Sunday, August 08, 2021

12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson, bitty and lacks byte

Jeanette Winterson was big in the eighties or was it the nineties? Oranges have indeed proved to be not the only fruit and I liked her Lancashire accent. She never trotted out the usual tropes. Maybe that’s why you never see her these days. She thinks a bit too deeply for television. So I had high hopes for 12 Bytes: How We Got Here, Where We Go Next, a dozen essays on AI.

Unfortunately it is bitty and lacks byte. Just as you think an interesting door is opened, it turns into a trapdoor and you are yet again hit over the head with some odd reading of science, AI or history. She claims, up front, not to be a luddite but that’s flattering to deceive. The book is too much of a diatribe. It's become an all-too-predictable genre.

It starts on the well trodden path of placing Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley centre stage in the history of AI. They were and they weren't but it sells books. It is nowhere near the clarity of Isaacson in his book Innovators and fails to recognise the difference in history between the causal and commentary. Ada contributed nothing to mathematics. Her contribution was that she speculated on the power of mathematics in relation to reason and thinking, it was imaginative and prophetic but that was it. Newton, Leibniz and her contemporary Boole are given short thrift, while the towering Bayes and Laplace aren’t mentioned at all. Isaacson was right in that Lovelace developed a “somewhat outsize opinion of her own talents” and was “never the mathematician her canonisers claim”. Her Noites by the Translator to Menabrea's Memoir had four interesting thought experiments about general programming, the use of different symbolic systems, the concept of a computer programme and the questions 'Can machines think?' (her answer was no).

Among talk of ‘digital natives’ in the essay Sci-Fi to Wi-Fi ro Me-Fi, there’s a mention of D-Fi, Decentralised Finance. This is a good example of a topic that could have gone places - it didn’t. Some of the theorising is is just plain barmy. In He’s not heavy, He’s my Buddha she presents an embarrassing bit of of cod philosophy, where the claim is made that Einstein proved the Buddha correct, because mass and energy are the same. Pass the joint. 

In Coalface Vampires who enters stage left? Oh no - it's Kurzweil. And once again Frankenstein and Vampires are hauled in, confusing literature and movie monsters with actual history. Robots like Pepper, Sophie and robot pets are rolled out and to be fair she’s relaxed about this, as we adapt them to our needs. But then the trapdoor opens and sex dolls, though they have almost nothing to do with AI, are the devil's work. In truth, they’re at best big bits of plastic or silicone, with a crap chatbot. It's the all too predictable diatribe against men who are led by their penises (fair point). The argument seems to be that men are bad therefore sex toys for men are bad. Dildos, however, that objectify men down to plastic or rubber truncheons, are good. Go figure. Logic, at this point, had been not only abandoned but massacred.

Fuck the Binary is a very confusing essay. Among all the usual contemporary de-anchoring of language from reality, there are statements like “Humans are not nature/nurture. Humans are narrative.” Well that’s sounds awfully binary to me - and plain wrong. In fact, they’re all of these, it’s complex. There’s a lot of reductionist claims in the book. Simon Baron-Cohen, a world authority on autism, gets it in the neck for no other reason than suggesting that some cognitive fatrues show sex differences (like autism). She puts any academic positions different from her own position literally down to "mansplaining".

Things get going on EMAC and Bletchley park, with their significant and erased female contributions but the worst is saved for last in I love, therefore I am, with its cod philosophy “neither Skinner nor Watson could accept the fact that the observer and observed couldn't be separated, a fact quantum physics has proved”. Where do you start with this nonsense?

When novelists turn their hand to AI, especially English novelists, they fall into that Romantic tradition of seeing the world as being destroyed by these infernal machines and this book, like so many, gets stuck in the 19th century, misreading AI as machines (robots). Ada Lovelace was Byron’s daughter. and she herself confused musings with maths. Winterson defaults back to this Byronic romanticism, confusing AI with robots, and arguments with bon mots.

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