Cybernetics – an affront to God?
If the idea of cybernetics, i.e. the merging of human intelligence and machine intelligence with in our bodies and brains, triggers unpleasant images of Borg Cubes in your mind you might want to stop reading right now.
At first on-look he is nothing out of the ordinary; a slightly rounded middle aged man with greying hair and an energetic smile, but the truth is that Ray Kurzweil is far from average. This 55 year old is an inventor cum scientist active in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). His creations include a machine that reads, software which understands speech and a key-board that can synthesize orchestral instruments, he boasts 11 honorary doctor degrees and has served as an advisor to four presidents. Kurzweil is also leading an informal think tank of acclaimed scientists who meet to discuss, and predict, how computers will develop in the future and how they will impact life as we know it.
Very briefly it can be stated that Ray Kurzweil argues not only that the technological evolution is accelerating but that the acceleration itself is accelerating. To illustrate the speed and the possible implications he uses the famous tale of the invention of the chessboard. The story tells that the Chinese Emperor, who presumably lacked any higher mathematical education, agreed to a seemingly modest reward for the creator of the game; one grain for the first square, two for the second, four for the third and so on. Half way through things still looked up for China in the sense that the county’s entire grain crop would still suffice to pay the inventor. After that, however, the numbers soon turn astronomical. According to Kurzweil we are currently loitering about in the vicinity of square number 30 and we are ready to quantum-leap to destination Singularity. He predicts that machine intelligence will soon surpass human intelligence as computers will enhance, and replicate, themselves through programs too complex for the human mind. As this post-human intelligence covers the entire globe it will continue to expand (we are still on the metaphorical chess-board) towards infinity at the speed of light. At this stage all of us will have thousands of “nanobots” implanted in our brains, boosting our neurons and enhancing our intelligence. They will be far superior to traditional implants as they can move around freely and thus become parts of our brains – we will become non-biological.
But in the midst of this futuristic nightmare or dream if you will we suddenly return to 18th century England. Ironically all these new visions appear to have brought us back to the age-old metaphysical issue of the all-seeing God, or its futuristic counterpart “the infinitely knowledgeable post-humane intelligence”. Perhaps a trifle oversimplified the gist of the dilemma is as follows: if God (or the infinitely knowledgeable post-humane intelligence) is all-seeing and all-knowing s/he would be able to simulate everything that ever happened. Then what if the world does not really exists, what if it is all an illusion brought about by this God and we are but brains in a vat? Yes, indeed what if we are? Seeing that I do not know that this is reality, in fact I will never ever know for sure, I might as well suppose it is. This very dilemma dogged George Berkeley’s Cosmology back in 1740’s. It would seem that nothing is new under the sun after all.
God & Computers
There is an ongoing, and at times quite heated, debate on the topic of the possible spiritual and ethical consequences of computer technology and AI. What does it mean to be human? Can we construct a robot so intelligent that it will become conscious? Can AI have souls? Will we start to appreciate virtual experiences more than physical ones? Can a conscious machine have a free-will, i.e. be responsible for its actions?
One of the people working at this intersection between theology and technology is Anne Foerst, Professor in Computer Science and Theology at St. Bonaventure University. Foerst explains that in order to be able to work with AI the scientist have to see humans as nothing more than meat-machines. If they were to adopt the theological definition of a human being i.e. that we are created in the image of God, have dignity and personhood and so forth they might as well give up straight away. Because how could they possibly replicate that? However, this assumption does not hold true outside the AI community. Even if a humanoid robot was created and it was just as intelligent as the rest of us that would not prove that humans are nothing but machines. Professor Foerst concludes “We need to be very careful in distinguishing between scientific theory that is necessary for doing research and an ontological statement about the inner nature of a human being.”.
Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Professor Foerst can envision a possibility that humanoid robots could develop both consciousness and souls. Pointing to the example of a newborn baby she explains that it is the social setting which develops consciousness - social interaction is an absolute necessity. Hence, if the humanoids would be allowed to interact with the world (presumably equipped with some sort of body) this might well be feasible. As for the soul, she and many others of these futurists, argue that if we think of the soul in the Jewish sense i.e. as a link, or relationship, between the individual, the group and God humanoids could become part of this group provided that we interacted with them. This will, however, naturally not make them humans.
The future is bright
Most scientists and philosophers active in the field of AI emphasise that we need to think about how this new technology can be used to build a better society. It is often suggested that capitalistic interaction will drive the dispersion of the new technology around the globe. This increased and more lifelike communication between people will then boost our understanding and empathy for our fellow humans. Another core argument is that decentralized technology is highly democratising. Perhaps it will even force us to think about the distinction between humans and persons. The concept of being human is obviously a biological one but what does personhood involve? Is it not the case that the relationships between e.g. different ethnic group could improve greatly if we stopped denying other humans’ personhood?
Not everyone is enthused. Bill Joy, Cofounder of Sun Microsystems, fears a “knowledge-enabled mass destruction” as nano-technology, robotics and other technologies start to replicate themselves. Kurzweil rebuffed Joy’s fears during an Extropia convention by citing a fake press release “Sun announces today that in the future it is no longer planning to offer its customers faster computers nor improved software because doing so would lead to the eventual destruction of the human race.”.
The truth of the matter, however, appears to be that the “good” and the “bad” technologies are in fact just two sides of the same coin – the ones that cure are the same ones that kill.