Computers and human brains were in the news this past week. Watson, an IBM supercomputer defeated two TV game champions on Jeopardy: Computer Wins on Jeopardy!: Trivial It’s Not. Leaving us to ask, what will they think up next?
At least for humans, the only interesting part of the game show was that there were humans in the game – for Jeopardy being played by three super computers would seem an unlikely winner in audience rating wars. (Not being a TV viewer myself, I read about Watson, but didn’t see it on the tube).
While Watson may have been a show stopper, it represents the huge advances in artificial intelligence which have been made in recent years. Computers are becoming more adept at interacting with their human inventors. The pace at which changes and improvements in computing are taking place continue to increase at an exponential rate – even the rate of change is advancing exponentially.
All this has led Raymond Kurzweil to predict: 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. The amazing speed at which changes are taking place in computing defies our ability to predict what will the near future hold – will it be the singularity? (The “singularity” is “The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”) Will computer intelligence so outstrip human intelligence that the computers will take over all manners of human thinking and begin solving problems on their own and creating a better world (or at least a world based solely in knowledge, logic, mathematics and intelligence)? The TIME magazine article looks not only at how computers might take over creation, but how human intelligence might become one with artificial intelligence allowing humans to become immortal on and through the internet, and also how some people are beginning to believe aging and death itself can be overcome by science (those 900 year old personages of Genesis might not be so unbelievable after all!).
It gives me so much to think about that I don’t know what to think. The exponential advances in computing technology are real enough, but the singularity may be more a religious belief than scientific fact or possibility. (see my The Singularity is Near Gnosticism). What will be, we cannot yet know, but it seems quite possible to me that the human mind will not be transferable to a digital format, since the connection between the mind and an organic brain may be inseparable. Computers may advance to levels not yet imagined, but they will emerge from previous generations of computers which will limit their advancement and make them always reliant on the past, on what programmed them, on what is, because they are pushed from behind not pulled by and toward the not yet existing future. Unless of course the anthropic principle is at work, or God.
The other article that caught my attention was in the March 2011 Discover Magazine, “The Unlocked Mind” or “Back from the Brink”, which dealt with experiments and medical advances in dealing with severely brain injured patients, some who are considered to be in a vegetative state. Medical science has shown that some of these patients have some ability to respond to questions – there is someone still there in certain cases. While Kurzweil and company are seeking ways to escape the mind’s bond to the brain, neuroscientists are working hard to try to reconnect the mind to the brain in these brain damaged patients. Both are working on the limits of the mind, of being human, and neither like those limits much.
The work of the neuroscientists also left me not knowing what to think of patients in a vegetative state. When is the time to admit that nothing more can be done for them? When do we move from trusting medical science to keep hope alive to trusting in the hope which is God? Is our fear of letting them go based in a fear of mortality because we do not believe there is anything beyond this world? Is that what drives Kurzweil to seek immortality on the Internet?
Ultimately, a question about what it means to be human is whether the human being is really nothing more than an organic computer which can be replaced in the world by human invention – artificial intelligence. Or perhaps is the human inventiveness which creates a new form of intelligence the greatest sign that human intelligence must have a creator as well?
If there is more to being human than just a mind, if there is a connection to the eternal God – the soul, if existence is not coterminous with intelligence, then maybe the Kurzweils of the world are looking in the wrong direction and they need to look inwardly into the human heart as Orthodox Christian tradition would have it to find eternal life, that life which is not limited by injury or aging or even by death itself.