God in the Machine — Artificial Intelligence, Coronavirus, Racism and Religion

Jason Alan Snyder
Jun 26, 2020 · 11 min read

By Jason Alan Snyder

Where is God?”

I have been asking this question more than usual lately. It’s not a loaded question charged with doubt or accusation. It’s advice I give to my twelve-year-old son — “Always look for God.”

Looking for God is an idea I learned from the Jesuits. Íñigo López de Loyola (Ignatius of Loyola), was a Spanish soldier and aristocrat. He discerned his calling after suffering nearly fatal wounds on the battlefield. Íñigo founded the ”Society of Jesus,” in 1540, telling early Jesuits — go into the world and “find God in all things.” This idea is the signature spirituality of the Jesuits. Ignatian spirituality centres itself around the conviction that God is active in our world. That spiritual path is a way of finding God’s presence in our everyday lives and doing something about it.

But it’s not always easy to look for God. Lately, I am distracted and exhausted, in my attempt to live a balanced, contemplative lifestyle in the search for peace considering:

• The hundreds of thousands of people that have succumbed to Coronavirus in the pandemic

• The global civil unrest and riots due to racism and a lack of fundamental human rights for Black people

• The systems and platforms serving content to us are a fountain of amplified anger, fear, grief and suffering

When this is our world, where can we look to find God?

Humanity and Artificial Intelligence

The concept of Artificial Intelligence has been fueling science fiction since about 1920 when the Czech writer Karel Čapek published “RUR,” his play about a mutiny led by a multitude of robots. Speculation about the behaviour of intelligent machines has made for fertile imaginations ever since. But recently things have taken a more critical turn. Today, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is not a fantasy, and the implications of its future are far-reaching.

A.I. is pervasive:

• Embedded in personal assistants helping us manage our routines and answering our questions.

• It is powering the code that translates social media posts into natural languages so anyone, regardless of their language preference, can understand and share them.

• It’s part of the algorithm that allows e-commerce platforms to suggest products and discounts.

• It manages our health care and fitness

• It navigates our spacecraft, ocean vessels, trains, buses, trucks and cars.

All that A.I., and more enmeshed in our technology is task-based, or “weak A.I.” It is code written to help human beings do particular tasks, using a machine as an intermediary; it’s intelligent because it can improve our performance, collecting data during its interactions. This often-imperceptible process, known as Machine Learning (ML), is what gives these existing technologies their A.I. moniker.

As technologists, politicians, scientists and business people push the limits of A.I., religious groups, philosophers and academics also debate how far A.I. should go — and what should happen as it becomes part of the fabric of our lives. As a result, it raises several spiritual and moral questions about identity, the self, and what it means to be human. These questions impact the way we approach work, family and our faith. It can result in fear of “strong A.I.,” or what A.I. could someday become: human intelligence replicated inside machines.

Fear of Thinking Machines

Strong A.I. is also known as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). So far, not yet achieved, but upon its arrival, will require a total rethinking of the qualities we associate with the human experience: consciousness, purpose, intelligence, the soul — in short, personhood. When a machine possesses the ability to think like a human or make its decisions autonomously, should that machine be considered a person?

Religious communities may have the most significant stake in the conversation about AGI and personhood. I have encountered people who believe A.I. is threatening to religions. I do not. Many faiths hold convictions about creation and the soul. Some researchers are already engaged in thought experiments to prepare for the future, considering how religions might utilize current technology in the near-term.

One of the worst possible outcomes for A.I. is that of polarizing two worlds: the technological world and the religious world. There has been a significant lack of meaningful discourse between the two communities. This lack of dialogue has been discouraging and prevents religion from contributing a necessary perspective to technological development. If we do not include belief in the development of new technologies, we miss the opportunity to augment human life and benefit religion. If we somehow diminished personhood by creating artificial intelligence, that’s a bad thing. But, if we can create artificial intelligence that allows people to live life more fully, it could bring people closer to God.

Atheism, Religion and Faith

Not everyone believes in God. However, being anti-religion is not the same as being an atheist.

A true atheist believes our existence is a total accident of chance, that life serves no purpose and has no meaning, apart from what we ascribe to our survival. A true atheist believes there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about any human action — from that broad perspective, a murderer and a humanitarian are equals.

I don’t believe that, and I don’t think that many people do. To me, faith is just the instinctual sense that our lives continue to matter even after we have died. And the way we choose to live matters. Not merely due to biological programming but because there is genuinely such a thing as right and wrong.

But faith is not the same as religion.

A.I.: Bringing Us Closer To God

Religions are systems of beliefs and practices organized to enhance the experience of faith. Sometimes religions help people to uncover more profound levels of meaning in their lives; sometimes, they are just a tool to justify the beliefs and behaviours they would have chosen anyway. Religion can be beautiful in that it provides insight and a framework for making good choices in what can seem like a terrible world. Religion can also be ugly when it gives an excuse for hateful and greedy behaviour. Mostly, like people, religions do a little bit of both.

For Christianity and Judaism in particular, the debate regarding personhood originates with the theological term Imago Dei, Latin for “image of God.” This term implies the relationship between humans’ and their divine creator. In the bible, the book of Genesis reads, “God created mankind in his image.” As theology goes, being created in the divine image affords an individual kind uniqueness to human beings.

If machines imbued with human-like qualities, or personhood, were created, then logic bears that those machines would also be in the image of God. As goes Imago Dei, this would then challenge the claim that humans are the only beings on Earth with a God-given purpose.

This technological development could also infringe on acts of creation that, according to many religious traditions, should only belong to a god. We are not God. However, we have, potentially, inherently within us, a vocation to create via technology. Human creation, however, is necessarily limited. The vital difference is between a higher power creating out of nothing, and humans creating with what’s available on Earth.

Another concern is creating a machine with strong A.I. that becomes an outlet for worship. It would be idolatrous to utilize strong A.I. as a method to defeat death and redefine the human race. These are challenging, and explosive ideas scientists and futurists don’t like to embrace. Christian doctrine tells us that placing one’s trust in anything other than God, the creator is idolatry. That moves way beyond the realm of mirroring God’s creativity. Fundamentally, a stand-in for God will be created in our image if we find in A.I. that with whom we can share our being and our responsibilities.

A.I. and Personhood

Today, A.I. is primarily a tool engineered for improving the human experience. It helps us build cars, diagnose illnesses, and make financial decisions. Imagining a world in which our technology slowly becomes more and more intelligent, more and more self-aware isn’t too hard. As weak A.I. evolves into strong A.I., we will objectify the technology and grow accustomed to treating A.I. like anything.

However, strong A.I., by definition, is human-like in both intelligence and ability. The development of strong A.I. would force humanity to reconsider how to interact with technology. Specifically, what rights, if any, should be afforded machines. For instance, if their intelligence provides machines with a designation beyond that of mere objects and tools.

How will we respond? Will we be generous granting rights in the absence of clear answers to these questions, or are we going to be parsimonious? Do we risk creating a slave of a sentient, self-aware entity? Or do we do whatever it takes to make sure that never happens — even accidentally?

This debate has produced significant anxiety in academia, religious circles and the talk show circuit. In the well-known book, “The Singularity is Near,” Raymond Kurzweil introduced the concept of the Singularity to a broad audience. Kurzweil’s book provides examples of choosing the wrong path leading to a massive A.I. failure.

Conscripting machines to do our bidding, transferring knowledge to them, with their exponential capacity for storage and processing, could result in the devices becoming far more intelligent than humans. Then, one day, the machines may decide to dominate us.

Perhaps, Erich Fromm, the Jewish social psychologist, humanistic philosopher, sociologist and psychoanalyst who fled the Nazi regime framed it best when he wrote in his book “The Sane Society,” published in 1955 that “The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.”

A.I., Black Lives Matter and Religion

There are ethical questions beyond speculation that need answering now. A.I. systems are being used today by police and the military to determine who to investigate. Today military and police operations are predicated on machine-driven recommendations of those identified as potential future domestic abusers or sexual predators. A.I. is used to decide who is not going to get financial credit, like a mortgage, or insurance, based upon their anticipated future solvency. Algorithmic bias is being brought into question frequently in the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. Religious communities have a responsibility to participate in conversations regarding these dilemmas.

Religions should involve themselves in the application of the A.I. that exists today. For example, Facebook’s content recommendation algorithms are a form of weak A.I. The A.I. is used to help make posts go viral. When some highly emotional, heartbreaking story starts trending, it directly influences the movement and volume of both prayers and charitable activity. These attention algorithms are a clear example of how prayer and charity are being shaped and having a direct impact on the theological priorities of a community. Algorithms like those that are used by Facebook, also dictate the political news — fake or not — that millions see. It is therefore imperative that religious groups, take an active and vocal interest in the ethical implications of the development of artificial intelligence.

The connections between religious thinkers and A.I. developers should be made more robust. We make these systems — not the machines. When this becomes the work of computers, how are we going to teach methods for what is right and what is wrong? We have a humanitarian obligation to impact the morality of machines in advance of the development of strong artificial intelligence. Intervening now can prevent the cataclysmic robot-dictatorships that abound in science fiction video games, movies and books. Inherent in A.I. is the capacity to build on itself, embedding ethical principles into the code today is the critical pathway to evolving moral machines tomorrow.

A.I. as Religion

Could A.I. replace religion on the whole? I am optimistic in asking this question. Machines capable of strong artificial intelligence will rattle our fundamental understanding of the role of religion. I do not find this rocking of our essential knowledge of religion problematic — that is precisely the point of faith. Strong A.I. will have a massive impact on both the institution of faith and the way religions understand themselves. This impact will be akin to that of the printing press, and the Internet had on religious scholarship. A.I. will, I speculate, bring about a significant change in the way people think about the nature of God.

An omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent machine creates parallels to, and tensions with, monotheistic religions. In the Christian tradition, those are qualities that ascribed to God. The adjectives, “omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent,” define superintelligent A.I.

With this type of A.I., we have something that can be everywhere, can know everything, and solve problems and understand them in ways that humans have never been able to do. Alternatively, machines imbued with strong artificial intelligence might become objects of worship: Religious movements worshipping A.I.

If a machine cures fatal diseases, knows how to improve education, and brings order to society, would humans idolize it? Likely. Then machines might develop their sects or entirely new religions. A robot might come to feel that religion “doesn’t compute.” Or, programmed to prioritize ethical concerns, might have a very different perspective and become a fervent spiritualist. I prognosticate with certainty that there will be denominations that the A.I. develops. I hesitate to speculate on the variables and kinds of faiths that may arise from A.I. save to say they will in all likelihood be different than anything that’s come before them.

As a thought experiment, imagine the possibility that some branches of religion may attempt to convert machines with strong A.I. to follow their God. And, some religious scientists, developing the new technology, may choose to go beyond imbuing it with general rules of ethics, coding it to work within a clearly defined set of fundamentalist and restrictive religious principles.

Fear will be the overwhelming reaction to the development of a machine with strong A.I. If a religious community is incredibly suspicious of existing or past technologies and their implications, then technology like A.I. would be incredibly disturbing — another instance of humanity attempting to usurp God’s position in the world not unlike the Tower of Babbel. Christian churches, in particular, have classically been slow to adapt to new technologies, in the recent past, holding vigorous debates regarding televising sermons and using the Internet.

The Machine is a Mirror

Resistance should give religious communities pause. Why do we assume A.I. will be so different from us? My experience with technology is that it heightens who we are. My experience with religion similar.

Religion is a system of concepts and practices that helps people discover and experience God. Religions that work don’t work for everyone. Religions are not necessarily the best way for everyone to experience God. I believe, though, that they can help most people. Also, I think the same is true for A.I.

Right now, communities should prepare for the eventual creation of a machine with strong A.I. by thinking about how the technology reflects their values. How can we employ technology to advance the principles of God? By imbuing the technology with values that stem from emulating God.

Here is the advice I give my son when he asks me if “in the future, will the robots kill us all?” Sophisticated technologies are not made overnight. There wasn’t a meeting at Boeing one day over lunch where they walked out of the room with a 747. A.I. is the same. It takes time to develop the complexity and refine it. And it’s our responsibility, all of us, to shape A.I.’s outcome. Technology is an amplifier of human endeavour. We get out of it what we put into it at scale. Let us learn by the devastating polarization we are witnessing, and the millions of lives painfully impacted by either not taking enough action, or worse, doing nothing to change the narrative. We have an opportunity and responsibility to ensure a positive outcome for our collective future with A.I.

A.I. will change rapidly, but religious and scientific communities have tools to explore both the ethical and moral limits. Key to this is working on ourselves, to shape the technology we have right now.

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Jason Alan Snyder

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Jason Alan Snyder

Written by

#inventor, #futurist and #technologist

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

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