According to author David Noble, “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” This is a broad statement, but it is, in essence, a widely accepted idea, and the nature of artificial intelligence (AI) as we know it. It is why AI is pursued so fanatically by scientists and researchers. To be able to replicate man’s intelligence is to say one has the upper hand on God (and some believe this is actually possible). But what does the nature of AI really have to do with theology, and is it really possible to create an immortal mind from a mortal one?
According to the Religion of Technology (chapter 10): people are not unique in regards to consciousness and thought, and machines can have those qualities (whatever those qualities might be) just as well as people; immortality, in the sense of prolonging our current mode of life, will be accomplished by the transfer of identity and consciousness to machines; and machines will evolve and be immortal, while the human species will die out. If the mind is mankind’s heaven endowment and the above is actually true, how can the concepts of religion be separated from that of technology, which is borne of the mind of man?
In the book David Noble more specifically argues that technology is becoming the new religion, in the way that people harness and worship it, that is, new generations of people are seeing religion within technology as a means to attain immortality – and fully believe that we can go beyond religion and mortality through AI. He maintains that the “…link between religion and technology was …forged… a thousand years … back…when the useful arts first became implicated in the Christian project of redemption.” He goes on further to say that: “It is one of the most amazing facts of Western cultural history …that the striking acceleration and intensification of technological development in post-Carolingian Europe emanated from contemplative monasticism.”
While, as described, the first machines were built to replicate human thought, it was soon found that machines could in fact surpass human thought, and this became the goal of AI – that is, to go beyond. So even early on, technology was considered a means of immortality, as it was hoped that technology could extend life in ways that mortal man could not. The idea is that people die out, but machines do not.
If you consider, as the book proposes that technology has brought to humankind a sort of desire for universal knowledge, which could be considered, by some at least, a quest for God, it is easy to see the immortality present in technology. As those who seek to elevate it, in a sense, are seeking Heaven, a place of spiritual elevation, even if the goal in theory seems to be scientific. One theory of the text, then is that the use of technology to reach the divine is, once again, an attempt to bypass God’s grace to reach transcendence and immortality.
This is proven even in the fields of mathematics, a place where there is no room for the divine. As described, “…the mathematician George Boole had what he described as a “mystical” experience. “The thought flashed upon him suddenly one afternoon as he was walking across a field that his ambition in life was to explain the logic of human thought and to delve analytically into the spiritual aspects of man’s nature … the expression of logical relations in symbolic or algebraic form.” As discussed in the book, sometimes it’s not possible to separate an artist from his art, or a man from his religion; since for some, it’s all the same – that is, it all comes from the same place. The immortal part is that which creates the technology, the universality of man, and that part “is” immortal, and always was.
At the end of the book, the author states that: “If the religion of technology once fostered visions of social renovation, it also fueled fantasies of escaping society altogether … simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival.” He goes on to recommend that we “alter the ideological basis of the whole system … to embrace a new our one and only earthly existence.” While the development of AI was hoped to be a fruitful extension of human intelligence and experience, it has far surpassed what we value most about life and has created an immortal existence for its creators, people like creators like Alan Turing and Claude Shannon as well as those who built upon this technology. It has even been argued by some that cyberspace is itself a spiritual realm of intelligence.
Reading and analyzing The Religion of Technology has broadened my perspective by making me really consider not only how people view God and human intelligence, but also how they consider God’s part in today’s technological innovation, and whether technology actually does promise immortality. Authors and philosophers have been quoted as saying that God is dead, but I do not believe this is true. Technology has not and can not take the place of God. As stated in the book, “all men by nature possess natural arts” are those are God-given.
By transferring (or extending) our mind to machines, we can, in some way, become immortal, but I don’t think machines can or ever will be immortal because they lack the “spiritual” intelligence that is given to mankind.
- David F. Noble, Religion of Technology. Knopf, 1997.