My PhD seminar student almost snorted when someone called Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence or AI.
“It’s nothing but a voice-activated database query system. There’s no intelligence involved at all,” she scoffed.
She was right and missed it. Finding more user-friendly ways to access data has always been important, and over the years technology upgrades have included a leap from specialized languages (secret codes that only computers and their masters understood) to natural language interfaces. (“Alexa, turn on the lights.”) While impressive, these advancements are not about artificial intelligence.
But that misses the real problem. The biggest leap forward is not how computers think, but how we think about computers. What changes is our awareness of what it means to be human. By giving an interface a name, a distinctive voice, and the appearance of a personality, Alexa doesn’t teach us to use a natural language database interface, it teaches us to think of a computer program as one of we. These days, Amazon even sends you notes suggesting that you should “follow” Alexa and what she’s up to, just like you might with a long-forgotten friend.
The ubiquity of Alexa and Siri, which can now be found in just about every cellphone, automobile, and widespread in businesses and households, continues a long trend of computer anthropomorphization. star wars creator George Lucas created robot characters, C3PO and R2D2, that expressed emotions towards humans and each other. These, in turn, elicited such a strong emotional attachment that having human characters risk their lives to save them didn’t seem ridiculous.
In the first generation of star trek we have also learned to allow nonhumans into the realm of human emotions and loyalties. It is not surprising that the second generation of star trek would continue to explore the humanization of artificial intelligences. In the TV series Star Trek Generations, an AI (Data) is on trial, claiming what are essentially human rights. In the movie Star Trek: First Contactwe find the temptation of this same AI to join the Borg queen and assume the sins of the flesh.
Never mind that AI has yet to live up to the claim of being intelligent in the sense of being sentient. What matters is the growing cultural acceptance that man-made devices made of silicone, plastic and metal are living things that we treat as peers.
This acceptance also slowly changes the way we perceive ourselves. Much attention has been paid to whether and when so-called AI will actually become intelligent. Besides fiction, such as that of Neil Stephenson To fall; or, Dodge in Hellnot enough consideration has been given to how we are beginning to think of ourselves as AIs.
Perhaps the most obvious change is the constant relocation of the human person in the mind, and therefore in the brain. In the early 20th century, human death was marked by cessation of breath and heartbeat. Since the late 1960s, it has been identified by a lack of certain significant electrical signals in the brain. To be dead is to be “brain dead”, even if the rest of the body is functioning. And to be alive is to be “living brain”, even if the maintenance of the life of the brain is done entirely by artificial means. We measure the presence of a spirit and a soul by what happens in the brain.
As Jeffrey Bishop notes in Corpse of Anticipation, with the advent of increasingly sophisticated transplant surgery, the body (and not necessarily a human body; we also use pig, cow, and artificial parts) has become a repository of interchangeable parts needed to maintain brain and central nervous system. I personally have two artificial lenses and a cow’s heart valve in a silicone structure. Artificial hips, knees and elbows are ubiquitous. We’re all just Six Million Dollar Men and waiting Robocops.
No wonder transhumanism (which made the cover of TIME in 2011) has become popular among those with the wealth and pride to imagine themselves as potential transhumans; their essential consciousness transposed into a computer program.
One of them is Elon Musk, who in a 2018 interview with Axios on HBO said that humans must merge with artificial intelligence, creating a “symbiosis” that leads to “a democratization of ‘intelligence”. Indeed, as our cultural sense of what it means to be human changes, we may well divide into three types of humans: those who can afford to become transhuman, those who will simply die, and those whose religion promises to live forever in another form. Religion will become the transhumanism of the poor.
The transition that shifts the center of the human being to the spirit, now defined as a complex of electrical impulses supported by mechanisms that hold it (the body), represents such a profound transition in our understanding of what it means to be human than the people concerned. by great religious teachings and the advent of modernity and the secular age. And like these religious teachings and the rise of modernity, it poses deep questions about how we will understand ourselves and others.
When does a living body lose its human rights? When does he start getting them? Should AIs, when emerging in sentience, have human rights? And when they reproduce, a major goal of AI research, who will control their reproductive rights? Above all, what makes a human a human? Is there anything more to us than observable patterns of electrical interactions in the brain?
Traditionally, the intellectual center for exploring human self-understanding has been the humanities. Yet universities have consistently downgraded the study of humanities in favor of STEM subjects linked to increased economic productivity. And in any case, humanities researchers need to refocus on emerging cultures and their understanding of what it means to be human. STEM researchers, who study what we are, lack the tools to study who we are and how we express our self-understanding. So those of us who focus specifically on what it means to be human need to address future humanity as well as the past.
Religion, too, is about our understanding of what it means to be human. Yet the changes underway with the advent of AI barely seem to have caught the attention of religious leaders who are still struggling with modernity. We have understood that there can be virtual churches, but have we considered that some of their members (and even preachers and musicians) can be intelligent machines represented by avatars? What happens to our humanity when it is not simply disembodied, but reincarnated in a different form? What do terms like ‘body’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’ mean in virtual worlds?
Because we are on the cusp of an axial shift in human self-understanding, we need renewed attention to these issues. And this focus must highlight not only the exploration of the past, but also the human of the future, which is emerging even now in literature, television and film, history, politics and the fine arts.
Robert Hunt is the director of global theological education at the Perkins School of Theology on the SMU Dallas campus. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
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