My Bear Can Talk

Jeanette Winterson CBE is one of the UK’s most esteemed writers. Following her acclaimed first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she has gone on to write dozens of books – all in print in twenty-two countries – and won various awards for her fiction and adaptations, including the Whitbread Prize and the Prix d’argent, Cannes Film Festival. The following extract is taken from her most recent work, 12 Bytes, an illuminating collection of essays that draws upon history, religion, myth, literature and computer science to explore the radical manifestations and consequences Artificial Intelligence will have on how we live, communicate and love

Artwork by Salvatore Fiorello


The word is a Czech coinage from robota, meaning ‘drudgery’ or ‘forced labour’. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) is a 1921 play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek.

It’s a strange and far-sighted play. The robots do all the work for the self-important humans. Eventually – inevitably – they get tired of this and revolt, killing all the humans, except one, an engineer. On the way to this core-fantasy apocalypse, there’s a robot-rights league, and a misguided heroine called Helena, who wants to save robots who don’t want to be saved, and who discovers there is a robot replica of her. (Maybe Fritz Lang borrowed this idea in his 1927 movie Metropolis, featuring Maria, a fembot replica.)

In Čapek’s play robots are not made of metal. They are biological organisms, spun out of proteins and bacteria, and closer in kind to the low-grade humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

That’s the part Čapek got wrong – he couldn’t imagine a substrate not made of meat. His play is really an allegory about what happens if capitalists treat workers like machines – but he did kick off the popular sci-fi trope of robots who will someday turn on humans and try to destroy us.

But for all the Terminators out there, our robot-imagination is surprisingly gentle too: WALL·E, C-3PO, R2-D2, Data, the Iron Giant, Baymax from Big Hero. As technology advances, customised robots based on your favourite cartoon character will be available. What they do will be programmable – my Frogbot will tell stories. Your Frogbot will sing. Linking the programmes links the robots, so that children can share their friend.

For adults the range will be unlimited. A helperbot can guide you round the shops, just as a self-driving car guides itself round town. Mobility scooters will chat with you as you ride along, and if your friend is nearby, your scooter will ‘know’.

Anything we start talking to develops into a relationship. If people can form a bond with the fish in their fish tank – and they do – forming a bond with a non-bio helper won’t be a problem.

So, what are the resistances?

Humans still use the word robot to describe a less-than-human response. It is always an insult. Human responses, though, are often unpredictable and savage. We are evolved, not made, and we bring to the 21st century dinosaur traits that are pointing to our demise. Why wouldn’t it be good for children to grow up round a friendly, patient, non-judgemental, not angry creature who can teach a little human not just maths and code, but the virtues of trust and co-operation, of sharing and kindness?

It doesn’t matter if we have programmed the Talking Bear to behave in this way. Human behavioural traits are inherited but they are also learned. How we are raised is a significant determiner of who we are.

Robots won’t be bringing up our children – at least not yet – but they could have a positive and stabilising effect on humans of any age. In my view it is better for a child – or an older person – to have a benign interactive presence in their lives than to be plonked in front of the TV or moving screen all day.

Much of the worry around kids spending too much time on their screens could be alleviated by a robot presence. Talking matters. Therapy is called the talking cure; when humans speak aloud it affects our thoughts, our thought processes and our thought patterns. Shy children, asocial children, children on the spectrum, children who find communication troublesome, or just kids who need someone/something to talk to, will benefit from a 3D entity that appears to listen. I am not even sure that ‘appears to listen’ is correct. How often do we just need a sympathetic ear? And we all know that we spend half our lives not really listening as someone downloads or lets off steam – and that is fine. There is a presence.

Presence is important. It doesn’t have to be biological. And if it did, prayer would be ineffective. When humans talk to their god, they feel better.

One of the arguments against both meaningful relationships with robots, and our own augmentation with AI technology, is that humans are embodied. Our brain is embodied. Our emotions are embodied. We cannot experience what it would be like not to have a body – though we can imagine it. In fact, anyone who believes in an afterlife is looking forward to being a no-body.

Whatever you believe about life after death, even the most secular of us cannot help talking to the recently dead we have lost. To hold that connection – at least for a while – seems to be protective to our mental health. Hold it too long and we are living with a ghost. When we lose someone we love – when they leave us, or death takes them – what is taken is not only a 3D body; what is taken is a pattern in our brain.

Microsoft filed a patent in 2021 to use social data to build a chatbot of any person, dead or alive. Stored data can be run through a programme to learn how the person might respond. Voice is easy to copy. In theory, your dead companion can be always with you. You can talk.

Google has also filed a patent for a digital clone that can capture someone’s ‘emotional attributes’. This is supposedly to make synthetic PA services more responsive. In fact, it is likely to be used as a tool of persuasion, probably for predictive purchasing. When there is an emotional connection, we are easier to persuade. So, if your dead husband suddenly likes a dress you are looking at online – don’t buy it to please him.

How will any of this affect and alter the grieving process? How will humans move on if we don’t have to?

We all know people who live in the past. Their most vivid reality isn’t in the here and now at all. But with a ‘live’ chatbot, the past will be the continuous present.

Humans are strange. We focus so much on the body and yet much of our relevant and vital life isn’t embodied at all.

Given our capacity to live outside the 3D world that we can touch and feel, and given the strong non-physical links we can have with others – it is possible to speak on the phone for years – possible to connect only by email – then why wouldn’t we be able to form a meaningful bond with a non-embodied system? Or form a bond with a robot that is also an operating system? The thing about AI is that it can be simultaneous. The dream of being in two places at once is easy if you are software powered by electricity.

You could have a social robot at home – several of them if you like – but their physical unit of being is not their only representation. You could leave your actual robot at home, and travel with your operating system only, just as you travel with your phone or laptop. Not only does communication continue between you and your travelling operating system, but your at-home 3D robot is part of the picture, because AI systems can be linked.

Also, the system can subdivide, so that your operating system and your robot can talk to each other, as well as to you. OK, so they are not ‘talking’ – they are sharing information. The point is, you get the best of both worlds: your PA bot, or your companion-bot, or your emotional-support bot, is with you and not with you. This will particularly appeal to Geminis.

Think of all the stories you know where the hero has an invisible helper.

In the Greek myths, that helper is one of the gods or goddesses. Ulysses – also known as Odysseus – is aided by Hera/Athena in multiple forms as she guides him back to Ithaca. Zeus comes along disguised as thunder. Then there is Mercury, the non-binary heartthrob with the trickster smile. Ulysses expects to meet every kind of creature on his hero journey. What he doesn’t expect is that they will be human. Or even biological life-forms.

The gods arrive for a conversation – unseen but audible – or they manifest in physical form when necessary. Space-time is irrelevant if your helper is non-bio, which the gods are, even though they appear as humans most of the time. The non-human helper brings information – they search the internet faster than we can – and they offer support wherever you are, because they don’t have to book a flight or take time off work. That sounds like AI to me.

It’s the Greeks who gave us the go-to myth for geeks (not Greeks): Pygmalion, whose carving comes to life. In its crude version, this is sexbot paradise, a make-your-own-girl-and- then-marry-her, but really, we’re talking about retro-fitting an operating system into a robot. In the past, only the gods could do this. Even humans, if we believe the Bible, start out as a clay doll ‘breathed’ into by Yahweh.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh appears as a cloud. As the cloud stores all our data, it is reasonable to assume that the Israelites were ahead of themselves with this particular image of the All Knowing.

A fundamental psychological departure for both Judaism and Islam – compared to the wash of cult religions swirling round in the East – was the insight that the all-knowing deity is invisible and can’t be captured by totemic physical models or images. Hence, in Judaism, the prohibition against graven images and statues. In Islam, we find the beautiful use of abstract patterns to represent that which is fundamentally non-human, non-biological, a presence that is connected to us, but that is of a different order.

It is difficult for humans to manage abstract thinking without something 3D to hold on to – the Roman Catholic Church understood that, and filled places of worship with statues, villages with shrines, feast days with carvings of saints, and gave the faithful amulets, relics, and rosaries in their hands – literally – in order to concentrate on the ineffable and unknowable ‘other’.

It is not until the Protestant Reformation, kicking off in 1517 in Germany, with Martin Luther, that all the 3D paraphernalia of the Catholic Church gets booted out. The Reformation wasn’t just about beliefs – it was about stuff. Even by our consumerist standards of madness, the Catholic Church was big on stuff. And on dressing up.

The Reformation hated outfits. And baubles. And incense. And chasubles. And big hats. And bells. Out went statues, stained glass, relics, paintings, until there was less and less, until we reached the uber-puritan version of a plain white room and a black suit of clothes.

When I look back at that vast, convulsive, hard-fought and bitter transformation – whatever your religious beliefs, or none – I wonder whether, psychologically, it points to another milestone on the way to understanding that our true human nature – let alone the nature of anything beyond human – isn’t best represented by objects, however beautiful.

Robots will be accepted into our daily lives precisely because they are not human. We think about robots in practical terms – but there is an existential element here too.

Robots will expand our definition of what is alive-ness. And return us to what is a richer understanding of the interplay and interdependence between embodiment and non-embodiment. While we will use robots as labour-saving devices and helpers for some time to come, I think we are on the road to realising that robots will act as transitional objects for humans as we move towards pure Artificial General Intelligence (AGI).

It may be that humans need transitional objects because our bodies are, in themselves, transitional objects.

Just as our inner life feels independent of our physical life, and just as so much of what we value is thought-dependent, memory-dependent, reflective of what is beyond the reach of the body, so I think we will, eventually, be able to let go of our bodies.

Robots will have other existential benefits too.

If humans are going to live longer, thanks to bio-enhancements that slow the ageing process, our goals and focus will change. Life stages will change. We already outsource memory. I imagine us visiting memory banks, where an AI helper will retrieve parts of our past for us – talk us through it. That helper might be a social robot who has been in the family forever. And when we do lose a biological loved one, it may be that we don’t need a replica chatbot to keep that person alive – it may be that our social-robot companions can find the balance to help us remember – and later, to let us forget. That’s not neglect of the past; it’s allowing it to be past.

I imagine that as AI learns to update, upgrade and programme itself, as it learns with us, as well as learns about us, as it shares a life with us, that there will be the little surprises to be found in every relationship. Robotic won’t be an insult; it may become a term of admiration or endearment. How like a robot may be what we say when the current narcissistic desire to make it all about me finally gives way to what we learn from a life-form that is hive-connected and focused on connectivity as a basic way of sharing.

I could take the dystopian view – these are false connections in a false world. But that would assume that where we are now is the uber-real.

I prefer to believe that where we are now is a stage on the way.

We look back, even just 50 years, and we wonder how everybody lived in nuclear marriages, happy or not – when interracial or same-sex relationships were taboo. When single mothers were objects of shame.

50 years ago few people used computers. There were no smartphones. There was no streaming. No social network.

In 50 years from now we will wonder how we lived before AI systems and their robots came to live with us. By then, I am confident AI will have developed into AGI and humans and alternative life-forms will share the planet together.

They won’t be called robots.

12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage, out now

Artwork by Salvatore Fiorello

This article is taken from Port issue 31. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here