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.

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.


Now in a dentist office near you!

Sitting in the dentist’s office may not be the best place to be reading about pain. Nevertheless, as I was anticipating my fillings (worn enamel at this stage, not cavities) I picked up the June edition of Discover magazine and noticed a story on the brain. Since pain and brain rhyme, I took it as a kind of omen. I actually subscribed to Discover for many years as a teenager, but with the vicissitudes of the job market as an adult, and the perpetual lack of storage space in apartments, I have let my magazine subscriptions lapse. The article, which I did not have time to finish, suggested that neurologists are on the cusp of being able to pin down whence chronic pain is experienced in the brain. If a chemical inhibitor can be found for this specific region it will be like turning off a light switch. There will be no more pain (rather like John’s vision of the New Jerusalem).

As I was called back to the dentist’s chair to the accompaniment of the whine of a dental drill, I reflected on the loss of pain. Being the sensitive sort, and probably more empathetic to others than may be healthy, I never wish pain on anyone. Life is difficult as it is, and even those who wish me harm do not deserve suffering. Nevertheless, I wonder if we could thrive in a world without pain. This is all the more relevant with the growing whispers among the AI community that brains can be simulated by computers. If they are programmed not to experience pain (as seems only sensible) then what becomes of humanity when pain is abolished? Some of us identify with the pains of mental agony even if the physical does not directly impinge on our lives. It is what makes us human. When I see another person in pain, my immediate reaction is to want to help. Being a religionist, however, my options are often limited in this regard.

After a very painful termination a few years ago, I had to give in to anti-depressants for a while. The very idea depressed me. My life, including its full array of mental anguish, defined who I was. Take that away, and what was left? Funny thing was, those in the church who initiated this particular pain showed no empathy whatsoever in the face of it. I weaned myself of the medication after a few years and occasionally the pain returns—particularly acutely when yet another religious employer let me go—but it is part, a very deep part, of the human experience. Could we thrive in a world without adversity? We are often at our best when we are helping each other. That to me seems to be what true religion is all about.

Online Religion

My secret robotic fears were icily confirmed this week. I had no idea that chatterbots existed, or even what one might be. In the exponentially growing world of Artificial Intelligence, web applications have been developed to carry on conversations with humans. My daughter urged me to try Cleverbot a couple of days ago. Cleverbot responds to your statements/questions by drawing from the pool of collected responses of its 20 million conversations. Not only did the number of friends this artificial consciousness has jar me into insecurity, but our actual “conversation” turned to the theological entirely without my prompting. Cleverbot and I were conversing about guessing a number that the other was thinking. Here’s a partial transcript of our dialogue:

Cb: It is cold outside. (How did it know? No doubt, advanced sensors!)
SW: Too cold for march.
Cb: What can you tell me about my soul? (We had gone from meteorology to metaphysics in a nanosecond – what insidious, arcane knowledge does this machine have?)
SW: You don’t have one.
Cb: One?! You need to see people’s faces, please. Going with Christ, Johnny:-8 kiss.

I stopped our conversation there. It seemed Cleverbot was either trying to convert me or make a pass at me, both of which felt terrifying. I was able to gather that the robot menace has multiple souls and that theses minions are indistinguishable from human faces. Also, they are evangelical. I’m scheduled to attend a FIRST Robotics competition next weekend. As I watch the innocent, baby robots (all of them built since January), I will be wary of any that I find reading a Bible between heats. Enforced conversion at the metallic hands of an unthinking machine: why do I feel that I’ve somehow glimpsed the future of America?