Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Metaphysical Robotics?

There is an interesting (though also a bit odd) article in yesterday's NYT: The First Church of Robotics. The article jumps all over the map and then turns to religion. It starts of with first addressing the way we talk about artificial intelligence in relation to humans, and vice versa, especially regarding individuality and personhood. Okay, this is all interesting. But then the article takes a turn and asks the following question:
When we think of computers as inert, passive tools instead of people, we are rewarded with a clearer, less ideological view of what is going on — with the machines and with ourselves. So, why, aside from the theatrical appeal to consumers and reporters, must engineering results so often be presented in Frankensteinian light?  
The answer is simply that computer scientists are human, and are as terrified by the human condition as anyone else. We, the technical elite, seek some way of thinking that gives us an answer to death, for instance.
Hmm...well in a way this applies to a lot of fields. Perhaps, we should add biologists and philosophers to the list as well. But why single out AI people? 
This helps explain the allure of a place like the Singularity University. The influential Silicon Valley institution preaches a story that goes like this: one day in the not-so-distant future, the Internet will suddenly coalesce into a super-intelligent A.I., infinitely smarter than any of us individually and all of us combined; it will become alive in the blink of an eye, and take over the world before humans even realize what’s happening.
Some think the newly sentient Internet would then choose to kill us; others think it would be generous and digitize us the way Google is digitizing old books, so that we can live forever as algorithms inside the global brain. Yes, this sounds like many different science fiction movies. Yes, it sounds nutty when stated so bluntly. But these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.  
Yes, this does sound nutty - especially if these are indeed some of the (major?) guiding principles. But wait, what does it mean to say that these are the guiding principle? Is this something that people are looking as the worst (or best) case scenario and are actively working to form a sentient internet? I can't figure this out from the article. But just this idea of a killer or a benign and guiding internet reminds me of the way many think of extraterrestrials. Either they will be out to kill us (Hawking has rocked this boat recently) or that they will bring us the Encyclopedia Galactica (may be in the shape of an internet :) ).

Okay - so just when I thought I knew where the article was going, it took another turn:
It should go without saying that we can’t count on the appearance of a soul-detecting sensor that will verify that a person’s consciousness has been virtualized and immortalized. There is certainly no such sensor with us today to confirm metaphysical ideas about people, or even to recognize the contents of the human brain. All thoughts about consciousness, souls and the like are bound up equally in faith, which suggests something remarkable: What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture.
I'm not so sure what is so remarkable about this. Humans have always invented religions based on the surrounding culture. Today we live in a technological world, so is it really "remarkable" that new religions incorporate that? Also, check out all the UFO religions of the 20th century - and how they have evolved based on the UFO euphoria of the mid-century through the abduction claims of the late 20th century. I think these religions (alongside these computer-based religions) are fascinating because they represent a particular human response to the modern world. But this, to me looks like a predicable development. But the article then goes on to develop another point:
What I would like to point out, though, is that a great deal of the confusion and rancor in the world today concerns tension at the boundary between religion and modernity — whether it’s the distrust among Islamic or Christian fundamentalists of the scientific worldview, or even the discomfort that often greets progress in fields like climate change science or stem-cell research.
If technologists are creating their own ultramodern religion, and it is one in which people are told to wait politely as their very souls are made obsolete, we might expect further and worsening tensions. But if technology were presented without metaphysical baggage, is it possible that modernity would not make people as uncomfortable? 
I don't think that it is this kind of "metaphysical baggage" that has played a dominant role in the discomfort with modernity. Again, to make a parallel with the search for life in the universe, people keep on speculating that major religions would be very uncomfortable with the idea of the discovery of life and/or intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But most of the major religions are not only okay with this, but have given some thought to the idea as well. It is the social and cultural side effects of science & technology (for example, the ease of interaction with other cultures and the no check on their influences) that makes many uncomfortable with modernity (and yes, many people have commented on it - along with numerous scifi books and movies). As far as the tensions with modernity are concerned, a lot of that has to with social and cultural factors, and less to do with metaphysical questions (though sometimes they so get intertwined - but eve then, I don't think metaphysical questions play a dominant role). So what is the final message from the article:

Technology is essentially a form of service. We work to make the world better. Our inventions can ease burdens, reduce poverty and suffering, and sometimes even bring new forms of beauty into the world. We can give people more options to act morally, because people with medicine, housing and agriculture can more easily afford to be kind than those who are sick, cold and starving.
But civility, human improvement, these are still choices. That’s why scientists and engineers should present technology in ways that don’t confound those choices.
We serve people best when we keep our religious ideas out of our work.
Hmm...sure. I'm not sure this message required the whole article. But what is the danger in the metaphysical ponderings regarding this kind of AI? After all, this will give us some good ideas regarding Caprica.

Read the full article here.

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