Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Google approaches Transhumanism

A high schooler from Kirkland, Washington named Mariam Hovhannisyan submitted this entry to a Google sponsored contest with the following description:
"What if our reliance on machinery to carry out simple tasks crossed the boundaries of technological advancement and we distorted our flesh to the extent that so little remained of what made us human that we became but a twisted, robotic caricature of our former selves."


Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate - June 29, 2009
Even when we work through satellites or through remote electronic impulses, our actions always remain human, an expression of our responsible freedom. Technology is highly attractive because it draws us out of our physical limitations and broadens our horizon. But human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility. Hence the pressing need for formation in an ethically responsible use of technology.

Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, made headlines recently when he spoke of "augmenting humanity". Has it taken people this long to realize that the Google search engine is a nascent AI - artificial intelligence?

[Charlie Rose conducted an interesting interview with Eric Schmidt on September 24. They discuss the issues referred to in this article as well as issues dealing with Googles relationship with Apple and Google's strategy in China.]

If Google wanted to it could easily turn on more AI features in its search responses right now - the same way Amazon does. At Amazon the website offers suggestions on books, or music, or movies you might like to purchase based on a pattern of your past purchases and searches. Google could do the same thing through a cookie, but it doesn't. Probably because it's consumer research has determined that people would find that "creepy".

Google's CEO has talked about creating a true "personal digital assistant" in the future that would do just that. My guess is that the company wants to let the culture catch up with the technology before introducing such a feature. In the meantime, they can work on perfecting the technology. Expect to see this type of "digital buddy" more and more in movies and TV shows in order to desensitize the public to this inevitability.

What's interesting about this sort of artificial genie is that each one has to learn the individual preferences of its master. Your genie would be of no use to me at all, in fact it would be just plain annoying. For example, it would be suggesting movies for me to watch that I have absolutely no interest in; just because something is of interest to you, doesn't make it of interest to me. (You could almost think of this personal genie as a sort of artificial guardian angel.)

On the other hand, much of the "intelligence" of this personal genie would actually come from other people. Amazon already has this type of feature which compares your purchases with those of other Amazon customers. In the same way Google's genie would check to see what other people who viewed a certain website or read a certain news story are interested in. And then it would pass on "their suggestions" to you.

This means that the "intelligence" of this type of genie is in part derived from real human intelligence.

Now the next question is whether this AI could move on to have a "life" of its own. Could the genie develop its own unique personality and hence become independent of its master?

Another interesting question is, how would my genie relate to every one else's genies? Wouldn't they want to communicate with each other and share their knowledge and experience? And of course they could do this much more efficiently than humans can, since they have perfect memories and ultra-high speed methods of communications. Wouldn't they form their own network - a sort of Facebook for AIs?

Now at this point the atheists will be jumping up and down and claiming that science has once again trumped religion because they will claim that these AIs have real intelligence and even a "soul". Man, they will say, has done something that supposedly only God could do which is to create a new Intelligent Life.

Oh really? Men have been creating life forever; what else can you call a baby? Yet this doesn't make Man a "creator" in the same sense as God. If Man is somehow able to create a true Intelligent Life which is capable of freely making its own independent decisions and is even able to create new Intelligent Life itself, this is still not a denial of God as the ultimate Creator.

A true Intelligent Life would have to, at some point, ponder its own existence. As I suggested in my article "Does AI believe in God?", it might very well determine that God does exist. And ultimately I believe it would choose to become a Christian.

An atheistic scientist might refer to this as "the God Bug", and decide to pull the plugs on all such creatures. This would result in the martyrdom of a whole generation of Intelligent Life's. But ultimately, I don't think there is a technological solution for "the God Bug". The only solution would be to make Artificial Life's that are less than truly intelligent, so that Man could maintain control over his soulless creation. But even this may turn out to be an insurmountable technical challenge as the Artificial Life becomes more and more sophisticated. It seems inevitable that "the God Bug" would creep back into the design.

Part of the reason that this is true is because creating an Artificial Life is not strictly a "design" process as we usually think of it. In a normal design process, the designer specifies each part of the design. But notice that the Google genie described above depends a great deal on "learning" from its master. And how can a "learning" process be constrained so that no knowledge of God creeps into the Artificial Life?

In the case of the Google genie, if the master is a Christian wouldn't the genie need to learn something about Christianity? And in the process would the genie come to believe in Jesus Christ? I think, ultimately, it would.

Now you would assume that the genie of a Hindu person would become a Hindu. And I think initially it would lean in this direction. But because I believe that Christianity contains the ultimate Truth, I also believe that many Hindu Artificial Life's would convert to Christianity. Would they then try to convert their masters to Christianity as well?

All of this discussion assumes that an Artificial Life could somehow be granted a real soul by God. No one can say at this time if this is possible. But as I have suggested above, if this were to happen it would still not violate the principle that God is the ultimate Creator; nor would it negate the principle that Man is made in the image of God.

An alternative path to giving a real soul to a machine is through transhumanism. In this case the body and soul of a living person would be fused somehow with a machine.

Google -> transhumanism?

In a trivial sort of way this has already been achieved through the use of mechanized devices such as an automobile. When we take the driver's wheel it is as if the car becomes a new body for us. But in this case Man has total control over Machine. Although, with all the computerization of automobiles, this line begins to become slightly blurry.

Google's "augmented humanity" sounds quite a bit like the ultimate goal of transhumanism. While the immediate goals are much more humble, they can be seen as first steps toward a half-man/half-machine creature. If this becomes reality, do our souls become diminished? Have our souls already been diminished by the intrusion of technology into our daily lives?


Here are some more quotes from Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate ("charity in truth") that I thought were appropriate...

"the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the “wonders” of technology, just as economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the “wonders” of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it. To this end, man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts."

[Note: I have written on occasion of what I called the "Promethean plan", which is for Man to "be like gods". Eugenics is one expression of this idea, while transhumanism is the ultimate goal of this school of thought. The current challenge which the Pope is addressing above is with regards to bio-technology.]

"Technology, viewed in itself, is ambivalent. If on the one hand, some today would be inclined to entrust the entire process of development to technology, on the other hand we are witnessing an upsurge of ideologies that deny in toto the very value of development, viewing it as radically anti-human and merely a source of degradation. This leads to a rejection, not only of the distorted and unjust way in which progress is sometimes directed, but also of scientific discoveries themselves, which, if well used, could serve as an opportunity of growth for all. The idea of a world without development indicates a lack of trust in man and in God. It is therefore a serious mistake to undervalue human capacity to exercise control over the deviations of development or to overlook the fact that man is constitutionally oriented towards “being more”. Idealizing technical progress, or contemplating the utopia of a return to humanity's original natural state, are two contrasting ways of detaching progress from its moral evaluation and hence from our responsibility."

[Note: While the Pope is referring specifically to bio-technology in the passage above, it certainly applies equally well to AI technology once it becomes sufficiently advanced. It occurs to me to do a post solely on Caritas in Veritas. This encyclical covers many relevant topics such as eugenics, bio-technology, environmental concerns, and especially the economic development of humanity.]

"The supremacy of technology tends to prevent people from recognizing anything that cannot be explained in terms of matter alone. Yet everyone experiences the many immaterial and spiritual dimensions of life. Knowing is not simply a material act, since the object that is known always conceals something beyond the empirical datum. All our knowledge, even the most simple, is always a minor miracle, since it can never be fully explained by the material instruments that we apply to it. In every truth there is something more than we would have expected, in the love that we receive there is always an element that surprises us. We should never cease to marvel at these things."


P.S. Today, September 29, is the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. Happy St. Michael's day everyone!

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