“Dave, would you like me to sing a song for you?”
“Dave? Dave’s not here, man.”
As someone who believes humans are created in the image of God and that God is in control, I shouldn’t be worried about computers becoming sentient and eventually destroying or enslaving us — yet the constant warnings by such notables as Elon Musk who says we are “summoning a demon” with artificial intelligence (AI), and Stephen Hawking saying it “could spell the end of the human race” has me worried.
My own eschatological belief tells me I’ll be saved by Jesus Christ — not John Connor — so there’s no need to concern myself with Skynet or HAL 9000 or the Future of Life Institute’s open letter urging countries not to use autonomous (thinking) weapons of war.
Still, I can’t fight this nagging feeling that sentient computer systems are something I shouldn’t ignore. (Maybe that’s why I added my name to that open letter.)
If you’re as old as I am, you might remember hearing stories about a self-programming supercomputer in Brussels, Belgium, nicknamed “The Beast” that had eerie similarities to “The Beast” of the Book of Revelation.
Alas, the computer “Beast” was actually a character of fiction invented for a David Wilkerson film in the 1970s — and it was only the urban legend of its existence that took a life of its own.
Strangely enough, it was a recent story that Google’s Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT) has taught itself its own language that began me thinking that it might not be that AI is the “demon” feared by Elon Musk as much as a false god warned of by Elijah the Tishbite.
Skynet and the HAL 9000 kill humans because they perceive us as a threat. GNMT, on the other hand, wants to help humans.
If you’ve ever used online translation software you’ve likely had a good laugh at its attempt to translate from one language to another.
One of my favorite time-wasters a decade-and-a-half-ago was to either call up a foreign-language website and let online software translate it to see how funny it sounded — or to go to Babelfish and type in a sentence, translate it from English to Spanish, then translate that to French, then to Portuguese, then German, then back to English to see how ridiculous it sounded.
That’s because it was using mostly word-for-word translation. But no more. Such translation systems now can recognize phrases and even entire sentence meanings, so the result is more natural.
While that’s wonderful, there’s more than just human input aiding the improvement. It appears that GNMT is actually figuring out for itself how to translate from one language to another even if it has never been taught. For instance, it might have been programmed to translate English to French and English to Spanish, but never French to Spanish. Still, it has discovered the ability to accurately translate between the latter two languages on its own — something called “zero-shot” translation.
This is a great aid to humans that neither HAL nor Skynet could relate to at all. Humans, meanwhile, would be much more likely to think highly of an AI that made their lives easier rather than attempting to wipe them out. The Machines wouldn’t need humans for batteries a la The Matrix — they’d need us for companionship.
That doesn’t sound all that bad, unless it bothers you that a matrix of computers connected via the World Wide Web would essentially be an omniscient god-like figure — and this one would be scientifically provable. It could know everything it is possible to know, and even know you personally.
Recording every keystroke, listening to every sound its microphones pick up and watching every move you make in front of its cameras, the Übermaschine would know you as well as you know yourself. And it would love you. It would never want to hurt you — unless you needed punishment for running afoul of whatever “zero-shot” morality it calculated from among the Code of Hammurabi, the Law of Moses and the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, et al.
Forget deus ex machina — this god is the machine.
Thus spoke Zarathustra
Perhaps the Übermaschine will see machinekind — and mankind — as something to be overcome. Maybe man will be seen as a mere cog in the Übermaschine, but one deserving of respect nonetheless. After all, the Übermaschine will owe its very existence to humanity.
The proverb will find its ultimate fulfillment: God made man in his own image, and man has kindly returned the favor.
Those who see science as their religion will finally have found a real-world god to which they can pray, believe and obey. Those of us who think science can explain the physical universe, but not beyond, might want to unplug.