I believe in God. “Which of the many gods man has conjured do you mean?” ask a couple of atheist friends. The one true God, I retort. And I add, the variety of gods to which you refer simply reflect man’s fallible search for God. My friends believe that each mystery has a scientific explanation even if it remains elusive. I am ambivalent about this. It might be so. Science used to be about decoding God’s creation, and still is for some scientists; like, for example, the former head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins (The Language of God, 2006). However, these days assertive atheism pits science against God.
Questions about God’s existence or non-existence always start at the beginning. I will begin with the beginning but it is the denouement that reveals the starkly different tales of the competing beliefs. One offers mankind hope, the other a very bleak future indeed as robots take over. Luckily for us, or at least for our descendants, this bleak future does not seem to be playing out in the broader cosmos. What I mean by this will become clear, as will my consequential view that God remains inviolate despite the putative robotic assault.
This appears in the current edition of Quadrant.
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For Christians, the beginning is scripted. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (KJV, Genesis 1:1) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) For atheists, the beginning is the explosion of a dimensionless singularity—the Big Bang.
Or is it? Lee Smolin (in Time Reborn, 2014) hypothesises that our universe, as others, was spewed out of a black hole of another universe. John Barrow (in The Origin of the Universe, 1994) discusses a theory by physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartley that the universe was “created out of nothing at all”. Apparently, as he explained, this has something to do with time becoming a spatial dimension at the point of creation. I have to admit to being flummoxed by this theory. Luckily for me (and probably you) it is not particularly pertinent to my theme.
What is pertinent is the complementary conventional scientific hypothesis that however our universe began it is but one of an infinite number. The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees (in Just Six Numbers, 2001), among many scientists including Smolin, espouses this view to explain the extreme improbability of a solitary universe turning out like ours.
Another complementary hypothesis is also pertinent. This hypothesis, supported by Hawking and Rees among others, is that extraterrestrial civilisations, some much more advanced than ours, are likely to exist in our universe. And it doesn’t stop there. Rees argues (in “Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic”, Nautilus, October 2015) that organic intelligent life is simply a step on the path towards robotic life (machines), as an extension of Darwinian evolution:
it may be only one or two more centuries before humans are overtaken or transcended by inorganic intelligence, which will then persist, continuing to evolve, for billions of years. This suggests that if we were to detect ET, it would be far more likely to be inorganic: We would be most unlikely to “catch” alien intelligence in the brief sliver of time when it was still in organic form.
Here is Hawking as reported in various forums by Computerworld in May 2015:
Computers will overtake humans with AI at some point within the next 100 years … The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race … It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate.
Hawking and Rees are joined by those in the commercial technological world. Here is Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, also reported in Computerworld:
I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is reported by the Daily Mail (March 24, 2015) as saying:
Computers are going to take over from humans, no question. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently.
A good source of information about the perceived threat of AI can be found at the internet site of the Future of Life Institute. Some scary stuff if you can handle it.
The foregoing material frames the competing positions. On one side are those who believe that an eternal God created the universe and, by a purposeful process of evolution, the humans within it. To wit: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; and male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:27) On the other are atheists who reject God as an explanation. They believe that our universe is one of many stretching into infinity; and that blind evolution governs the creation and development of organic life. By extension, they believe that organic intelligent life is simply one evolutionary step towards more powerful inorganic life. The future, in other words, belongs to the machines and we had better get used to it; that is, until they rub us out over the next one or two centuries. Just a moment’s consideration will convince you that if atheists are right about the godless beginning, the future they lay out is a logical extension.
Take the universe. The difficulty is the extreme unlikelihood that our universe and life-giving planet could have happened by sheer one-off chance. Fred Hoyle likened it to the chance of a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard assembling a Boeing 747. Accordingly, scientists on the whole reject the “anthropic principle”, which is, well, here we are, so it must have just happened this way. This leaves them a stark choice. Either there is a creator or our universe is simply one of a very, very large number. Infinity is the popular choice of the number, as it has to be, when you think about it, otherwise there would be a start to explain.
Take evolution. Without passion or morality it proceeds to favour developments which allow species to best cope with the world about them. Human beings are at the top of the tree right now because they are much more intelligent than any other creature and, vitally too, they are fitted with legs and feet for movement and with arms and opposable-thumbed hands for grasping. But human beings have their limitations. Einstein needed help with the mathematics of some of his discoveries and he along with his fellows required a fine balance of atmospheric conditions to survive.
Alan Turing required computational help to crack the Enigma codes. He was able to build such a machine which could do things he couldn’t. Humans have the unique ability to make devices, including computers, to do things which outstrip the abilities of their makers. This might seem a trivial and obvious point to make, but it is core to those who believe that computers and their robotic offspring will eventually, and fairly soon, become more intelligent than humans. If things can be made that outstrip our physical and computational human abilities then why not things more intelligent than we are?
There is no widely accepted definitive definition of intelligence. My OED defines it as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. This will do provided the word apply is interpreted as connoting self-awareness. Self-awareness is the key to those who believe AI machines will take over. In order to take over, such machines will need to be aware of their own existence and, like us, seek to improve their own positions in the scheme of things. Self-awareness is the tipping point which ineluctably makes slaves into masters.
Moore’s law is the observation that the performance of computer chips doubles every eighteen months to two years. I assume that quantum computing will put this performance in the shade. Quantum computing is some way off. However, it will happen very quickly if AI gets busy on it, as will developments beyond our ken.
And what is my point? My point is that self-aware (AI) machines are not like us. They don’t have to wait for puberty to reproduce; no gestation period, no years of nurturing, no regression to the mean. Everything can be done quickly, with more intelligent offspring guaranteed. Think about it. At what point would they decide that enough is enough? They wouldn’t. As Rees puts it, they “will surpass humans by as much as we (intellectually) surpass a bug”. In fact it can be taken further. In a very short space of time they would acquire intelligence approaching infinity—whatever that means. Nothing, apparently, would be beyond them. We would indeed be ants (as both Hawking and Wozniak have put it) long before that.
Here we have a conundrum. Those same scientists warning about AI also tend to believe that civilisations much older and more powerful than our own are out there in the universe (and, by the way, in other universes). This is Rees again: “Perhaps the galaxy already teems with advanced life, and our descendants [machines] will ‘plug in’ to a galactic community—as rather ‘junior members’.” Surely this is the wrong way around.
Take Rees at his word. Assume that advanced galactic communities are not all too far distant for there ever to be communication. Extraterrestrial machines of extraordinary intelligence should have already plugged into us, and long before now. To assume otherwise is a species of geocentrism. This is how it goes. Humans will evolve into machines. Our machines will explore the cosmos and contact other machine civilisations far more advanced than our own? Well, then, why won’t our machines be like ants to these other machines and why haven’t these more advanced machines contacted us first? It doesn’t quite stack up.
It can be made to stack up by assuming we are indeed alone in the universe. But this presents a dilemma. I searched one reputable site (Universe Today) which gave me an estimate of a septillion (1024) of stars in the known universe, adding that there could be more. With so many chunks of rock out there, out of which, given the right conditions, life can spring spontaneously, atheist scientists have to believe that life elsewhere has sprung forth and evolved. Otherwise, they are left with the discomforting view that life on Earth is unique and just might have a purposeful rationale.
If you believe in the creator Christian God you know from whence you came. But you also know where you are going. Or at least Jesus gave some solid clues. It is worth going over just a sample of some familiar ones. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35) “For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.” (Luke 20:38) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25) “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2) True, the end of time holds great mysteries, but the Christian account from the beginning to the end is internally consistent. To my mind it satisfies Occam’s razor as the account which requires a minimum of assumptions; in fact, just one—God.
The alternative account requires belief in a number of interconnected and interdependent assumptions. First, the universe spontaneously came about in one way or another. Second, as the universe’s characteristics are so improbable it must simply be one of an infinite number. (Pari passu, given an infinite number of tries an ape would eventually type out Hamlet.) Third, conditions on Earth led to the spontaneous creation of life. Fourth, it is highly likely, in view of the vastness of the universe, that organic life emerged on countless planets. Fifth, Darwinian evolution led to human life on earth and to intelligent organic life on many other planets. Sixth, computers developed by intelligent organic life will take on a self-aware life of their own. Seventh, this inorganic life (AI) will rapidly increase in intellect and power and surpass human beings and organic intelligent beings elsewhere, as it purposefully and continually evolves. Eighth, AI machines from different parts of the cosmos will potentially and figuratively shake hands (or is that antennas?) with each other. Where will it end? It won’t in an infinitely long-lasting universe. So there it is. Once you accept the premise that there is no God, the rest falls into place.
But, as I have pointed out, if AI becomes the highest form of life it is bound to approach infinite intelligence as quantum computing and other technologies beyond imagining are developed and refined by quickly succeeding generations of AI. And if that is the case it is a wonder, is it not, that extraterrestrial machine life has not already found us—unless we suffer from the hubris of thinking we are ahead of the universal pack. Hawking doesn’t. In fact he is worried about us making contact with extraterrestrials:
A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead. If so, they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.
So it comes to this. You believe in God. Or you believe in an infinite number of universes and in organic life spontaneously erupting and evolving into intelligent life before being replaced with machine life of unbounded intelligence. There is little in between. You can say you don’t believe in God and leave it at that. But to have intellectual integrity you really should take the next step and outline what you do believe in. This will almost certainly lead you down the Rees and Hawking path towards a future of godless robotic civilisations.
My own view is that this path is wayward and, accordingly, that atheists should try again. It is wayward because it is logically absurd that we, organic intelligent life, should be here on this small planet orbiting a nondescript star in a universe replete with robotic intelligences vastly superior to our own. They would have found us; unless, of course, they have found us and dismissed us as too primitive to be bothered about. Alternatively (and weakly, in my view) Rees suggests these advanced civilisations might have sent out signals but that we are too primitive to able to decode them. Plump for the triumph of AI being a delusion of scientists and technologists whose assertive atheism leads them down the garden path. Plump for this conclusion too, if not for the reason I give, then because, as Orwell so level-headedly put it, “there are some ideas so wrong [fanciful in this case] that only a very intelligent person could believe in them”.
Peter Smith wrote “The Truth about ‘Menial’ Work and Immigration” in the November issue and “Reformist Pipedreams, Islamic Reality and Muslim Accountability” in the December issue.