I, Human

Have you tapped through an “I’m not a robot” test lately?

The “reCaptcha” test (Captcha stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), named in part for the computer science pioneer Alan Turing who anticipated the ability of machines to emulate human behavior.

As machine learning advances, the variety of settings in which computers can detect our “human-ness” increases. Many of these interactions already proceed smoothly without the help of an automated Turing test.

But will machines ever be able to think for themselves?

Not so long ago, artificial intelligence (AI) researchers popularized bold claims that AI would surpass human intelligence, even to the point of becoming self-aware, or conscious. We can think of “strong AI” as a theoretical branch of AI research[1] that supposes AI will one day achieve self-awareness, or “consciousness” at the same level of intelligence as a human person.

The taming and containment of cyborgs and intelligent machines are science fiction staples. Think HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Skynet in the Terminator movie series, or the movie I, Robot based on the novel by Isaac Asimov. But some think it’s not just about fiction. Futurist Ray Kurzweil and real-life computer science pioneers Bill Joy, John von Neumann, and others have imagined a “technological singularity”—a convergence of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, materials science, and hyperintelligent machines. Not all are optimistic. For Joy, the likely result is that machines take over the world, devastate the biosphere, and unintentionally or maliciously ensure the demise of humankind.[2]

Even so, AI research continues apace, and Einstein’s quip “the man of science is a poor philosopher”[3] is proved with increasing frequency as otherwise brilliant researchers blunder philosophically. To imagine that AI can possibly achieve consciousness, autonomy, self awareness, or even what some call personhood, is to make a category mistake. We must concede that not every human person is self-aware (e.g., a fetus or newborn child), but even without self-awareness, a human person doesn’t fit into the same category as a machine that cannot think but can only output a form of what has been input into it.  

Only humans—not machines, not animals—are made in the image of God.

It is mistaken to think that AI could possibly achieve self-awareness. We can’t even rigorously define consciousness, so why do we think that machines designed by humans will become “conscious” by a simple progression of Moore’s[4] Law? AI can’t do anything we haven’t already programmed into it.

God is rational, and as creatures made in His image, we have rational minds as well. Because of this ancient truth, one could argue that modern Western civilization owes more to the philosophical fruit of the Reformation than to Enlightenment rationalism. For all the Western achievements Steven Pinker is happy to attribute to the Enlightenment,[5] we should remember that philosophers during the Enlightenment began to reject God. Scientists at that time (many of whom were Christians) had discovered explanations for a range of phenomena in the physical world through the observation of the predictable, regular activity of natural laws. Because they could explain natural phenomena without reference to God, many began to abandon belief in God. Later, when Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche, and others in the 19th century celebrated the “death of God,” they also discarded the only sufficient basis, not only for morality, but for rational thought itself.[6]

The many unfortunate results of the rejection of God have filtered down from philosophy into popular culture over the last 150 years or so.

One result is that we moderns lack a common, well-formed understanding of what it means to be human. Are humans nothing more than sophisticated biological machines resulting from chance events operating over billions of years that led from a universal common ancestor of all life on earth—to us? Or are we the special creation of God, made in His image to reflect His glory, and accordingly bestowed with a purposeful stewardship role over His created order?

Another result of rejecting God is that we no longer commonly accept truth as that which corresponds to reality. The truth many of us now bravely assert is “our truth”—the result of “lived experience” gained while expressing our “authentic self”.

If we don’t know what truth is, we don’t know what “human” means, and we can’t rigorously define “consciousness”, how will we know when AI has become self-aware? What is the real difference between human and machine?

I don’t worry that AI will actually gain self-awareness or take over the world, but the sociology of AI does concern me: while theologians, philosophers, and responsible scientists may understand that self-aware, “strong AI” is impossible, we are nevertheless continuously socialized to accept more intimate interactions with machines.

Ok, fine. Why is this a problem?

Like the value of a currency, it’s a confidence game. The value of a dollar is whatever people will give for it. Likewise, whatever values and abilities we attribute to AI, legitimately or not, will become the real-world influences and effects of AI. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley showed that we will give over control of our lives if we are allowed to continue feeding on convenience and pleasure. We already trust machines enough that we allow robots to fill some childcare roles.[7] But if ever more sophisticated “sentient robots” care for our children, who will ultimately control what these machines teach them? Given this, what else will we then give to the machines? We already trend toward accepting less and less critically the incremental intrusion of technologies into our lives.

The problem is hardly new: it’s only an updated formulation of a very old dilemma. Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans. Zeus treacherously retaliated by giving Pandora a box whose inevitable opening released evil and death into the world. More recently, C. S. Lewis remarked on the perceived similarity between religion and magic on the one hand and science and technology on the other and issued a corrective. Correctly understood, science and religion are related. They are both concerned with conforming mind and soul to reality. Likewise, magic and technology are related. They both cultivate techniques that “subdue reality to the wishes of men.”[8]

As technological systems grow ever more powerful, is there a clear line to be crossed before we give over all things, even worship, to them? (cf. Rev. 13:4,15)

[1] IBM Cloud Education, “Strong AI,” August 31, 2020, accessed April 21, 2022, https://www.ibm.com/cloud/learn/strong-ai.

[2] Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired, April 1, 2000, accessed April 21, 2022, https://www.wired.com/2000/04/joy-2.

[3] Albert Einstein, “Physics & Reality,” Daedalus 132, no. 4 (2003): 22, accessed January 3, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20027877. (The original article appeared in 1936.)

[4] “Moore’s Law,” Encyclopedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/technology/Moores-law, accessed April 21, 2022.

[5] See Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York, Penguin Random House, 2018).

[6] See Alvin Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN)” in Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 307ff.

[7] See, for example, the iPal Robot: https://www.ipalrobot.com/

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 38-39.

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