the wrong uses, give it the wrong meaning. 12 bytes It is his attempt to warn us of that, examining where we came from and asking where we are going.

Its starting point is the first industrial revolution, the one that gave us steam and mass production, but also black cities and a miserable and sickly underclass. Inequality was exacerbated by the enclosure of common land, which from 1800 became easier for large landowners than for small ones. Fast forward 200 years. We are now the means of production, as tech companies turn our data to gold, and those same companies are busy dividing up outer space, once considered a common good too. The Luddites of the early 19th century were not against progress, they were against exploitation, which was only controlled by campaigning and fighting legislation.

There is a strong feminist bent here, as you might expect from the author of Cherry sexing Y Written on the body. Nineteenth-century industrialists paid women (and children) less than men for the same work, creating a corrosive competition that has echoed throughout the decades. Winterson draws a direct line from that, through the forgotten computer programmers of the post-WWII era, to today’s college students who are occasionally told by male computer scientists that they don’t have the brains to enter the field. . Trash in, trash out: It’s no wonder the algorithms that instruct AI show a strong male bias. Winterson wants to know why we continue to deal with fixed gender categories. “Fuck the binary” is the title of one of these essays.

Transhumanism is about transcending categories and as such has a natural appeal to the fluid gender, which has never felt at home in any body. That was the theme of his 2019 novel. Frankissstein, a reinvention of Frankenstein, and she goes back to that here. As soon as a human being can have a relationship with an intelligent, non-biological way of life, preconceptions about gender and sexuality will explode in ways they haven’t yet, despite the burgeoning sex robot industry. . In fact, sex robots indulge in some of the most backward-looking preconceptions. The RealBotix Harmony sex doll is not equipped with the female pleasure organ, the clitoris, or if it is, it is not well publicized, but its AI-enabled head has 18 mood settings, including gentle, jealous, teasing and talkative. . . Scrolling down the comments on the RealBotix website, Winterson found several urging the company to remove the talkative mode.

But robots can be just a transitional stage for AI, on the way to a disembodied and “pure” AGI that would be around us and within us. And what would be new in that? Our ancestors were always pushed around by angels and ghosts. The harassment didn’t stop when they went to heaven, but at that point they dumped their own bodies. We are more attached to our own physicality now than ever before.

The best of these essays are the most personal, those in which Winterson’s life allows him to detect connections that others might miss. Growing up in an evangelical home, she is fascinated by the religious echoes she hears in the AI ​​debate. It has its believers and its skeptics, 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 humans and non-humans blurs, we’ll have to re-evaluate what we mean by human, but that’s nothing to worry about, he thinks. You may be opposed to the idea of ​​an artificial intelligence personal assistant communicating with via an implant rather than a headset, but the real issue is not the implant, it is the fact that the artificial intelligence informs you Mr. Zuckerberg, and that’s a problem now. . In the struggles ahead of us, one of the things we must fight for is that our inner life is off limits.

All this invites reflection and is necessary, and sometimes very funny, but there is no scenario here that someone has not already imagined; no Shelleyan jump. I’m not sure what that leap would look like, but one way to stimulate it might be to think about how we define intelligence. Intelligence does not have to be biological, as Winterson says, and yet ours is very embedded and very embraced. So why is our “artificial” intelligence test that arises from a non-biological mate still the Turing test, that is, fooling a (human) interlocutor into believing that the AI ​​is human? Why are we the benchmark?

Ironically, Alan Turing devised his test 70 years ago as a way to show that computers were capable of original thinking. It was her response to Ada Lovelace, who is sometimes called the first computer programmer and who, more than a century earlier, had said that she did not believe they would ever acquire jumping ability. Lovelace’s own leap was the realization that the first computer, the “analytical engine” that Charles Babbage designed but never built, would be capable of doing more than calculations. But working with what little he had, he couldn’t imagine him doing what his father, the poet Lord Byron, excelled at.

Perhaps there is some mathematical formula that describes how far we can jump, imaginatively, given the reality from which we started. In any case, it seems to have its limits, both for scientists and artists. Sixty years ago, the word “alien” conjured up creatures that were small and green, but otherwise extremely familiar. Now scientists agree that if alien life exists, it is likely to be simpler and stranger, more like the single-celled organisms that made up the first life on Earth.

Given the problem we’ve had in defining human intelligence, witness the long-standing controversy over IQ tests, could we ever imagine what intelligence could mean for a buzzing network of connections, an Internet of things? ? Science fiction writers have tried, but they still tend to ask the question from a human perspective: what would it mean? for us live with such a mind? The nature of that mind, whatever purpose and value it may have, is humanized or left in the dark.

On the other hand, Winterson could be onto something when he suggests that in a future defined by connectivity and hybridization, love will be more meaningful than intelligence. Could I really love? to be intelligence, in a disembodied world? Maybe that’s flim-flam romantic. Perhaps it is a meaningless question since it leads to another: what is love? But it has a certain appeal, especially because it could launch us on a new imaginative journey and because by imagining something, we make it possible.

12 Bytes is a Vintage post (£ 16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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