- 12 Bytes: How We Got Here, Where We Might Go Next, by Jeanette Winterson. Cape, $32.99.
Jeanette Winterson's 12 Bytes spins off her Booker-longlisted 2019 novel, Frankisstein, which, in turn, had Mary Shelley's classic as its inspiration.
In 12 chapters, or "bytes" which Winterson freely admits include some repetition, she examines, through a feminist perspective, the scientific and social impact of computing/artificial intelligence, from Ada Lovelace to the present day and beyond.
Winterson writes, "My aim is modest, I want readers who are not much interested in AI, or biotech, or Big Tech, or data-tech...to know what is going on as humans advance towards a transhuman, or even post-human future" .
The early years of the internet were full of hope for many that it would transform humanity for the better. But now Big Tech dominates, with firms headed, as Winterson writes, by "men who believe themselves to be chosen/superior/the new directors of humanity's future".
She also queries the value of increased processing speeds on our devices if we only end up communicating misinformation faster, watching net trivia and playing computer games.
Nonetheless, after segments covering the industrial "machine" revolution, sex-bots, cryogenics, robotic pets, 3D printers and transhumanism, Winterson remains an AI optimist, providing we can stop being "violent, greedy, intolerant, racist, sexist, patriarchal, and generally vile". A big if.
Winterson believes the next decade will see "the forced evolution and gradual dissolution of Homo Sapiens as we know it". AI will be less flawed than Homo sapiens, "a nonmaterial entity, not subject to our frailties". Winterson's realistic litany of human faults and Big Tech dominance of our lives doesn't quite compute with her optimistic conclusion, echoing the Beatles that all we need is love, "love is the totality", and the evolution of a Buddhist AI "God-figure much smarter than we are".
12 Bytes is ultimately an eclectic and passionate exploration of AI futures, rather than a realistic AI primer. For that, seek out Canberra- raised, US based Professor Kate Crawford's recent Atlas of AI (Yale UP).
Crawford, who believes "AI is neither artificial nor intelligent", argues global networks underpinning AI technology are damaging the environment, increasing inequality, and providing unregulated platforms to undermine democracy. "What we see time and again, from facial recognition to tracking and surveillance in workplaces, is these systems are empowering already powerful institutions - corporations, militaries and police". In that concern, Winterson and Crawford are in lockstep.