Artificial Intelligence Mysticism

Life of Francis of Assisi by José Benlliure y Gil (Source Wikipedia)

Lots of recent writing on Artificial Intelligence is focused on the far off vista of human-level AI powered robots in everyday life. The main philosophical questions examine the age old human questions of sentience, autonomy, free will and self determination. We can now add spirituality to that list, strange as it may seem.

“…it stands to reason that AI will be able to teach us a thing or two about what it means to follow God.” Rev. Christopher Benek

On the face of it, this is rather strange to me. Today’s AIs are very mathematical and use well understood techniques (even if those techniques are sometimes surprisingly powerful but lacking theoretical understanding). So if eventually a human-level AI is created, we can be certain that we’ll be able to understand exactly what it is and how it works. But it won’t be following God.

This reminds me of a scene in the film Contact. Jodie Foster plays radio astronomer Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway, who discovers an encoded message being broadcast from an alien civilization in deep space. Invited to a briefing in the White House by Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett) to discuss this, she is very surprised by the opinions of Richard Rank, head of a conservative Christian organisation (played by Rob Lowe). At that point in the movie, the message itself consisted of a series of prime numbers accompanied by a large number of pages of engineering schematics. Their dialogue goes like this:

Rank: “My problem is this. The content of the message is morally ambiguous at best…”

Arroway: “This is nuts.”

Rank (forcefully): “Excuse me, Miss. We know nothing of these creatures’ values. The fact of the matter is we don’t even know if they believe in God.“

Arroway: “This doesn’t make any sense. If you were to ask…”

Constantine: “Excuse me Dr. Arroway. We won’t be suppressing any opinions here today.”

Although correct to point out that different people’s opinions should not be suppressed, it may also be the case that not all opinions have equal merit. This is particularly true when it comes to interpreting a set of mathematical equations, engineering schematics or algorithms.

The scientist Arroway and the religious Rank have such completely different perspectives and understanding of the same thing, they can’t even communicate properly.

But to state that an AI composed of algorithms would “participate in the process of discipleship and spiritual formation that is inherent to Christ’s redemptive purposes” – well, to quote Arroway: This doesn’t make any sense.

Source: Artificial Intelligence Will One Day Lead People to New Levels of Holiness.


Do Computers Think?

“Cogito, ergo sum (I am thinking, therefore I exist)”, as Rene Descartes famously proposed in 1637, has spawned almost four hundred years of philosophical debate on the nature of thinking and existing.

In this argument, he proposed that the only thing that he was absolutely certain about is that he exists, as he is here to think about existence. This is quite an abstract thought process so when we see the quote below, it naturally suggests computers are capable of similar philosophical musings.

Computers are learning to think, read, and write, says Bloomberg Beta investor Shivon Zilis.

via How Machine Learning Is Eating the Software World.

There have been many debates on the nature of thinking, especially over the last 50 years or so of the computer age. Most famous perhaps is the Chinese Room thought experiment proposed by the philosopher John Searle. His argument proposes that he is locked in a room. He does not speak or read any Chinese and only has a set of instructions which outline what Chinese symbols he is to respond with if he receives a set of Chinese symbols.

From outside the room, if we pass in a correct Chinese sentence or question to John, we will receive a correct response, even though John doesn’t speak Chinese and the instruction book certainly doesn’t either. We are led to deduce (erroneously) that there is a Chinese speaker in the room. (You can find out about his argument and some of the counter-arguments here on Wikipedia.)

Some of the achievements in Machine Learning are indeed impressive. But all such algorithms are the same as the Chinese Room. There is an actor (in this case the computer) carrying out a set of pre-defined instructions. Those instructions are complex and often achieve surprising results. But at no point can we safely deduce that the computer is actually thinking. We may say that today, computers do not think in the way that humans do and that the above quote is a bit of an exaggeration.

As the volume of articles written about Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence grows, we have to be careful not to unduly overstate the capabilities of these algorithms. We need to avoid the mistakes of the past where much was promised for AI and little delivered, to preserve the interest and funding for research.

Impressive? Yes. Interesting? Definitely. Thinking? No.