Can Singularity and Christianity coexist?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is back in the news with a game-show win against humans to add to its scorecard.

Among the loudest voices expounding on the win are those who see in it a harbinger of the Singularity - a moment when AI surpasses human intelligence. Media outlets from The Atlantic to PBS' Charlie Rose are trying to unravel the claims of that movement's most prominent proponent, Ray Kurzweil, for a confused public. Christians in particular may wonder whether their theology allows for Singularity and how to respond to Kurzweil's claim that it will lead to eternal life.

In a recent Time cover story Lev Grossman argues, “[y]ou may reject...the Singularitarian charter, but you should admire Kurzweil for taking the future seriously. Singularitarianism is grounded in the idea that change is real and that humanity is in charge of its own fate.” This reduction of the movement to its core aspirations formulates the primary question Christians should ask: is this quintessentially humanist manifesto as compelling and admirable as Grossman believes it is?

Coined by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity has ebbed and flowed in public interest, buoyed by high-profile displays of artificial intelligence (AI) such as the recent win on "Jeopardy!" by IBM's Watson computer. Borrowing language from astrophysics, Vinge and Kurweil describe the Singularity as that moment in time at which technological progress effects such a significant paradigm shift it creates an event horizon. This shift, they claim, will result from AI that exceeds human intelligence, which will so radically alter what is possible that later events cannot be predicted. Moreover, Kurzweil argues that the Singularity is certain, an inevitable consequence of exponential increases in technological capacity.

Leaving aside the critique that Kurzweil's predictions are often dubious, is the possibility of superhuman AI in accord with Christian anthropology? This goal is tied to the Strong AI position, which posits that cognition is computation and therefore a computer could have a mind similar to that of a human. While Selmer Bringsjord argues Strong AI is “simply silly” and doesn't deserve formal refutation, arguments over Strong AI quickly become highly technical. Christians often reject Strong AI on the theological ground of the special anthropological status of human beings as the bearers of Imago Dei. However, Russel C. Bjork has argued that Christian theology in no way restricts its aims.

Intertwined with Kurzweil's views is a hope that human beings can achieve immortality by “uploading” their minds to AI systems. It is this view that raises many concerns. “[T]he idea of significant changes to human longevity — that seems to be particularly controversial,” Kurzweil observed in Time. “People invested a lot of personal effort into certain philosophies dealing with the issue of life and death. I mean, that's the major reason we have religion.” Indeed Singularitarianism itself amounts to a religion, as Robert M. Geraci recently suggested, with “sacred texts” forming the basis for a belief system that promises salvation and establishing a worldview. This alone is problematic, as such a religion exists in opposition to Christian faith.

What does this suggest with respect to the original question: how should we respond to Singularitarianism's call to use technology to shape our future? Attempting to overcome death through technological means is hardly new; it is a central theme in the oldest written text, and one echoed through much of Genesis. But Genesis also establishes the cultural mandate, which affirms the inherent good of human technological endeavors. A biblical view holds these two in tension, recognizing human beings as cocreators with God and yet creatures subject to our Lord.

Limited simulations of cognitive function (Weak AI) are possible, as Watson demonstrates, and rapidly increasing in capacity. With time these technologies will become increasingly accessible via near-seamless interfaces — cognitive equivalents of cochlear implants. In previous discussions with Nigel Cameron he has argued that technological augmentation of human bodies is appropriate so long as it is used to restore a lost capability or enhance an existing capacity in degree, rather than alter it in kind. Yet, the history of human technology — whether planes or cellphones — is one of increasing capacity in kind. The test of technology, I propose, is whether such innovations seek to further our mastery of the world or to establish us as lords over ourselves.

I, for one, welcome our new computer helpers, but ask us to remember that we are not our own Lord.

Jason E. Summers is the Chief Scientist at Applied Research in Acoustics LLC, a research and development firm based in Washington, D.C. His work includes development of physics-based simulation for training and cognitive-based signal-processing algorithms for machine learning. You can find more of his personal views on Twitter (@jasonesummers).

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Actually this seems to me to be a very fundamental Biblical issue, in fact one of the oldest. Humans were made in the image of God, we have an inner need to create and grow. An ability to be creative harnessed to a relationship with God is beautiful. After creation God watched Adam to see what he would name all the animals. It was a kind of test, can Adam reason, does he have rules of logic, does he think symbolically, how does he use language or numbers? Later, after separating himself from God, the danger was that Adam might actually become like God and live forever. “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” Blocked from the tree of life, the next best alternative was to construct artificial means of timelessness “let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves”. The problem is that it appears that we were created to accomplish nearly anything we can conceive of.  “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, Behold, they are one people and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do, and now nothing they have imagined they can do will be impossible for them.”

Once again we have arrived at the point where we share one language of science and mathematics. We have concentrated our collective minds on the task and we can now conceive of building artificial intelligence and living forever.

Critics of the singularity have raised many objections. Yet the worst they can say of Kurzweil is that his predictions are not original…or that he is technically wrong 10% of the time. Let’s say he is too optimistic that will create self aware artificial intelligence by 2045. Let say it takes us twice as long, till 2090. Still, that is a tiny blip of time in history. As quickly as critics define artificial intelligence, it changes. OCR recognition was at one time considered artificial intelligence until it was accomplished. Now it is common and no longer regarded as a sign of intelligence. Sure, neural networks seem extremely difficult to replicate. The C. Elegans worm has only 300 nuerons (versus our billons) yet we still are unable to build a working simulation of its nervous system. Part of the problem is that each neuron is not like a transistor, it has many intermediate states and strengths, not just on and off. If we have dificulty replicating the intelligence and behavior of a simple worm, imagine the difficulty of simulating human intelligence. However, it appears possible. We can imagine it and we are working on the problem. Just like those Sumerians in Genesis piling up crude bricks into their gravity defying ziggurat.

Weak Artificial Intelligence already exists. Deep Blue chess, Watson, the Jeopardy champ. Hard AI is inevitably on its way.

I think that just as God stepped into history and subverted Adam’s plan to live forever, He must intervene against what I see as an inevitable reality. Which brings us to the concept of the end times or the Last Days. I believe we are there.

Thank you!  You took what was an abstract concept for me and broke it down using scripture so I might see both the importance of the issue and how old the concept really is.

Or sovereign God has kept His plan in place and I’m sure he will continue to do so.  You’ve helped me to articulate why!

Interesting Rick. I’m curious what lead you to the Last Days thought. If the Tower of Babel - which you suggest was a much earlier form of humanity attempting to be God-like - didn’t lead to God’s ultimate intervention, what is it about Singularity that makes you believe he would intervene - with finality - this time?

Every time humans say that something big inevitably going to happen, they are horribly wrong. Didn’t Voltaire say Christianity would be dead and gone by the end of his century?

When the threat became imminent that a fallen Adam and Eve might partake of the tree of life and live forever, God immediately responded by banishing them from the garden and tossing the human race out onto a cursed, weed infested planet while guarding the tree with a flaming angelic sword.

God did intervene in astonishing ways in the tower of Babel experience. If you accept the Biblical account, God suddenly introduced multitudes of foreign languages, implanted them in people groups, disrupted comprehension, stopped the cooperative building project and scattered populations across the globe. The threat of unholy immortality was not imminent but inherent in their focused creative ambitions. “And this is only THE BEGINNING of what they will do, and now nothing they have imagined they can do will be impossible for them.” Judgment was swift and worldwide.

The fact that we should again grab for the brass ring and this time come very close to accomplishing our vision of living forever by our own invention without the holiness of God compels me to believe God will take swift and dramatic action. This time the threat of living forever is not a future potential as it was with Babel, but a real immediate possibility and I believe that God deals with it with more drastic measures. The “end times” is not the end of the human race but a name the prophets give to a short, transformational period of judgment that puts an end to our ambitions of creating a world-wide godless utopia. It also inaugurates God’s version of a healthy utopia. The singularity is not the sole trigger for the end times, it is a symptom of our sinful independence from God and part of an array of behavior that finally incurs worldwide judgment.

Was it Fukiyama in _The End of History who suggested that political/social revolutions are essentially done, a thing that played itself out in the two previous centuries?
I’m not sure what to do about Sat. May 21, 2011 (see WeCanKnow.com, or at least notice the prominently-placed billboards), whether to mow the lawn and grill chicken, or to wait on my rooftop for the Second Coming. . . . which will apparently trump the Mayan Apocalypse on Dec. 21, 2012.
I do appreciate Rickd’s comparison of AI to Babel.  Thus also the need for Christian education, from K-12 to higher ed. institutions, as well as Christians in secular institutions, to be leaders in sciences and technology (and all disciplines), with the cultural mandate driving their work.

It’s true that human predictions are rife with cognitive bias.  For example, Kurzweil in assessing the accuracy of his own predictions is an almost perfect case study of confirmation bias.  Similarly, Voltaire had a number of ideological reasons for making that sort of predictive claim, which almost certainly biased his judgement.  Yet, flawed (in the sense of Bayesian logic) human judgements have an uncanny ability to use a minimal amount of information to make ecologically appropriate decisions (see, e.g., Gladwell’s Blink for a popular account).  We are just starting to understand the neural basis for these mechanisms (on a gross fMRI scale—-much less the scale of individual neurons) and that’s one reason why Kurzweil’s claims about our ability to replicate full cognitive functioning are rather optimistic.

Rick,

I you get a chance, take a look at Prof. Bjork’s article (linked to in the article).  He a computer scientist at Gordon College and makes a theological argument that Strong AI, regardless of whether it is possible, is a valid pursuit.  I would be curious as to your response.

Personally I think Kurzweil is often wrong in his predictions, but his self assessment masks much of that.  I also think he’s a bit naive, primarily because he has an impoverished anthropology.  For him, consciousness and the entirety of humanness (personhood) emerges out of having the right parts assembled in a particular way—-sort of a vintage-race-car approach to the essence of a thing (i.e., all the parts have been replaced with replicas, but it’s still a Ferrari 250).  I’m happy (as most modern thinkers are) to allow that consciousness is an emergent phenomena of some type and particularly one that uniquely operates within bodies—-early Israelites would have understood that quite well too.  (That alone is a problem for Kurzweil’s disembodied computer/people, which have shades of Cartesian dualism.)  But I’d also argue that personhood can’t be reduced to that alone and, therefore, Kurzweil’s program is more than hopeless.

js

Bjork asserts that personhood is an emergent property from a sufficiently complex biological system. “It does seem theologically plausible, then, to hold that personhood emerges from the (physical) interaction of neurons in the brain. Such a view is consistent both with the holistic tenor of Scripture and with empirical evidence.” He sees the mind as a production of the brain, not a separate element added to the brain from the outside.

As a Christian, Bjork views man as a divinely created organism whose sense of person (mind or soul) arises from the divine design of the brain. In exegeting Genesis 2:7 he refutes the common assertion that God adds a soul to the body of Adam by imparting His breath. I will accept his exegesis, dualism does not rise or fall based on this one proof text, however I think the Apostle Paul clearly teaches a kind of body/spirit dualism. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” “We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing.” 2nd Corinthians 5:2. “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible” Colossians 1:16. Paul seems to teach that our person inhabits a body, can leave that body and be clothed with another body. The Near Death Experience also seems to be a universal phenomenon that transcends culture. NDEs often defy explanation as patients tell of leaving their bodies, viewing operating rooms from different perspectives and describing objects and conversations that would be otherwise impossible to witness. Bjork denies that humans have spirits, admitting only the possibility of a kind of emergent dualism of mind or person.

I have no problem with pursuing strong AI with some cautions. The reason I feel that way is because I do not view spirit as an emergent property. Mind or some relative sense of person may turn out to be an emergent property, but I think Paul clearly teaches that soul/spirit exists separate from the body. I think that thousands of years of anecdotal observations also confirm that notion. I believe that humans are uniquely created in the image of God because the core identity of their person is located in the spirit and is not as an emergent property (as it may be in advanced AI or some higher animals). Humans are unique not because they are rational, intelligent, and self-aware (so are dolphins), but because they are eternal spirits capable of communing with the Spirit of God.

My concern with Kurzweil is that he may be right. One day in the near future a group of scientists may create a self aware artifact with intelligence that exceeds ours. No matter how intelligent, spirit is not an emergent property. The fatal mistake would be to view that creation as a human equivalent. This is the concern I have with Bjork as well. At best we have created a soulless “Golem”.

Kurzweil’s dream is that robotic technology might endow us with personal immortality. Here the goal is not so much to produce independent intelligences as to produce virtual brains into which a human’s personality can be “uploaded,” which, in conjunction with making backup copies periodically, will render a person immune to death by accident, disease, or old age. By “uploaded” I take him to mean that if we could exactly duplicate, or more precisely, digitally replicate our own complex biology with its subsequent emergent person, then that essence could be transferred to some more permanent medium. If such a feat were even possible the risk is that we may create a race of soulless humans without spirit, unable to commune with God yet immortal. A Satanic vision if there ever was one.

While criticizing Kurzweil’s idolatry in imagining the salvation of the human race by a superior breed of intelligent machines, Bjork fails to see the threat inherent in the singularity. He views intelligent, self-aware, learning artifacts as gentle kin of humans who may even be in need of redemption. That rosy view betrays an inadequate view of our fallen state and a failure to appreciate our essential spiritual nature.

To Bjork our worth is not based on our intrinsic nature which is not unique, it is based on our purpose and value to God. Therefore the development of strong AI should not threaten our worth.

 

 

 

I believe in god almighty and his supreme intelligence as always this is in opposition to god and i will not accept AI as a whole christians should remember the tower of babble and what god did to those who tried to converge on heaven in order for singularity to be an acceptable thing god will have to tell me himself that man can create a far greater intelligence than what he created. may god have mercy on anyone who believes they are more intelligent than god or that they can create anything of themselves. anthony

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