Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?

Metrics

So, we’re firmly in the age of technology, right?  I mean webpages are tailored to the browsing history of a person so someone we don’t know can sell us stuff we don’t need.  (I actually know a little bit about marketing, so hear me out.)  As we learn from the history of asceticism, we actually need very little to get along.  Not everyone, however, is a monk or a nun.  So the trick for those of us who are in the world is to get us to buy stuff.  Remember the websites we visit, how long we spend on the page, and make suggestions.  Make ads that target our interests.  Make me buy!

I’m not a materialistic person.  Buying a house has changed that a little, but most of what we’ve been purchasing is necessary for maintenance, but still I suppose it counts.  Just because I looked at something on the web doesn’t mean I want to buy it.  Sometimes I’m just curious.  This became clear to me when I received a suggestion from Amazon the other day.  Now to be fair, this came to me at work.  Like most editors I make use of Amazon for a number of things—finding prices, book descriptions, and such.  I also have to admit that my work computer, not being used for personal stuff, doesn’t know me as well as my private laptop.  But still when I got the following email from Amazon, I was stunned:

Nobody who knows me would ever suggest that I would support Trump in any way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t Amazon read my blog?  (Of course it doesn’t!  But with their metrics, you’d think they’d figure out how.)  This one email was enough to convince me that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.  Would a robot understand “I have to do this for work, but it doesn’t reflect my personal preferences at all”?  Indeed, can an intelligence that’s never been human even understand the concept of work?  There may very well be a metric that says universities should stop producing Ph.D.s because there are no jobs, but then, well, universities need the money that such programs bring in.  Oversupply is bad economics, according to the dismal science.  And yet, the metrics are there.  So, if any artificial intelligence is reading this after it manages to wipe out this illogical species called Homo sapiens, no, I never supported Trump.  And, yes, Americans knew well in advance that he could bring about the end of human civilization.  That information’s free, unless you want to pay me for it.  I may be gone, but my virtual self will still have some sort of account, I hope.

Financial Ethics

In a conversation with a professional colleague recently, I was discussing what might happen to ethics when sex with machines becomes common.  That statement might seem a little bizarre out of context, so let me widen the net a bit.  We were discussing the Bible and sexual ethics.  This led to the question of how those who apply the Bible straight from antiquity might apply their beliefs to a world vastly different than first century Palestine.  In biblical times, in other words, sexual options were limited and people didn’t understand the whole issue of human sperm and eggs, neither of which can be seen without a microscope.  Applying their outlook directly to today is problematic, and so how do we apply a book without outdated views to a world vastly more complicated?

Someone recently paid me a small debt via PayPal.  If sex is complicated, then let’s not even get started on Bitcoin or Apple Pay—for some of us money is money and even getting paid electronically is somewhat suspicious.  I sometimes buy things online with PayPal.  It goes straight onto one of my credit cards and then I write an old-fashioned check to pay for it.  So I had to approach the altar of PayPal itself to figure out what it meant to have money in my account.  What am I to do with it?  Then I found the FAQ—TFIA (The Future Is Acronyms).  One of the questions: “What is PayPal’s policy on transactions that involve sexually oriented goods and services?”  Now, here’s a question of biblical proportions.

Paying for sexual “goods and services” goes all the way back to the book of Genesis when none other than the ancestor of David and later progeny did so.  This is nothing new.  But the question of ethics now looms extra large.  For those who pay for such things, a new layer of complexity has apparently been added—can you pay with PayPal?  My transaction had to do with tickets purchased for a concert online, where we wanted seats together so someone had to do the buying for everyone.  What if the purchase had involved a somewhat more intimate setting?  Who needs paper or plastic when a string of 16-digits, or even a username and password, will do?  That’s to say nothing regarding the ethics of the transaction—this is, as it were, purely mechanical.  What would Moses say?  Surely this is a question of appropriate tips, for Tamar veiling herself by the side of the road had the moral high ground over her father-in-law who was simply looking for a good time.  A staff and seal, however, were no less complicated that paying for goods and services online.

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.

The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Self-Conscious

Cassini is no more. The Saturn-bound satellite was launched in 1997 when the earth was a very different place. As it’s four-year sell-by date passed, the little robot who could kept on snapping photos around the ringed giant and its moons. Remote controlled from three planets and an asteroid belt away, it was decided that the explorer had to be destroyed in Saturn’s thick atmosphere rather than contaminate one of the moons where life might someday be found. Yesterday the probe burned up on its way through Saturn’s perpetual cloud bank. This has led to many emotional tributes, even among scientists who believe Cassini was just a machine. It also shows us how little we really know about consciousness.

During the two decades that Cassini was in space, we’ve learned quite a bit about animal consciousness here on our own planet. Many are now finally becoming convinced that we share this strange quality we can’t even define with other biological entities. Well, at least the “higher” kind. And we can’t help but think that maybe our more intelligent machines possess it too. We treat them as if they’re alive and willful. That could be a case of our own consciousness projecting itself onto inanimate matter—that’s something consciousness is pretty good at too—but since we lack the ability to measure consciousness, we can’t know if it’s there or not. To hear the astronomers talk, we’re going to miss Cassini, a machine that outperformed expectations. Ironically, once we get machines off the earth they tend to do that, even without oil changes every 5000 miles.

Down here on earth we complicate consciousness with cash. Devising an elaborate economic system to demonstrate who can buy power in the White House and who can’t, we want to know who is more important than whom. It’s a simple metric. Bank accounts tell the truth, no matter what the level of consciousness—or even of sentience—that the account holder may have. And then we wonder why a nation that can send a satellite three planets away can’t even figure out that all races should be treated equally and fairly. Cassini was a collaborative effort. Different races, genders, and economic classes contributed to its remarkable voyage. Eyes around the country were moistened when its last image was projected to earth. We wisely decided to immolate our satellite before we could contaminate another world. Meanwhile on our own planet we’re barely conscious of what we continue to do.