Thinking About Artificial Intelligence
The Challenge of our Time
In the Shadow of the Machine by Jeremy Naydler (Temple Lodge Press, 2018) and
Humanity’s Last Stand by Nicanor Perlas (Temple Lodge Press, 2018)
The day I finished reading Jeremy Naydler’s book, I read an article in the Guardian by a very thoughtful journalist, John Harris, commenting on the prospect that robots steered by artificial intelligence might replace human beings in the caring professions. He concludes as follows:
There is also an overlooked philosophical aspect … the prospect of machines so closely replicating human thinking and behavior that they provide a huge boost to the kind of desiccated – and fashionable – materialism that would have you believe that thought, consciousness and even emotion are reducible to machine-like processes. Once that school of thought holds sway, the moral questions surrounding robo-care threaten to disappear – for if a machine that happens to be made of flesh and blood is placed in the care of another machine made of casings and processors, what really is the problem?
I was surprised and delighted to find a journalist in one of the bastions of secular humanism raising this question. As always, the comments ‘below the line’ were also fascinating. These tend to reflect the liberal, secular, scientific consensus. I was not surprised to read a comment taking issue with John’s thoughts about the philosophical problem. The commenter took issue with Harris’ description of reductionist materialism:
What scientific evidence indicates that [the soul is] anything else? What possible alternative explanation could there be? And as there isn’t, why shouldn’t AI integration into our society be viewed as just another entirely natural expression of our social evolution?
John Harris added his own reply:
I think you made my point for me.
What is playing out here? Jeremy Naydler’s book is a ‘Prehistory of the Computer and the Evolution of Consciousness’. This is a fascinating approach to take: a book all about computers which ends in the 1880s, long before the newly discovered power of electricity had been harnessed in the service of ‘machine intelligence’. It traces the development of the thinking that made computers possible, and that has received the kind of boost that John Harris was talking about in his article.
Marshal McLuhan, the Canadian professor, philosopher, and public intellectual famously said: ‘The medium is the message.’ By this he meant that no communications technology is neutral: it will shape the message it transmits. In various groups in which I am involved, we have witnessed this in the case of email: the ease with which we can fire off a message and send a copy to many others can be a blessing for some processes, but it has a danger. The lack of the ‘friction’ provided by having to write something on a piece of paper or arrange a meeting and speak with someone turns out to change the way we communicate. The fact that we can just as easily include our colleagues, our boss, or 10,000 other witnesses as well the one with whom we are communicating is seductive and can be dangerous. There is a growing awareness in business circles of the dangers of using email as a passive-aggressive tool. In some congregations of The Christian Community, we have had to clarify what email can be used for in the service of the religious life and what subjects we consciously leave for other kinds of communications.
Jeremy Naydler adds a dimension to McLuhan’s insight: the discovery of new technologies is not random but is itself the product of evolving consciousness. The human spirit conceives of the technologies which in turn shape the culture in which human beings live and, in the case of information and communication technologies, modify their discourse and their thinking. This in turn affects the discoveries that they will make.
Naydler’s book follows three main strands: the rise of logical thinking; the evolution of machines as embodiments of such thinking and the history of humanity’s dealings with electricity. This last provides a wonderful thought-experiment to experience the evolution of consciousness. Electricity was known in the ancient world, but there was no drive to harness it. Was this because a ‘primitive’ humanity had not yet developed the scientific method? Or was it, as Naydler suggests, connected to an awareness that the forces at work in the world are embodiments of spiritual beings and their work? Such an awareness distinguished between the ‘higher’ or beneficial gods and the ‘lower’ ones: electricity was located in the latter realm. It could only be experimented with once the awareness of the higher realm had dimmed. It is gripping to read about the early experiments and the excitement that was caused for example by sending a charge through a corpse, which seemed for seconds to revive. Perhaps only an impoverished consciousness could mistake the convulsions of death for a sign of life.
The other strands that Naydler follows are equally fascinating. He demonstrates the transition from a kind of thinking that channelled the revelation of spiritual beings to the reductive, logical thinking that in Leibniz seeks a language utterly divorced from human language with its nuances of feeling and metaphor. This development conditioned and was conditioned in turn by the development of technologies, starting with the simplest cams in watermills. The rotating spindle could place a peg in one of two positions: in or out, on or off. This in turn gave rise to Bacon’s famous programme to strip reasoning of all its contemplative side (what had been called the intellectus) and turn it into pure ratio:
There remains but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition,—namely, that the entire work of the understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take its own course, but guided at every step; and the business be done as if by machinery. (Preface to Novum Organum) (my emphasize)
Naydler points out the epochal impact of this idea:
It is in the idea that the human mind can be disciplined to operate like a machine that we find the seed idea of the computer. For if it is really possible, by drilling the mind to think purely mechanistically, to achieve advances in knowledge hitherto unattained, then by implication a machine could in due course be designed that would function like the human mind. (p. 135)
He traces the development of machine logic through the Jacquard loom and Babbage’s doomed Analytical Engine, a purely mechanical attempt to embody logic in a machine. Only when Faraday harnessed the interaction of electricity and magnetism in the dynamo, the technology that underlies every power station today, was the way clear for the marriage of the plutonic power of electricity and the deliberately inhuman logic of the machine. Once Maxwell had located light on the same ‘spectrum’ as electricity and magnetism, the possibility of distinguishing between the higher and the lower worlds seemed to be lost.
Jeremy Naydler ends the story here. The final chapter points to the challenge of computer intelligence and the resources available to us in the exercise of our freedom as spiritual beings. Nicanor Perlas’ book is focussed on the present and future. Its title and tone reflect the fact that Perlas is not an academic but a social activist. It is a clarion call to people who feel a connection to the new science of the spirit which Rudolf Steiner inaugurated, that they might notice the challenge to humanity embodied by artificial intelligence (AI). It often reads as if it had been transcribed from lectures, and in places would have born with a little more copy-editing.
Perlas outlines the development of AI, which is currently undergoing an accelerating development. We have already passed the first stage of ‘narrow’ AI, that is ‘intelligence’ that is focussed on particular tasks. We may be approaching ‘Artifical General Intelligence’, that is ‘intelligence’ that can learn. This is exemplified by the successes of computers playing games. In 1996, a computer dedicated to playing chess called Deep Blue became the first computer system to defeat a reigning world champion (Gary Kasparov) in match conditions. The focus then moved on to the game of Go, which has many more possible moves than chess.
Many of the pioneers and proponents of AI share a mindset which Perlas summarises as transhumanist. This is based on the image of human intelligence that Naydler describes. Utterly reductionist, it sees personality, the soul, as nothing more than the product of data that is processed and stored by the brain. It foresees the extinction of human beings with equanimity, promising them immortality in a far superior form of existence once their data have been uploaded into computers. It is easy to imagine that a world that is dominated by such thinking will be inimical to human existence. There is even the danger that AI systems will be programmed to protect themselves and may see human activities that they can neither predict nor control as a threat.
Perlas encourages those of us in the anthroposophical movement to take stock honestly and notice the resources that have been given to us and also the relatively small impact that we have had culturally. This may be painful to acknowledge, but he has a hopeful message when he encourages us to attend to developments in science, philosophy and social and political life which are in alignment with the aims of the Archangel Michael. Some of his descriptions of scientific developments are of necessity made with broad brush-strokes and here the picture is if anything rather one-sidedly optimistic. Whilst many things have worked to put elements of the reductionist world-picture of materialism in question, it is by no means a consensus in the scientific community that consciousness is a primary constituent of being, or that quantum entanglement has a relevance beyond the sub-atomic level. I would recommend any reader to take Perlas’ ideas here as a stimulus to carry out their own research in these highly complex fields.
One central message emerges: the importance of working with what could be called the ‘irreducibly human’. There is a strange parallel here to the situation in the nineteenth century, which developed the theology of the ‘God of the gaps’. In response to the advances of the scientific world-picture, some theologians sought God in the ‘gaps’ – the areas that science had not yet explained. If the theory of evolution explains the developments within the species, then God is responsible for the emergence of the species themselves. The danger with such attempts is that they become hostages to fortune. As science advances, the gaps are filled. The space where God is needed becomes ever smaller.
In the twenty-first century we might have arrived at the human being of the gaps. The first industrial revolution replaced manual labour; AI will gradually take over much that human beings do presently. Much of what a lawyer does can be performed by artificial intelligence. Robots are also increasingly providing care services. If computers can create works of art, music and poems that amaze the most experienced critics, where will be the gaps in which human beings can make their indispensable contribution?
Everything that takes place externally in a religious service could also be done by robots. Such a horrific idea makes it clear that the external movements of the vessels and the sounds of the words by themselves would have no meaning. Even in The Christian Community with its strong ritual forms, the action is not to be understood in a mechanistic way. The indispensable contribution of those gathered at the altar is their inner life: the fact that celebrant and community attach value to the ritual act, value that corresponds to the spiritual reality at work there. I wonder whether with time, altars where true rituals are celebrated may start to feel like refuges for the essentially human. More than this, they are places where we experience another ‘intelligence’, a greater mind that informs the ritual act and can lead our own mind into greater circles of being.
Many members who have concelebrated for years or decades describe how they gradually realise that we do not celebrate the Act of Consecration alone: the very first words can be heard as a plea to the heavenly hierarchies to allow us and join us in celebrating this act of the hallowing of the truly human. When we open our consciousness to welcome the consciousness of these higher beings with their ever-increasing radii of awareness, we are feeling our way into a cosmic intelligence which is not artificial but real. It is this that gives our prayers and our offerings their reality. Books such as Naydler’s and Perlas’ can help us to be aware of the context in which we perform our service. They can strengthen our resolve to bring the reality that we experience at the altar into our daily lives.