I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote in last week’s blog, about what it means to be human. After some more conversation with my brother, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe humans will ever create true artificial intelligence. In fact, I’ve become convinced that “artificial intelligence” is an oxymoron.
What I mean by this is that intelligence – that which makes us sentient – is part of the very definition of a living being, and a non-living machine could never achieve true decision-making capability, let alone become self-aware. That’s because every decision is unique, and it is not the case that all decisions (especially ethical decisions) can be reduced to if/then logarithms. A computer can only do what it’s programmed to do, and a programmer could never anticipate every possible scenario. Not to mention the fact that (as my brother pointed out) different people might disagree on the best course of action and propose different solutions to the same problem, so at best any program can only be created in the image of its programmer. Therefore, somewhere between the human programmer and a hypothetical non-human programmer (the programmed programmer) is the missing link of artificial intelligence, and I really believe it has about the same chance at being realized as time travel. Only God can create creators.
As I said in last week’s blog, being human means having a body, an interface with the real world that allows us to be in relationship with other humans. And since (as I argue in Spiritual Blueprint) relationships are the real meaning of life, there is no life, and certainly no meaning, without being engaged in the physical world through a human body. How could we emulate God’s creativity by creating new life without bodies? How could we emulate God’s love by loving our neighbor without human bodies? In fact, I think if there ever were a self-aware machine, it would be utterly self-serving (selfish), interested first and foremost in self-preservation (which was the problem with Skynet, of course), and ultimately it would not be capable of compassion (another important part of the image of God in us). No, the human person is more than information, and even more than the sum of the parts, because it’s all about relationships. But this brings me to two problems…
First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I’m an introvert. That doesn’t mean I’m shy, it just means that according to the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, being sociable with a lot of people requires more energy than it gives me (for an extrovert, it would be the opposite: being with a lot of people is energizing). So while I can get up in front of a large lecture hall and speak without any anxiety, or sing in front of an audience (sadly, it’s usually not a large audience, but I digress), activities like that take a lot out of me and afterward I need some peace and quiet to recharge. So an introvert is one who’s more comfortable with a few close friends, rather than being the life of the party or a social butterfly.
So problem number one is: social networking. As an introvert, you would think that I would love facebook and other social networking technology because it takes some of the edge off of being social. But that’s exactly the problem – social networking is by its very nature less social than face-to-face interaction. I worry about the concept of trying to have relationships with people through a computer screen. Can you really have a relationship with someone without ever being in physical proximity? Without ever sharing a handshake? Or a hug? I don’t know. I have a lot of facebook friends whom I’ve never met in person, and that’s not bad – I love making these connections all over the world, and let’s face it, I could never keep up with this many acquaintances without “the facebook.” But that’s no substitute for really gathering with people. Jesus promised that when two or three gather in his name, he would be there with them (Matthew 18:20). But when they gather in cyberspace, does it really count? I’m leaning toward NO, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
Problem number two: passing the peace. I should start by saying that I love going to church. I love getting there early to have time to kneel and pray. I love hearing Scripture read, and I especially love the Eucharist. But I dread two parts of the service, and I can’t wait until they’re over. One is the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, because we hold hands, and the other is the passing of the peace. Not that I don’t want these strangers to have the peace of Christ in their lives – I really do. But they’re strangers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m Italian, so in my family, men hug. But that’s different – it’s no problem because I’ve known these men all my life. Yes, I know that the people in church are my brothers and sisters in Christ, but still.
Do I really have to shake hands with people I don’t know, and make eye contact? Do I really have to hold hands with strangers while I pray? It seems like asking too much. I just don’t think Jesus would ask me to do something so uncomfortable.
Pause here a moment while I go re-read the gospels…
OK, my bad. As it turns out, Jesus does ask us to move outside the comfort zone. Darn. In fact, do you know what that radical did? He touched people. He touched lepers (social outcasts) and made them clean. He even put spit on a guy’s eyes to heal them! He stayed in the homes of people he hardly knew. Talk about uncomfortable – he probably had to share a bathroom! I don’t even do that when I go to conferences. And when I think about people who have really followed Jesus’ example – people like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa – these are people who went out and touched people, showing them the compassion of God by treating them as equals – serving them, even – and by actually making eye contact (and not with a profile picture, either).
So here we are back to the body again – the body as the thing that makes contact with others and creates real relationships. The body as the thing by which we must be active in the world. It seems that to exist only in the life of the intellect would be too passive. Real life is active. Plus, you saw what happened to the people in Wall-E.
I think we have to stretch beyond the social networking – not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s not the real thing. We have to stretch beyond the technology and resist the temptation of thinking that virtual reality is some kind of purified reality. For me, stretching means (at least) reaching out to people and touching them, even if they’re strangers. I don’t know what stretching would look like for you, but I think Jesus is calling all of us to stretch in some way.
Maybe the technology can be a tool for reaching out to people – heck, even the Pope is tweeting now. I have seen many occasions where people had an opportunity to express empathy and support over facebook. And it could be the case that facebook helps us know when another person is in need. But to really meet that need requires real world contact. Jesus didn’t say be a pen pal to the prisoner, he said visit the prisoner. He didn’t say “friend” the hungry, he said feed the hungry.
I suppose that the proponents of artificial intelligence would try to convince me that in the future we will create a utopia where people don’t have needs like poverty and hunger. Maybe. But again it seems awfully optimistic (Pelagian, even), given human nature as we know it. A more realistic (Augustinian) outlook on artificial intelligence ends up looking more like The Terminator or The Matrix. I don’t think we’ll get to that point, though, because only God can create creators.