Enoch’s Dilemma

“And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” These two verses from Genesis 5 convey just about all we know of Enoch. That, and he was the father of the oldest man ever, Methuselah. With this intriguing introduction, however, the religious mind insists on a backstory. Over the centuries of antiquity, books grew about this mysterious character as he became the prototype of the person who never died. The Bible doesn’t state that Enoch didn’t die. Nor does it state that he did. Plenty of wiggle room for the mythic imagination. In what appears to be an unrelated story, the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week reported on technology that builds on the strange but natural idea of phantom limbs.

When a person loses a limb, sometimes they report still feeling it. Their brains grew in a body that possessed the limb, and once it is gone the brain still has memory of it. The term used for this is a phantom limb. Knowing that mind does control matter to some extent, robotics experts have figured out ways to wire a robotic limb to the brain of a paralyzed person that responds to brain signals sent to the phantom limb. As much like science fiction as it sounds, this is already happening. The robotic limb responds just like a biological limb. This technology is just developing, of course, and is very expensive. It also implies that cyborgs, once the fodder of futuristic fiction, are becoming reality. Some theorists, such as Raymond Kurzweil, suggest that the brain itself can be converted to electronic signal and transferred into mechanical storage. Once that is achieved, we will have Enoch without any God to take him.

The world that we’ve been engineering bears a strange resemblance to the world of the Bible. For the people of ancient Israel death was the final word, and with rare exception (the only unquestioned case of the undying man was Elijah) people simply accepted the inevitable with no concept of an afterlife. Contact with the Zoroastrians convinced some Jews of the possibility of life beyond death and the quest for immortality was on. It has been a desideratum of human aspirations ever since. We invented machines to help us do what nature has not equipped us to attain. Finer and finer lines have been drawn between the biological and the mechanical. While it make look like immortality to some, to others it seems that we have been kidnapped—taken, if you will—by technology. What really happened to Enoch? The Bible doesn’t say, but it seems that we are getting very close to finding out on our own.

Stobor and Dogs

Having spent seventeen hours on public transit of various sorts yesterday, I had plenty of time to read. My chosen book for this trip was Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse. In my recent reading spate of dystopia novels Wilson’s vision seems more likely than others and thus perhaps a bit scarier. An obvious reason for this is that much of our tax money goes toward military projects that are, naturally, secret. A large part of Robopocalypse deals with military robots gone feral. Well, not really feral. The robots are controlled by a mastermind computer virus. In the first chapter this robot overlord declares to its creator, “I am your god.”

That statement is probably, metaphorically, true already. We live in a world where culture would change irrevocably without our current technology. Without it even fewer people would be reading the words I daily post here. Without it industry would shift into reverse back to the days of Thomas Edison or Eli Whitney. Present-day culture would be unrecognizable. Although not the best-written novel I’ve read, Wilson’s story does raise a salient issue—at some point the tool becomes the master of its user. For many years those who loudly proclaimed the superiority of Homo sapiens declared that we were the only tool-making animals. Subsequent observation has, of course, proven that to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, once knowledge of tools is acquired a trajectory is set. We lose a little bit of control.

Has technology replaced God? For some it clearly has. God is a symbol of comfort and meaning. As I watch thumbs busily texting away on planes, trains, automobiles—and especially in the middle of lectures—I realize that this altar of technology boasts many worshippers. There are very few scenarios where advanced technology is not present, like an omniscient being. Thankfully we have a few more years before Raymond Kurzweil’s artificial brain comes online. We should use those few remaining years to prepare ourselves for either an epiphany or an apocalypse. When the slaves become the masters, we are firmly in the territory of dystopia, at least from a human perspective.

Palm Versus Palm

“Mankind [sic] has managed to accomplish so many things: We can fly!” The words are not mine, but, depending on whether he was standing or sitting when declared, the Pope’s or God’s. In his Palm Sunday sermon yesterday the Pope addressed the issue of technology. Acknowledging flight a mere century after it began is breakneck speed for the Roman Catholic Church, but the concern behind the sentiment is real enough. Can religious systems survive the full onslaught of the technological revolution? As one small sample of the larger picture, ethics must react to increasing advanced technological scenarios. Raymond Kurzweil’s proposed Singularity where human and machine are fully integrated is perhaps an extreme example, but by no means the most extreme. Without fully understanding the context, our technical ability has soared way beyond our capacity to foresee implications. Believe it or not, many people alive today cannot use personal computers, have no palms, no cells. Sounds like they might be living free.

Palm Sunday is a day of tradition, heavily freighted as the start of Holy Week (in the Western tradition; of course, many Christians think it is a little too early some years, but that’s for a different post). Fronds from actual trees are waved as the Pope speaks. In the crowd palms are also being utilized to send the news home that one is waving a palm in the presence of the Pope. Traditional Christianity can survive with only the most rudimentary of tools. Religion, from the available evidence, began in the Paleolithic Era – earlier, I am pretty sure, than even the first integrated circuit. With its iron grip on the human psyche, religion is not about to disappear. Instead, technology is either ignored or embraced by it. As long as religions rely on human participation, however, technology will need to be reckoned with.

It's still a date (or palm)

The fact is technology has changed the perception of the world for many, especially in the western world. Even the revolution in Egypt earlier this year was conceived on the Internet. All the indications point to increased usage of technology rather than its imminent demise. Yet religious leaders still enjoin us to wave palm branches. Virtual Church websites abound where the faithful can wave electronic fronds and nary a tree will be harmed. Sermons, discussion groups, Bible readings, prayers – they can all be dispensed through wireless networks and modems. While many traditionalists turn from such ideas in disgust, it would behoove us all to pay attention. With the Vatican now onto the fact that we are flying, within mere decades we might receive a divine message on – oh, wait a minute – I’ve got mail!

When Machines Fall in Love

When I want to have a good scare, I seldom think to turn to Time magazine. This week’s issue, however, has me more jittery than a Stephen King novel. One of the purest delights in life is being introduced to new concepts. Those of us hopelessly addicted to education know the narcotic draw of expanding worldviews. Once in a while, however, a development changes everything and leaves you wondering what you were doing before you started reading. A change so profound that nothing will ever return to normal. Singularity. The point of no return. According to the cover story by Lev Grossman, we are fast approaching what theorist and technologist Raymond Kurzweil projects as the moment when humanity will be superseded by its own technology. The Singularity. Noting the exponential growth of technology, Singularitarians – almost religious in their zeal – predict that computing power will match and then surpass human brain speed and capacity by 2023. By 2045 computers will outdistance the thought capacity of every human brain on the planet (more challenging for some than for others, no doubt). The software (us) will have become obsolete.

A corollary to this technological paradise is that by advancing medical techniques (for those who can afford them) and synching tissue with silicone chip, we may be able to make humans immortal. We will have finally crossed that line into godhood. Kurzweil notes laconically, death is why we have religion. Once death is conquered, some of us will be left without a job. (Those of my colleagues who actually have jobs, that is.) We have empirically explained events as far back as the Big Bang, and no deities need apply. The evolution of life seems natural and inevitable with no divine spark. And now we are to slough off mortality itself. O brave new world!

There was a time when mythographers created the very gods. They gave us direction and focus beyond scraping an existence from unyielding soil. We have, however, grown up. There are a few problems, nevertheless. Scientists are no nearer explaining or understanding emotion than they were at the birth of psychology. We might explain what chemicals produce which response, but we can’t explain how it feels. Emotion, as the very word indicates, drives us. Until Apple comes out with iMotion and our electronic devices feel for us we are stuck falling in love for ourselves. Computers can only do, we are told, what they are programmed to do. The mythographer steps down, the programmer steps up as the new God designer. Having dealt extensively with both, I feel I know which I trust better to provide an emotionally satisfying future.

Zadoc P. Dederick's Steam-Man