12 Bytes review: Jeanette Winterson on AI and making life less binary

12 Bytes

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson, the award-winning writer of Oranges AREN’T the Only Fruit , commenced circling around artificial intelligence after reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. Since then, the science and technologies of AI have informed her fiction, including her 2019 novel Frankissstein.


12 Bytes is Winterson’s first non-fiction book about AI. With 12 essays, or “bytes”, that together form an unusual and entertaining read, the book is inflected with the same delightful, dry humour as the others of her work.

In each essay, Winterson holds AI up to the light, contemplating it from different angles. Probably the most thought-provoking (and smile-inducing) of the resulting refractions is her treatment of spirituality. By comparing Gnostic aeons (similar to angels) to quantum bits, god to a 3D printer and heaven to mind-uploading, she shows that AI has been born out from the human quest for meaning – a quest, she argues, that has been converted into a male pursuit.

Although Winterson stresses that it is “not really a history of AI”, 12 Bytes traces the historical and contemporary women who’ve been written out of the record of computing’s past and AI’s future. From Ada Lovelace’s struggles against 19th-century oppression to the way the crucial roles of Katherine Johnson and other African American women at NASA through the space race were largely unknown prior to the book and movie Hidden Figures , Winterson emphasises their importance.

Insufficient has changed. She lambasts a male technician at Google who belittled women’s capabilities in company-wide emails, and a physicist who lectured on why women aren’t really suitable for physics at CERN, claiming these events aren’t anomalies but indicative of the systemic biases explaining having less female CEOs, STEM workers and students. But how come this binary, built out of stereotypes, perpetuated?

Winterson doesn’t shy away from all of this, but is refreshingly measured and optimistic. AI, she thinks, has an opportunity for rectifying the situation. It isn’t human and has neither gender nor ethnicity. ‘”Computers aren’t binary nonetheless they use binary,” she writes. AI might teach us to be less binary, even about intelligence.

“We have our very own intelligence, plus that ofAI, but we are nowhere near to solving human issues”

And what precisely do we mean by the “I” in “AI”, she asks. Our definition is founded on Descartes’s dualism, which she says “confused consciousness with rational, deductive, problem-solving thinking about the kind (sometimes) displayed by humans. In his view, by male humans”.

Upon this front, AI has already beaten us: it “thinks” faster than we do, with top-end laptops managing 100 billion instructions per second. We’ve our very own intelligence, plus that of AI, but we are nowhere near to solving human issues like gender and racial equality or the climate crisis, says Winterson. She concludes that people don’t have a non-binary definition of intelligence, encompassing emotional intelligence and love. Only if Descartes had also written “I love, therefore I am”, she writes.

12 Bytes is such a welcome break from the scaremongering that accompanies non-specialist surveys of AI that it’s easy to get swept away by the author’s impassioned storytelling.

While Winterson is positive that people will study from AI, she actually is clear that it is the same sort of folks (white men, statistically speaking) who do its programming and designing. Apart from increasing diversity in the workplace, which is merely happening slowly, she doesn’t settle how AI can avoid reflecting the biases of its creators.

Using its imaginative, insightful and wide-ranging essays, 12 Bytes will certainly prompt readers to commence their own circlings around AI. Less certain is whether it will propel us out of an infinite, theoretical orbit and inspire a plan of action on AI’s issues.

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