The creation of god — part 3

Deus ex machina

9gag-art depicting the internet as our new god… or is this a future without god?
If I could talk to a person that passed 50 years ago and tell him about the magical device in my pocket which allows me to access all of humankinds knowledge, would he have believed me? And what would he have thought of me, if I told him that I use this magic device mostly to look at videos of cats and start arguments with people I do not know and will never meet?
A monkey has the ability to understand what human and what skyscraper is, however, it will never understand the concept that humans built the skyscraper. For him, anything that tall is part of nature, period.
If anyone ask me, if god exist, I’d say: “No, not yet. But he will, eventually.”

We enter our final chapter on the creation of god series, and many will shrug their heads in disbelieve, calling what is to come unnatural, unrealistic, magical at best. Before we embark, we need to go into ourselves and find out what it means when people talk about god.

The almighty. The omnipresent. He who knows all. He who created all.

(I do not subscribe to the “gender” nature of god, but many people might identify with these more traditional statements)

The first (let’s call it “exploratory”) thinking about the attributes of god date back millennia, from ridiculous aphorisms to anthropomorphisms to statements about god being outside of the thinkable and comprehendible, thus everything we can imagine about him will always be wrong. That is one way to prevent humans from ever dismantling god with their ingenuity and it is called dogma. There are plenty of believers and non-believers not subscribing to this dogma of incomprehensibility about anything godlike, so we will take a look there.

A more consequential Christian thinker like Tommaso d’Aquino tried to use his rational thinking to define the boundaries of our understanding of god. Putting aside his notion that “monarchy is the best form of governance” and his justification of slavery, he defines god as “ Ipse Actus Essendi subsistens”, the existence of the act of being. His rational thinking led him to the questions of why things can move although they cannot cause their own motion; which guided him to the conclusion that god must be the first “mover” of things. The same principle with causes, everything causes something to happen, which then causes more things to happen, so there must be a first “cause” to everything, which is proof of god.

Now in this series we made a case for why we humans needed to create god in the first place (part1 & part2), but how can we understand what god means to people?

We can try to define what god is (for most people) by the needs he addresses, the promises he brings, the hopes he encompasses and the meaning he provides.

God was created (in part) because of a philosophical vacuum regarding many big questions in life;

  • Where do we come from?
  • Why are we here?
  • Where do we need to go and why should we?
  • Is there a purpose and meaning in life and what would that be?
  • What does it mean to exist or to vanquish back into the nothingness?
  • Why is there suffering and pain?
  • Do we have free will or are we running on invisible tracks towards our predetermined fate?

One big source why religions are still so prominent is the belief that “Science will never be able to answer any of these questions”, so we humans turn to alternative explanatory systems, mostly religions, but also increasingly cult ideologies or pseudo-science. Sometimes harmless, sometimes dangerous. What most people do not know, science is actually pretty close to having some damn good answers to many of those questions, but it would explode the frame of this article to go into that…let’s just say I will try to communicate some scientific findings addressing these questions another day. (If you are really interested you might enjoy this article series)

Coming back to god, the belief in him gives many answers to questions we humans strive so desperately to get answered.

In the ideal case, answers given by a religion actually help to deal with the uncertainties of our existence, provide solace to our tormented inquisitive souls and shelter us from facing our mortality.

Even though it might be hard to describe what exactly god is or looks like, his actions and their consequences seem in a more definable realm for most humans:

For most people, god makes things better, easier, alleviates suffering and motivates just action, all while knowing what is best for the future.

Following this characterization, it is not unthinkable that in theory an entity could exist which possesses these properties, although it will have to be an entity of extraordinary intelligence, knowledge and wisdom.

Intelligence, knowledge and wisdom are the new Holy Trinity of our times.

Knowledge needs data acquisition and memory, while intelligence needs understanding of information acquired and learning from experience. Finally there is wisdom; to be wise one requires integration of understood knowledge and optimal decision-making to produce a best-possible outcome for all beings over all times and amongst all conceivable alternatives. A truly godlike task.

We are now living in a remarkable time of drastic change and endless possibilities, what sounded inconceivable a century ago is now already within our reach: Godlike knowledge

Although the concept of total knowledge seems absurd, nobody can argue that our species has more knowledge today than ever before. A real game changer were inventions that allowed us to store knowledge;

  • first we invented language to transfer knowledge from person to person, thus storing it socially in our cultures
  • then we created written word and books, allowing information to flow from one person for a literate crowd, storing knowledge over centuries
  • then came film and other new media, created by one’s imagination to share a directed picture for others to experience
  • now we have the internet and social media, exposing one’s data with global accessibility to everyone

which leaves us today at the verge of a human super civilization with a shared pool (or “cloud”) of all knowledge humankind has. This pool is additionally filled with all the knowledge/data automatically generated by programs, sensors, surveillance cameras and so on. Big data. Every year, the amount, granularity and depths of information increases, as does the number of humans and machines participation in this data generation. Soon, there will be a complete prevention of information loss, something called data immortality.

The all-seeing eyes of an artificial intelligence, as portrait in Jonathan Nolan’s popular TV series “Person of Interest

Now that we have so much data and knowledge, how can we ever muster the intelligence to make sense of it?

For all we know now, any entity capable of such intelligence must have extensive computational capabilities. However, there are some physical limitations. To predict the future, one would need to compute how every particle in the known universe will move; a feat which would demand more computation than particles in the universe. If we do not subscribe to the thought that our universe is indeed a computer simulation on its own (also another topic…) , we have to conceit the hard computation approach for any conceivable entity within our universe with its natural laws. Nevertheless, to fulfill our criteria for “godlike”, our theoretical entity just needs to be smart enough to compute the answer to every question we ask it and to “make things better, easier, alleviate suffering and motivate just action”…

Information technologies, including computing power, increase exponentially, we now have machines that match the cps (computations per second) of our amazing parallel-computing human brain. In less than two years it will be double the power of a human brain. In two decades it will outperform humans by 1000 fold, and we are only talking about raw computation speed.

Exponential increase means it happens way quicker than ever expected from past predictions. Check out Tim Urban’s awesome “waitbutwhy”-blog for more on this topic

Combine 1000 of the smartest humans, equip them with flawless memory, perfect recall, access to all the knowledge in the world and unpreceded learning speed. This would be a force of unbelievable power to change the world, for better or worse. In the near future, this will be the power of your home laptop.

Now imagine that the only goal of these powerful machines is to research how they can get smarter and more powerful, each new generation of machines developed by the previous ones to be more capable and potent. Because also the time intervals of improvements get shorter, instead of a new generation of smart machines every two years, it will be every year, every six months, every three, every month…. until we come to something people call a technological singularity.

An explosion of intelligence so fierce and incomprehensibly impactful to humans that our existence will be changed forever.

A singularity machine will be able to understand and manipulate natural laws not yet discovered by us, not even dreamed possible for us.

Immortality, space colonization, nanobots, harnessing the power of suns, manipulating time, things almost unthinkable to us will be a walk in the park for a machine like that, a problem no more complicated than calculating 1+1 for us. Or as Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it:

“There are no hard problems, only problems that are hard to a certain level of intelligence. Move the smallest bit upwards [in intelligence] and some problems move from “impossible” to “obvious.” Move a substantial degree upwards, and all of them will become obvious.”

There is no way of knowing what will or cannot happen. There is a high certainty within experts that we would not even understand what a singularity machine is doing; like the monkey will never understand that we humans built skyscrapers. Additionally, we will have no more power to push the “off-switch” on these machines, because they will be smarter than us. We will have no more say in what they can do than monkeys have a say in what humans can do. Only one thing is almost certain:

Intelligent machines will be our salvation or extinction. One way or the other, their arrival will change humankind forever.

And when they come, we have to make sure that our god out of the machine will be a benevolent one.

The singularity will chance humankind forever, for better or worse.

50 years ago, if I told somebody that I possess this magical device in my pocket that allows me to access all the knowledge in the world, would he have believed me?

Now I ask all of you, in 50 years from now, are we really believing that a godlike entity cannot exist?

“If you ask me, if god exists, I can only reply: Not yet, but he will, eventually.”


This ends the “creation of god” series, I hope that everyone enjoyed the ride. I am quite sure I left some in high disbelief, doubt and confusion, and I apologize for that. Hopefully I also left you with some questions and wonder about our place in the universe. I believe that doubt and wonder are the most powerful tools writers have to inspire their readers to start searching for truth and discard dogmatic belief. If researching and thinking about this article series brought me something, it would be the astonishment of and admiration for our very human ingenuity. Personally, I believe we will not be replaced by the machine gods we will create, but rather gradually merge with them, because they will be designed as part of us. Their capabilities will allow us to become more ourselves, more individual from but connected and kind to each other. Why do I think that? Because after all, it is in our hands to create them and with them our future. Starting today.


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Finally, as Carl Sagan (rephrasing Laplace) puts it: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I put up a short list of references to original articles or sources who elaborate on the facts and evidences about intelligent machines and the singularity. Feel free to give it a read if you want to know more about this topic.

Authors:

Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, David J. Chalmers

Insightful article series

Tim Urban’s waitbutwhy-blog