Friday, August 21, 2015

The Global Avatar

Elon Musk, Steven Hawking, and a long list of scientists believe artificial intelligence is no longer science-fiction and may one day present a danger to society. Musk has likened super-intelligent machines to nuclear bombs and fears we may be "summoning a demon"; and Hawking has said that AI "could spell the end of the human race."

Given my writings over the years equating AI to the fearsome biblical entity known as the beast or Antichrist enslaving humanity in the end times, I thought I'd take the opportunity to expound on the notion of machine superintelligence and whether this is indeed what the bible is predicting.

In my opinion, the short answer is "not quite" and the long answer is that I've come to realize that the debate over artificial intelligence is much more complex and nuanced than I first considered many years ago.

To put it quite simply, the Skynet view of superintelligence espoused by Musk, Hawking, and others is probably too narrow. Believing AI will eventually outpace human-level intelligence and possibly wipe out the human race stems from an implicit assumption that technology and human society are evolving along somewhat separate, though parallel, lines. Thus, the thinking goes, at some point in the future, technology will become so advanced that it will develop a mind of its own and have no need for us. This is the AI-centric view since the focus is largely concerned with AI and its development over time.

On the other hand, there's a completely different view that sees technology and society mutually influencing one another in terms of a highly-integrated evolutionary process. This is what we might call the cybernetic view, incorporating the more recent framework of complex adaptive systems, which also places more emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between man and machine at both the individual and societal level (although cybernetics is not widely known, it did make its way into pop-culture via the prefix "cyber-" and the word "cyborg", which is short for cybernetic organism. At larger scales, human society, our economy, and financial markets are all examples of cybernetic organisms or, more commonly, complex adaptive systems.)

Extending this line of thinking further, there are many groups of people that are less concerned with technology developing a mind of its own but believe instead that technology + society = a global brain. Here is a summary of this view:
The Global Brain can be defined as the self-organizing network formed by all people on this planet together with the information and communication technologies that connect and support them. As the Internet becomes faster, smarter, and more encompassing, it increasingly links its users into a single information processing system, which functions like a nervous system for the planet Earth. The intelligence of this system is collective and distributed: it is not localized in any particular individual, organization or computer system. It rather emerges from the interactions between all its components—a property characteristic of a complex adaptive system. Such a distributed intelligence may be able to tackle current and emerging global problems that have eluded more traditional approaches. Yet, at the same time it will create technological and social challenges that are still difficult to imagine, transforming our society in all aspects. (Source)
Personally, I find this view makes much more sense. When viewing society and technology as an integrated organism, remarks made by Hawking, Musk, and others hold less relevance. If some Skynet-like superintelligence were to emerge from the billions of people across the earth integrated through cyberspace would it then try to kill us off—the very thing that gives it life? Not likely. Why? Because in this case, "it" is actually "we".

When the idea that the Antichrist (most often thought of as a terrible despotic leader of a one world government who hates Christians) may not actually be human but AI first occurred to me in the early 2000s, I thought of this mostly from the mechanistic/machine view of AI. Though I won't change the title of this blog, I think it's important to recognize this shift in thinking since, instead of the Antichrist and Beast killing all humans (the Skynet-Terminator view), we see that they are much more selective than that, killing only those who don't take the mark. Why is this important, you ask?

Well, because, if we view the beast from the global brain/cybernetic standpoint, it makes sense that it would not kill everyone off or pose a systemic threat in terms of man vs. machine since it really is an extension of man. There's a lot of ways we could discuss this but here's the easiest and simplest way to think about how these things fit together. Imagine if we took all the data that can be digitally stored from you—everything: every picture of you, website you've visited, phone conversation, email, google search, etc. and then used it to create a virtual avatar of yourself. Imagine we did this 15 years ago in the year 2000. Most likely, this avatar would be a fairly rough approximation given the lack of technology and data available at the time. But, as we move forward each year and as our technology improves and more and more of our lives become digitized and stored online, that avatar becomes more and more lifelike until eventually we could imagine that it would represent a very close approximation and could even trick many people into thinking that they were interacting with you (online that is). 

Of course, this is a variation of the Turing test, which Alan Turing proposed as a means of testing a "machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human." (Wikipedia) I use the avatar example because this puts the focus not so much on the intelligence of the machine but on the source and quality of the data, which comes from us.

Now, let's take this further and scale it up. It is highly unlikely in my mind that your virtual avatar or any individual avatar for that matter could actually become intelligent, self-aware, or conscious in the way you or I are for the simple reason that your data is an expression of you but it is not you. Intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness are real-time properties of living things. Unless your data is being stored in real-time through your brain waves and bodily functions, it will always be a shadow of the living you but not you largely given the difficulty of acquiring such data at a pervasive level. 

This is not the case for society. For the avatar-Turing test, imagine all the data being collected on everyone possible and then using that to create a composite image or avatar of the world. What would it look like? How would it think? Would it be intelligent? Would it be self-aware? How could it become more self-aware, intelligent, or powerful? How would it relate to those that refused to join and be a part of it? 

The answers to all these questions of course have already been provided. It will look like the world. It will think like the world. It will be superintelligent from the world's point-of-view. It will be self-aware since it is aware of you. It will become more self-aware, intelligent, and powerful by forcing the world to take the mark, which will give it unrestricted access to every one's data. Those unwilling to take the mark are automatic threats (since they exalt the individual over the collective good) and must be killed.

What is the beast then? The global brain governing itself to ensure its ongoing survival. Is it AI? Not exactly. It is part human, part machine, i.e. cybernetic. Who or what is the image of the beast, aka the Antichrist? Its incarnated form or physical avatar (in replacement of Christ) to serve as the voice, image, representative, and savior for the world. The bible says that the beast tells the world to create the image (a non-living thing) and then breathes life into it so, most likely, our technology at the time will allow for the creation of a synthetic human that will be infused with the power of the beast, Skynet, global brain—whatever you want to call it.