12 Bytes: How We Got Here, Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

Wittgenstein for Robots

12 Bytes: How We Got Here, Where We Might Go Next


Jonathan Cape 288pp £16.99

If the robots are coming, will you run to greet them or run away? Or would you prefer to do something else entirely, like sit quietly with a margarita and a good book? Besides, do we even have the time to deal with super-intelligent robots, or even a bunch of fairly stupid ones, as well as everything else? It reminds me of what Mark Twain once wrote about having masses of work but being continually interrupted by a ghost that wanted to haunt him. Eventually he told the ghost to come back later as he was on a really bad deadline (I paraphrase, slightly). However, it’s also the case that artificial intelligence (AI) is all around us, irrespective of whether we want it and whether we have time to deal with it. It is in phones, laptops, microwaves, washing machines, voice- and face-recognition software, driverless cars, drones and the web, where algorithms nudge us and guide us around. None of these is intelligent in the sense that it is massively into Wittgenstein’s Tractatus or Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. AI largely involves mimicking and modelling, not pondering the meaning of life. Then there is the notion of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – the theory that there will come a point when machines become autonomous and Siri doesn’t want to be friends with us anymore.

The whole subject is fraught with conceptual difficulties. For a start, what do we mean by intelligence? When we lack a unified theory of consciousness, can we fully understand human or even machine intelligence anyway? Have we all watched too many Terminator films? Jeanette Winterson has thought deeply

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