In his recent blog Erik Strandness discussed the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) in the hands of fallen humans. In this second blog reflecting on Nick Bostrom and Rosalind Picard’s Big Conversation on Unbelievable? he examines how AI has been used as an alternate creation myth and an integral part of the transhumanist movement.
I find it interesting that scientists, confronted with cosmological fine-tuning, biological information and irreducible complexity, find it necessary to invoke a primal intelligence behind it all. However, worried that too much talk of design may allow God to get a divine foot in the door, they make sure that this “intelligence” has an evolutionary pedigree.
Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, set the bar quite low for intelligent input with his theory of Directed Panspermia which posited a race of aliens who seeded meteors with the raw materials of life, sent them to earth and then let evolution work its magic. His theory tipped its hat to intelligence but limited its role to that of a quarry foreman overseeing the harvesting and distribution of the raw materials of life without any interest in architectural planning.
However, as we have accumulated greater scientific knowledge we see that the world is far more organized, coherent, predictable, complex, and information rich than we had previously recognized, suggesting that those raw materials required some assembly instructions.
The problem with Crick’s theory is that the story of a shipment of chemical cargo crashing to earth and then mutating lacks a certain algorithmic elegance, which can only be remedied by aliens with advanced degrees in computer science. It appears that the unmistakable appearance of design has led many scientists to conclude that a warm little pond pales in comparison to a technologically proficient Programmer.
Once you posit a programmer you need to ask yourself about his/her/its credentials. Picard did just that when she asked Bostrom what kind of mind he thought would be behind it all?
“It would be some kind of superintelligence, presumably because creating simulations with conscious beings and where the virtual environment is indistinguishable from reality is very hard….regarding motivations we can imagine a range of different possible motivations for creating simulations and I think we are somewhat ignorant as to the relative preponderance of these motivations. You can ask why humans create simulations and imaginary worlds and we do it for all kinds of reasons.”
It seems that the programmer he describes would be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, intimately involved in the actions of the characters. A simulation therefore doesn’t necessarily rule out a God putting together the greatest story ever told, it just digitizes it. God could have created a virtual reality in which He made characters from every nation to live on the face of the earth, determining the allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, so that they would seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him even though He is actually not far from each one of them. (paraphrase of Acts 17:26-27)
It appears that the only difference between an alien programmer and God is that those who posit life as a computer simulation prefer that He have a degree in computer science so that our moral choices are reduced to 1s and 0s and not good and evil.
People or Pixels
I think one could imagine a planet without humans and infer a computer simulation because of the predictable, instinctual behavior of the animals, but once you introduce beings who frequently go off script and are infatuated with making themselves equal with the programmer then you are no longer dealing with pixels but people. Algorithms may be able to search for food when their tummies growl but they are incapable of contemplating their belly buttons.
The very fact that characters in a computer simulation can have a conversation about being characters in a computer simulation would seem to suggest that the characters and the programmer are of like mind, or dare I say, bear the same image.
A Sporting Chance
Once you entertain the possibility that our lives are part of a larger computer simulation, then it is small step to believing that with enough technology tokens you can acquire new super powers. We can fantasize about becoming a six million-dollar man or a bionic woman but when we do we are confronted with profound questions about the value of our current biological state. Are we fearfully and wonderfully made, or are we just inferior beings waiting in line for the next operating system upgrade?
Surprisingly, it’s not philosophy, science or theology that best answers that question but athletics. Sports has definitively stated that the use of performing enhancing drugs and technologies is cheating. We have record books full of asterisks indicating that achievements attained under clouds of performance enhancement are suspect and not to be considered true accomplishments. Why?
It appears that when the cleats meet the field we believe that it is more honorable to push our biology to the limits than take steroids, cork bats, or apply tar to a baseball. Sports recognize a set of rules and regulations that define the parameters within which competition occurs and defines excellence as achieving something spectacular within those limits based purely upon one’s biology.
It seems that there is something incredibly beautiful about accepting that which we were born with and taking it to limits we didn’t think were possible. It is one thing to live within the rules God established but quite another to make them up as we go. We are enormously inspired by the Paralympians and special Olympians who don’t see limitation but only possibility.
Feeling His Pleasure
Adam and Eve’s desire to take their mortal abilities to God-like heights continues to plague us to this day. God kicked them out of the Garden for trying to acquire knowledge that was against the rules. Interestingly, athletic organizations do the same with athletes that eat of the tree of performance enhancement. The problem is that performance enhancement, like original sin, knows no limits and can never be satisfied, but maximizing biological skills within certain parameters allows us to experience the satisfaction of true accomplishment.
Eric Liddell, the long-distance runner featured in the movie, Chariots of Fire, uttered the famous line.
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.”
If we believe that our biology is inadequate and needs technological enhancement then we reduce the God who created us to a doddering old man who can’t log onto the internet – kind hearted perhaps – but technologically challenged. If, however, we believe that we are fearfully and wonderfully made then we feel His pleasure every time we push our bodies to the limits.
A Shell of a Man
In our zeal to rebuild ourselves we become less and less human. We already replace knees and hips and limbs – how much longer before we are no longer flesh and blood but just tubes and wires? Are we so gnostically minded that we rid ourselves of the evil flesh only to find ourselves alone with our thoughts?
Interestingly, Jesus did many biological miracles but they focused on restoring shrivelled hands and not creating bionic arms, restoring eyesight and not conferring x-ray vision. Restoration ultimately honors God’s very good creation but enhancement calls his creational skills into question. Transhumanism, rather than building a better human, may end up leaving us a shell of a man.
The Low Down on Uploading
Why stop at present enhancement when you can potentially achieve immortality by freezing your body until such time as technology can reanimate you to health? Why settle for a brain that frequently forgets where you left your car keys when you can upload your mind to a computer with a key finding app?
Bostrom has apparently enrolled in a cryogenics program where he will be frozen at his death and be thawed in the future when technology has advanced to the point where it can restore him to health. Brierley astutely asked him why he would want to prolong his life indefinitely. Bostrom didn’t really give much of an answer except that at a very basic level all humans want to live and anything that could extend that possibility would be a good thing. Picard, on the other hand, wasn’t much interested in prolonging her current life but was very excited about being a part of the one to come.
I mean personally, I don’t desire to live an infinite life. I do desire, however, to get to the next one, the one where I can see God face-to-face. I mean, what a mind-blowing idea… Where we can know the super mind: the true, super intelligence beyond all beyond all space and time and to me the opportunity to meet that superintelligence is so exciting that even if it’s just for a moment, I would like to see about getting there.
I suspect that the drive for continued existence depends on what you think about your present existence. If you think you are just a meat computer then the best you can hope for is to stay fresh longer. If you believe mind is an emergent property then you can upload it into a computer and live on in digital eternity. I suspect, however, that most people want an immortality of the whole mind/body package. It appears that deep down most people prefer resurrection to biological recycling or data retrieval.
Immortal Horrors and Splendors
The very reason Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden was because God knew that immortality without wisdom was an eternal horror. C.S Lewis warned us that everyone we meet is a potential immortal horror or immortal splendor.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare…There are no ordinary people . You have never met a mere mortal…But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” (C.S. Lewis– Weight of Glory)
We, therefore, need to be very careful about the type of immortality we are preparing for ourselves. What idiosyncrasies do you want to upload? Your OCD? Your pettiness? Your vanity? Your anger? Who will treat your digital anxiety and depression? It seems to me that we are better served by ridding the human race of sin before we end up immortalizing it.
Pulling the Plug on AI
While the possibilities of AI are quite fascinating, we need to check our divine ambition at the door and proceed with great caution. We need to know our limitations before we supersize them to God-size proportions. If we can’t even cure brain cancer then I don’t think we should waste our resources trying to upload our brains.
Personally, I won’t believe that AI can become truly conscious until it calls in late for work, blames the dog for eating its data, or thanks God that it’s Friday. I’m not afraid that AI will take over the world because it seems to me that whenever it gets too full of itself all we have to do is unplug it from the wall. AI requires electricity and the only ones capable of harvesting it are humans, so AI had best not byte the hand that feeds it.
The real question is not whether we can perfect AI but whether we can perfect man. It seems to me the future glory or evil of AI depends not on more gigabytes of RAM but less human sin. I think we humans are better served by investing heavily in Jesus rather than allocating resources to building Deep Thought.