by Guy Brandon
August 29, 1997, 02:14 EST
Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that the rise of Artificial Intelligence will threaten the survival of humanity. He is one of a growing number of experts to suggest that self-aware and genuinely intelligent machines or software will become, as Tesla boss Elon Musk put it, the ‘biggest existential threat’ facing mankind over the course of the next century.
Artificial intelligence or AI has so far been the preserve of science fiction, and a lucrative subset of this genre (not least the Matrix and Terminator franchises) has explored the consequences for humans of sentient machines that decide we pose too much of a threat to their own existences. The reality is still some way off; early programs were woefully inadequate when faced with the Turing Test – the standard metric for AI, which involves fooling a human into thinking they are communicating with another human.
More recently, though, the sophistication of such technology and the rise of parallel ones – drones, driverless cars, big data and mass surveillance – provides more of the pieces for computers that pose a threat to their creators. Sir Clive Sinclair, creator of the iconic though not-particularly-intelligent ZX Spectrum back in the 1980s, agreed with Professor Hawking. ‘Once you start to make machines that are rivalling and surpassing humans with intelligence it’s going to be very difficult for us to survive…’
Messianism and technology
It seems that we can be just as pessimistic about technology as we can be irrationally hopeful. A more typical refrain is that technology will save us. New technologies will enable us to feed an exponentially-growing population, curb climate change, track and thwart terrorists, drive our cars safely and efficiently… and if it really comes to it, we can always abandon planet earth and start over somewhere else.
As George Monbiot writes in the Guardian, this is essentially the premise of the recent blockbuster, Interstellar. ‘“It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are,” the hero of Interstellar complains. “Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers ... We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.” This could be the epigraph of our age… It is also a classic exposition of two of the great themes of our age: technological optimism and political defeatism.’
We are not so much optimistic as messianic about technology, so perhaps it’s not surprising that an alternative narrative should also arise in the form of the technological Antichrist. Whether personified (as in the Matrix) or as a more generalised force (Hawking’s comments on the rise of AI), we can view certain technologies at a threat to our lives or liberties: something above us and apart from us, an entity that takes on its own identity and existence.
So, we believe technology offers us answers to seemingly intractable problems – but may also pose uncontrollable dangers. Either way, it’s a case of worshipping the created, not the Creator. In this instance, it’s even what our own hands have built, for good or ill.
And, in both cases, it encourages a fatalistic focus on what might be, not what is – the problems facing us and others with whom we share our planet now, over which we do have agency and that we can address, if we have the will. It allows us to abdicate responsibility because there are forces greater than us at work. (For Christians, the temptation towards this kind of fatalism can be even greater. Our focus on the world to come can lead us to overlook our divinely-mandated stewardship of this one.) In such a climate, the challenge for Christians is to remember that there is a force greater than us at work – it’s just not made of silicon.