Artificial Intelligence, Genuine Overreaction

Human beings are abject professionals at coming up with intricately bizarre doomsday scenarios. In fact, we excel at making things far more complicated than they need be.

I finished the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica yesterday… all I can say is, “Wow.” I mean, I liked Lost and all, but that show tested the limits of my imagination. Galactica, however, was superb throughout and the ending couldn’t have been better; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more genuinely tender moment between two on-screen characters than that shared by Bill Adama and Laura Roslyn as she died.

You can watch it below, but, trust me, you really need to know the full story before it can really touch you:

But, I digress.

In case you aren’t familiar with Galactica, the premise of the series is a war between humans and a race of robots they created called “Cylons.” The Cylons were created to be robotic slaves of Man but they evolved, developing consciousness, and eventually rebelled, waging war against their creators. In case you aren’t aware, this is a common meme in modern popular culture—that is, artificial intelligence greater than human.

From the more benign robots in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to the deranged VIKI of I, Robot (2004), the idea that one day, artificial intelligence will surpass that of human beings and eventually rise up and destroy us is certainly nothing new.

Similarly, the idea of a convergence between man and machine was the subject of a Time cover story a few weeks ago.  The subject of that article “2045: the Year Man Becomes Immortal,” by Lev Grossman, was the Singularity…

“The word singularity is borrowed from astrophysics: it refers to a point in space-time — for example, inside a black hole — at which the rules of ordinary physics do not apply. In the 1980s the science-fiction novelist Vernor Vinge attached it to Good’s intelligence-explosion scenario. At a NASA symposium in 1993, Vinge announced that ‘within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create super-human intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.’”

Essentially, the idea is that computer intelligence will become so advanced, that scientists will be able to—among other things—make man immortal; “perfect,” as it were, the human genetic code; and transfer human consciousness into a computer, thereby defeating death.

Raymond Kurzweil (the subject of sorts of this Time story) explains the Singularity a bit better than I can:

“We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. [Scientist and Singularity-proponent Raymond] Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he’s not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.”

Anecdotally speaking, it seems that my fellow Christians are the first to pooh pooh such talk as the nonsensical ramblings of deranged scientists. How can machines, they might say, become smarter than human beings? After all, God created us in his image and to be in charge of Creation, didn’t he?

From the outset, my warning to people who feel this way would be not to confuse intelligence with humanity. In other words, we aren’t human because we’re intelligent, nor are we intelligent because we’re human. That line of reasoning would deny the humanity of people with low IQs and elevate to personhood chimpanzees who can communicate through sign language. It just doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny.

So, what about all the other stuff? Will we eventually be able to transfer our minds into robots and escape death? Will we eventually be able to manipulate the human genetic code to completely eliminate disease and defect? Will most aspects of our daily life one day be managed by sentient robots? I’m not saying one way or the other, I’m just admonishing the Church to not completely write it off as impossible… like we did, say, for the concept of the Earth not being the center of the universe. At best it’s a risky gamble.

“Singularitarianism is grounded in the idea that change is real and that humanity is in charge of its own fate and that history might not be as simple as one damn thing after another. Kurzweil likes to point out that your average cell phone is about a millionth the size of, a millionth the price of and a thousand times more powerful than the computer he had at MIT 40 years ago. Flip that forward 40 years and what does the world look like? If you really want to figure that out, you have to think very, very far outside the box. Or maybe you have to think further inside it than anyone ever has before.”

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