In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.

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Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson

In the 1810s, a teenage Mary Shelley found herself writing what is the first, and arguably one of the greatest, science-fiction stories of all time. Some 200-odd years later, author and Professor of New Writing at the University of Manchester, Jeanette Winterson, found herself wondering what sort of novel Shelley would have written had she lived in today’s technologically mediated world, and decided to write this 21st-century update to Frankenstein herself.

When Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816 at just 18 years old it was against a backdrop of scientific discovery and curiosity. The attempts by Luigi Galvani and his peers to reanimate the corpses of animals – as well as newly executed prisoners from Newgate prison – had a clear influence on the young author. Indeed, it could have been something she witnessed first-hand, due to her father’s circle of influential friends and the proximity of the family home to the Tyburn gallows.

For Winterson, her latest novel, Frankissstein: A Love Story, was written during a time of great political uncertainty in the UK. The book makes several references to Brexit, and in the afterword, Winterson also raises her concerns around vanity politics, governments in the pocket of Big Oil, and climate change. The novel, however, concerns itself with one particular worry of Winterson’s: the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics and what it means for the future.

“Privately, for my own purposes, I’ve been keeping up with what’s going on in the AI world,” Winterson tells Techworld, speaking in the Fountain Room at the Barbican, an hour before she’s due to give a reading to an enthralled gathering of fans.

“I've been reading Ray Kurzweil, Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0 and looking at what was going on at Google X, just trying to get a picture of what people who don't think like me A) think they're doing and B) what they think’s going to happen.”

Winterson first came to the attention of the UK literary scene in 1985 when her debut, and arguably still her most famous, book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published. It detailed a fictional account of the very real childhood she had growing up as the adopted child of a Pentecostal couple who raised her to be a missionary. Oranges won the Whitbread prize in its year of publication and subsequent books by Winterson have been nominated for and won a multitude of awards. Frankissstein is her eleventh novel.

She remarks that many of the negative events that have happened throughout history were the result of accidents, and while she doesn’t believe anyone in the tech industry is purposefully trying to develop an iRobot-style future where beleaguered semi-sentient machines usurp their human masters, as people we live by the unwritten law of unintended consequences.

“When those guys were splitting the atom on the Manhattan Project, they didn't think they were about to unleash nuclear warfare on the world,” she says. “They were just doing their job. We’re really bad at making our good ideas stay good. We always manage to do something that screws it up for us.”

One of the primary ways she believes we’re currently screwing up the development of artificial intelligence and robotics is through the lack of women involved on the technical side of the industry.

“Women aren't doing computer science degrees, they’re not doing engineering degrees so they're not even making the platforms on which to run the programmes, because they're not doing the engineering and they're not developing the software,” she explains.

Winterson is not alone in voicing these criticisms. At a conference in 2016, Microsoft researcher Margaret Mitchell referred to the AI sector as a “sea of dudes”. In the UK, only 13.6 percent of 2017 university students accepted onto computer science courses were women.

“I suddenly thought, God, we could end up in a world where the last hundred years of such progress for women, where the pointless prejudices have been removed and women have moved forward in every way, all of that could be reversed because the future might not be female,” she says.

The rise of the sex bot

It’s not just the lack of women in the industry that has Winterson worried, it’s also how women are being portrayed by the men creating the robots, and developing the technology that underpins artificial intelligence.

The ambiguity of gender and human sexuality have long been central themes in Winterson’s work and although her latest novel is about the perils of developing artificial life, one of the major questions asked throughout the novel is what will happen to gender and sexuality as technological developments become more advanced?

In Frankissstein, a 21st century Bryonesque figure – rotund Welshman Ron Lord – has designed and produced a range of sex bots that supposedly cater to the sexual needs of heterosexual, cis-gendered men. As one audience member at the fictional robotics conference points out: “you don’t even have to buy them dinner!”

“I think it’s interesting [that we gender robots] because there's no reason to and that fascinates me.” Winterson says. “Our desire to have things labelled as male or female goes very deep.”

Across the globe, the trans rights movement is continuing to challenge society’s inherent need for binary labels, leading many to rethink their previously held notions of gender in ways they perhaps wouldn’t have before.

The novel’s narrator is a “future-early” trans-man, Ry Shelley, and their determination to fight against the gender norms that are constantly being foisted upon them by secondary characters seems to be purposely at odds with the hyper-sexual, “open my legs, daddy!” female sex bots which you can neatly fold up into a duffle bag and leave in the cloakroom.

“With the trans community, where there is hostility, fear and misunderstanding, I believe that will change,” says Winterson. “But it does seem to be a pity that now [through the development of robots] we have a chance to really rethink our notions of the binary, that we’re not. Why not?”

Winterson believes that by sticking so rigidly to the gender binary when designing and creating AI and robotics, we're making the future a bit dull for ourselves.

“It seems to me to really lack imagination and that's what worries me about these Silicon Valley geeks, I think they do lack imagination,” she adds. “I would like to have a lot more play, a lot more fun, more possibilities that can allow our new inventions to ask us why we’re so hung up on gender and to offer a new generation a world where there are many genders, I suppose of which artificial intelligence would be one. Why do you have to identify as male, female? That’s the question that the trans movement is really asking: What is gender? So, let’s ask it.”

However, as long as humans are involved with the production of artificially intelligent sex-tech, Winterson believes it will always be problematic because “we make everything problematic”. In the USA and China, female sex bots and sex dolls already have huge market appeal, reinforcing the patriarchal standards of the society we live in.

Furthermore, it’s been proven that the mass-consumption of pornography has already had devastating consequences on how some people now view sex. “Not only is porn unrealistic, it's also wildly ambitious, in the sense of what most people ever can do in their sex life, and I think the dolls are just going to make that worse,” says Winterson.

“What worries me is that if you’re smashing up, beating up, degrading or forcing female-presenting bots to submit to you in any way, even when it's just an AI system, that will transfer into real life. I don't believe people who say it won’t make any difference because we know pornography makes a huge difference to the way, not just that men treat women, but the way men think about sex and what sex is and what's possible.”

Our last invention

Be it politics, climate, culture or technology, Winterson says we’ve reached a point where as a whole we’ve been “stupid, careless, ridiculous” and in some circumstances, are getting very close to reaching the point of no return. She didn’t want to write about any of that, though.

Like most of us who have gone through the UK’s education system, Winterson hadn’t read Frankenstein since her early twenties, but the story of both Shelley and her creation had stuck with her throughout the decades.

“I wanted to look at Mary Shelley's own vision and how that might be relevant to us now,” she explains. “For me, [Frankenstein] was a message in a bottle. It was like she threw it out across time and it’s landed down with various generations who have all read it differently. It's a classic of literature.

“But we are the first generation who can look at it and think, ‘Wow, we are about to create a new life force’. Not out of discarded body parts, but out of the zeros and ones of code. We are the generation for whom that book was written. She couldn't know that. But that was one of the really exciting things about literature, it’s not caught in time. Books are of their time, but they're also for other times so different generations find different things in them. 

“We’ve reached a very particular moment; 200 years have passed since Frankenstein was published yet here we are.”

Despite the heaviness of the book’s main themes, Frankissstein is fun. While Ry and Dr. Victor Stein are the kind of characters you’d expect from Winterson, beautiful, thought-provoking but somewhat damaged, the secondary players border on caricatures. Whether it’s Ron trying to understand Ry’s gender identity, the un-PC outbursts from Claire the sex bot or the human evangelist Claire’s holier-than-thou views on everything AI, there’s a lot of laughs to be had alongside the very serious issues Winterson grapples with.

The inclusion of a first-person narrative from Mary Shelley during her infamous trip to Lake Geneva where Frankenstein was conceived helps to highlight the parallels between the two time periods, whilst allowing Winterson to do what she does best, show off the English language in all its expressive and sensual beauty.

In 1965, the Bletchley Park mathematician I. J. Good wrote: “The first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” 

While Frankissstein is a work of fiction, there’s no getting away from the very real paranoia and possibilities that we now have to consider.

For Winterson, the fundamental idea of artificial intelligence and robotics are not the real concern. Her anxieties instead stem from a lack of understanding by the general public – combined with what billionaire tech bros in their Silicon Valley labs are developing behind closed doors, to unleash on an unsuspecting, uninformed population.

“The world we’re going into now won’t resemble any that we’ve already been in,” she tells the audience. “So, the more you know, the safer you are.”