Response to panel on
Technology, Artifical Intelligence and Social Location
In response to:
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today and respond to these three fascinating papers. Of course, I am neither Phil Hefner nor Mark Richardson. As you heard, Phil Hefner was sick this week and felt he couldn’t attend, so I offered to read his paper in his absence. I was also asked to fill in for my friend and colleague, Mark Richardson, who could not be here today due to some pressing family obligations. Whereas before in this session I was simply reading Phil Hefner’s paper in his absence, the comments that I would like to share now are my own thoughts and not those of Mark Richardson.
Let me take the papers in reverse order. Noreen Herzfeld discusses artificial intelligence and the doctrine of Imago Dei. If humans are created in God’s image and have as such a special theological status within God’s creation, then what status do our own artificial creations take, especially when unlike a house or a car, the goal of artificial intelligence is to create something like us in some essential way. Herzfeld illuminates a fascinating parallel between three different approaches to artificial intelligence (AI) and three different interpretations of the doctrine of Imago Dei (ID). If for nothing else, the price of admission was worth this insight, which demonstrates yet again the intellectual necessity of resurrecting the queen of the sciences in our postmodern technoscientific culture.
The substantive interpretation of AI and ID emphasizes some ontological capacity of being human, generally reason, as the essential quality of being human. The functional interpretation of AI and ID emphasizes some human activity as the essential quality of being human. And the relational interpretation of AI and ID emphasizes some authentic relational capacity as the essential quality of being human. Herzfeld critiques the substantive and functional interpretations and advocates the relational interpretation. I’m going to address this last point.
Writers like Merlin Donald and Terrance Deacon have argued, I think persuasively, on the bases of the contemporary neurosciences and evolutionary anthropology that our human cognitive, linguistic, and intellectual abilities are fundamentally “located” outside of the architecture of individual human brain in the distributed space of culture. For instance, this distributed understanding of cognition and linguistics can be understood in the tragic cases of otherwise normal human infants deprived of linguistic and social stimulation who grow up to be permanently mentally retard by age five.
Writers like Thomas Berry and David Abrams have also reminded us that our human cognitive, linguistic, and intellectual abilities could never have evolved without also being in intimate interaction with the awesome beauty, stunning complexities, and fearsome challenges of living in relation with nature in specific ecosystems and specific cultural contexts.
In this view, what is most essentially human is to be in relationship, to be in an almost Heideggerian sense, a space for things to unfold. Certainly echoing religious themes, we are most human when we are focused not on self, but on others, both other humans as well as the more-than-human realms of nature.
So here I would affirm Herzfeld’s relational interpretation of the Imago Dei doctrine, but criticize its application to artificial intelligence, a field which I see as plagued with silly anthropocentrism, not unlike popular religious piety. This is certainly the case with Rodney Brook’s anthropomorphic robots. Herzfeld writes at one point that “Symbolic AI faltered not on difficult problems like passing a calculus exam, but on the easy things a two year old child can do, such as recognizing a face in various settings or understanding a simple story.” How is this critique not also a critique of anthropomorphized robots like Cog and Kismet, who demonstrate insect level complexity. It seems like we’re running a psychology experiment or marketing ploy on humans, rather than a real experiment with artificial intelligence. Disney, Hatboro, Mattel and the other manufactures of toys and animation entertainment are the experts in this field. And of course, this is exactly the direction that Rodney Brook’s has gone, producing computer enhance dolls which will be appearing at Toy’s ‘R Us this Christmas season.
Let me suggest that as long as we are looking for AI or ID in our own image, we are likely to miss the real story about multiple, distributed intelligence systems, all around us that don’t look anything like us. In any case, Herzfeld’s paper is an important contribution to exposing a theological subtext in an ostensibly scientific discipline.
Now let me turn to Lisa McCullough’s paper on “Technology and the Body,” in which she applies Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of technologies as a bodily extension of the human person. Technology is a kind of prosthetic means for “self-amplification,” but one which also results in a kind of “self-amputation.” McLuhan, recently honored as the patron saint of the digeratti in a cover story in WIRED, demonstrates remarkable prescience writing in the 60s and 70s about these issues. We can thank McCullough for bringing McLuhan’s thoughts into this conversation.
I am often meditate on what difference it would make to naturalize our artifacts, to think of them no longer as artifacts of human creation, but as new entities in on-going evolution. If, for instance, we were to run time lapse photographs of Nasheville from about one-mile overhead with say a radius of 40 miles over the course of the last 50 years and play these back as a 5 hour movie in a biologist’s Petri dish, then I fancy that the growth in human artifacts, roads, utilities, shopping malls, housing developments, industrial parks, business centers, and of course, lots and lots of cars, would appear unmistakably life-like to the biologist viewing the movie. Cars then, McLuhan suggests, are part of nature. They just have a more complicated sex life which harnesses humans as symbionts in their reproduction.
It is not clear to me in McLuhan’s or McCullough’s discussion, how it is that technologies lead to “self-amputation” of our humanity. It is clear to me that our culture is mesmerized and often unconscious of the way technology functions to change both our world and worldview. It does seem to me that technology is never simply neutral. In this Heideggerian sense that McLuhan also adopts, technology has a way of revealing the world. I think what is missing here is an appreciation of the inherent ambiguity and pluralism of technology’s way of being in the world and in our world-views. We are stuck between clichés: on the one hand, guns don’t kill people, people kill people; and on the other hand, if all you have is a hammer, than every problem looks like a nail.
McCullough wisely takes us into a consideration of the utopic and dystopic dimensions of this embodied view of technology, pointing us among other things to a consideration of Bill Joy’s dsytopic article in WIRED last April with the title “Why the future doesn’t need us?” Joy takes a hard look at the steep growth in genetic technology, nanotechnology, and robotics, and predicts that these soon to be self-replicating and exponentially more powerful artifacts will eclipse humans in evolution. Here I would encourage you all to read Jaron Lanier’s article in the current issue of WIRED with the title “One-Half of a Manifesto: Why stupid software will save the future from neo-Darwinian machines.” Lanier criticizes “cybernetic totalism” as a false and dangerous ideology and in the process also debunks Bill Joy’s thesis while substituting alternate dystopic stories. In one scenario the constraints of the software complexity will consume the efforts of every living person to maintain exponentially growing computation, on “a planet of help desks.” In another scenario, the frictionless-free market empowered by computers continues to increase the socio-economic disparities, which will also be increasingly genetic disparities, leading to the speciation into what Lee Silver called the GenRich, genetically enriched humans, and the lower class/caste/race/species of merely natural humans.
Let me share three quotes from the Lanier essay in WIRED as a provocation for our discussions:
So that is enough commentary from Lanier, let me move on, but first by thanking Lisa McCullough for helping ground these sometimes esoteric discussions of science and religion as an existentially and ethically significant discourse. By bringing the otherness of religion into conversation with these secular creation, damnation, and salvation stories, we may hope to lose a dangerous naivette in our cultural-evolutionary project.
Let me turn briefly to the last paper, by Phil Hefner, in which “The Created Co-Creator Meets Cyborg.” I have followed the work of Donna Haraway with great interests over the last ten years and published an article in Zygon some years ago about her relevance for the science and religion dialogue, so I am extremely happy to see Hefner also take up this challenge. Hefner, of course, developed this theological concept of “the Created Co-Creator” in an attempt to articulate a theologically informed anthropology. He also alerts us to the inherent ambiguity in the term. Hefner writes:
Hefner is attracted to Haraway’s Cyborg trope for similar reasons. The Cyborg is an illuminating trope for a theologically informed anthropology, one which adequately deals with the ambiguity of our species transgressing mode of being-longing-in-the-world. Haraway’s Cyborg trope challenges the taken-foregranted, but terribly antiquated concepts of neatly defined categories of human, nature, culture, and technology.
There is a lot to consider in this alien discourse, in which we are figuratively, but in also some sense literally, no longer mere humans anymore, but I want to focus Hefner’s discussion of the dialectic of possibility and danger embedded in this encounter. Haraway argues that in her Cyborg Manifesto that this trope is both necessary and dangerous. Hefner agrees. He writes:
As I have also pointed out, Hefner notes that Haraway’s Cyborg also employs an origin’s story, in spite of her postmodern protestations against such metanarratives. The cyborg is also a created co-creator within its own origins mythos. Hefner writes “Cyborg cannot elude the theological question, and philosophical reflection on cyborg cannot evade the very challenges that confront the most classical Christian theology… the greatest irony of all would be to cling to the innocence that does not acknowledge that we are all ‘created’ in some sense and that whatever the sense, to be ‘created’ leads us down a path that must consider ultimacy, even the ultimacy of our origins.” The closing list of theological question which Hefner offers is evidence of the important old and new conceptual work that needs to be addressed by the queen of sciences in this extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species.
Let me close by noting these three papers, as exemplary examples of the exponentially doubled vision of this science and religion dialogue, show also that the convergence or consonance between science and religion is itself also pregnant with possibilities and dangers. It is hard to think of ourselves as dangerous, but if culture is evolutionary engineering by other means, then we should be filled with fear and trembling about our theological tropes and fancies. One of our fellow cyborgs in this science and religion dialogue has used the term “humility theology” as a challenge to us all. If I might paraphrase, how little we know, how much we have to learn, especially about the future.