Plastic Souls: The actual threat attached to Artificial Intelligence. If you ask inventor and famed futurist, Ray Kurzweil, the world will be run by artificial intelligence within 30 years (27 to be exact). The man has been called a “restless genius” by The Wallstreet Journal, “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes, “Edison’s rightful heir” by Inc. Magazine, and “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence” by none other than Bill Gates.
The Law of Accelerating Returns
In one of his best-sellers, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil proposes something called The Law of Accelerating Returns. In short, this is the idea that technology, throughout human history, hasn’t increased at a linear rate, but at an exponential one. So, for instance, if you transported someone in a time machine from 1750 to the present day, the technology would have advanced at such an incredible rate (e.g. cars, planes, moon landing, phones, TV, computers, internet) that the incomprehensible differences might actually drive the poor guy insane. But if you transported someone from 1500 to 1750, the same gap of years, while some aspects of life might still amaze them, the shock would be significantly less. And if you wanted to travel back even further for someone to be shocked by the technological advancement of 1500, you might have to go back an entire millennium. Again, technology is not advancing at a linear pace. It’s advancing at an exponential rate.
Artificial General Intelligence
Ray Kurzweil says that the world will achieve Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) by 2029. Without letting it get too tech-sounding, AGI essentially refers to the computational power of the human brain. We already have something called Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI). This is the ability of a computer to perform one specific task at an extraordinary speed, faster than human.
So, you’ve perhaps played chess on your computer before. Today, the best chess players and best Jeopardy players in the world are now artificial intelligence.
Given a specific algorithm, a computer can routinely beat the brightest human mind in almost every specific task. Siri, the digital assistant on your iPhone, is another example of ANI. Siri has no self-awareness. But the program “Siri” can nonetheless access more information with more accuracy faster than any human.
Kurzweil’s bet is that by 2029, Artificial Intelligence will be able to think through everything in life as comprehensively as any human. And by 2045, humans, now officially inferior, will essentially become subservient to Artificial Intelligence. This is called Artificial Superintelligence (ASI). In The Age of Spiritual Machines, the most fascinating, ominous quote of all actually comes from a somewhat crazed sounding guy that Kurzweil almost seems to admire – a Harvard mathematician named Theodore Kaczynski. That’s right, THE UNABOMBER. The line between genius and insanity is razor thin.
Kurzweil also, however, offers a less Doomsday, less Matrixy scenario than computers taking over the world. In this more optimistic case, humanity will graft the new advanced intelligence into our being, and become transhuman, which is seen as the next evolutionary step. The internet has already made all human knowledge accessible. But the next step is to have the brain’s neocortex seamlessly integrate this information from the cloud.
Imagine never having to read another book, learn another equation, or, for that matter, memorize another passage of the Bible.
What if you could simply download the Bible’s information and truly recall every detail of it as easily as you can recall details from your day? Kurzweil would suggest that we’re about 25 years out. The methodology of Catechism instruction is going to have to evolve. It’s hard to even comprehend the implications all of this might have for faith.
Okay, so if that seems nuts, first consider the fact that Kurzweil is credited as the inventor of the flat scanner, the electric piano, and almost everything related to speech recognition software.
There is not a single person in our country who hasn’t been affected by his inventions. So he has a proven track record of putting these wild ideas into practice successfully. Furthermore, the thing Kurzweil is most famous for is that back in the 1980s, he accurately predicted much of the most important technology of the 21st century – the utilization of computers in education, the rise of the internet, the ability to search the entire internet, the presence of a small, portable computer on every human (i.e. smartphone), and the idea of several mass data AI system companies existing as the most powerful entities in the world (e.g. Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.)
The Predicted Benefits
Instead of fearing that Artificial Intelligence will take over the planet and destroy the human race, Kurzweil chooses to believe that the rise of Artificial Superintelligence will bring about benefits to humanity like
curing disease, ending poverty, and controlling weather patterns.
I’d be content with a robot that cleaned up after my dog on walks – it boggles my mind that in 2019 I’m still wrapping a plastic Target bag around my hand to remedy this problem. Point being, AI doesn’t all sound bad.
If you trust what the Bible teaches about the future, there are elements of Kurzweil’s predictions that you must eliminate. For instance, the Bible suggests that humanity, when Jesus comes back, will have been continuing on with no awareness of an impending end (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Matthew 24:36-44). AI won’t end the human race. Similarly, the Bible repeatedly makes statements about God being the only one who can ultimately dictate weather (Psalm 148:8; Jonah 1:4; Psalm 42:7; Job 37:3; Genesis 6:5-9:19). Kurzweil is among those with the impression that humans can extend life infinitely with the right technology. Obviously we know this is not the case for sinful beings either (Romans 6:23).
The Real Danger
So while the future is going to look different, biblically speaking, it’s not going to be predominantly artificially intelligent. Contrary to what’s been depicted in virtually every sci-fi film of recent memory, while many humans have a fear of artificial intelligence taking over, I believe the real danger with expanding technology is that humans are becoming more artificial.
Put differently, how dehumanized can we become before we cease to function as humanity?
And what are we capable of once we lose our humanity?
The Effects on Gen Z
The global health service company Cigna released a report less than a year ago declaring an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. Half of Americans routinely feel severely lonely.
The most impacted generation, by far, is the young adults in Gen Z (ages 18-22). Notice the correlation between a generation that was the first raised as native to internet tech and feelings of isolation, depression, and loneliness.
The more dependent we’ve become upon machine, the less willing we are, and less required we are, to touch, to look someone in the eye, to share ourselves or to listen to others.
On social media, we feel like we can control the environment or control the perception of ourselves. But being in the presence of another human is a vulnerable experience.
We need it. But we’re increasingly terrified of it and inadequate at it. Actual respectful dialogue has been replaced by angry comment sections and hot takes.
And yes, technology allows us to FaceTime with a sister 1000 miles away, but is it possible that we might actually be more in need of a hug from a neighbor 20 feet away?
But that would require me to learn her name.
Young adults today are suffering with unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation, depression, and suicide precisely because we’ve culturally dehumanized their existence. Technology has allowed us that luxury.
They’ve been allowed to believe that “friendship” simply comes at the cost of liking someone’s photo.
They’ve been allowed to believe that everyone else’s visually filtered, cleverly captioned life is reality.
They’ve been hyper-sexualized with gratuitous imagery, but have no conception of the intimacy of committed relationships.
My theology tells me that computers will not supersede humanity, all human problems will not be be untangled by algorithms, and death won’t be cured by nanobots. That’s the red herring that sells better at the box office. The bigger issue for eager Christians is that rapidly advancing technology could destroy our humanity if we let it.
And I’m convinced the solution is in valuing and practicing the doctrine of incarnation. What is incarnation?
Christologically, the incarnation is God taking on human flesh, i.e. becoming fully human. The Apostle John famously writes, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
The Apostle Paul also says, “Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh.” (1 Timothy 3:16) and “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9, also 1:19) Every aspect of the goodness of God is indwelled in Christ Jesus. And just as amazing and mysterious, in this era of world history, in the Age of Pentecost, when the Spirit has been sent to us, the aspects of God now dwell within his body, the Church. Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16 ESV)
The big idea is this: For God to fully communicate his grace to humanity, he had to place it inside humanity, and then embrace humanity. And if Jesus has now sent his Spirit with the purpose that, in a sense, he would do the exact same thing through you and me, his people, then anything that dehumanizes us is an enemy to the communication of God’s grace.
If we Christians don't incarnate a more beautiful truth - full of grace and truth - plastic souls are inevitable.
What We’ll Always Need
So we look to Christ, who made himself lower than what he could be (Philippians 2:7), not advanced technology, but humble humanity, i.e. God capable of being held in human arms.
It might very well be possible that artificial intelligence will largely end starvation, many diseases, and most poverty. And we should be supportive of and excited for that. But humans will never stop needing forgiveness, or compassion, or friendship, or a secured identity rooted in the Lord. Jesus Christ embodied God’s grace and was born into your life to freely give you all of that. And now he’s sending you into the future to do the same for others.
We thank Pastor James Hein and https://www.breadforbeggars.com/ for this week's blog.
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