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“A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God”*…

A scan of the workings of an automaton of a friar, c1550. Possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano (c1500-85), probably Spanish.

The wooden monk, a little over two feet tall, ambles in a circle. Periodically, he raises a gripped cross and rosary towards his lips and his jaw drops like a marionette’s, affixing a kiss to the crucifix. Throughout his supplications, those same lips seem to mumble, as if he’s quietly uttering penitential prayers, and occasionally the tiny monk will raise his empty fist to his torso as he beats his breast. His head is finely detailed, a tawny chestnut colour with a regal Roman nose and dark hooded eyes, his pate scraped clean of even a tonsure. For almost five centuries, the carved clergyman has made his rounds, wound up by an ingenious internal mechanism hidden underneath his carved Franciscan robes, a monastic robot making his clockwork prayers.

Today his home is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, but before that he resided in that distinctly un-Catholic city of Geneva. His origins are more mysterious, though similar divine automata have been attributed to Juanelo Turriano, the 16th-century Italian engineer and royal clockmaker to the Habsburgs. Following Philip II’s son’s recovery from an illness, the reverential king supposedly commissioned Turriano to answer God’s miracle with a miracle of his own. Scion of the Habsburgs’ massive fortune of Aztec and Incan gold, hammer against the Protestant English and patron of the Spanish Inquisition, Philip II was every inch a Catholic zealot whom the British writer and philosopher G K Chesterton described as having a face ‘as a fungus of a leprous white and grey’, overseeing his empire in rooms where ‘walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin’. It’s a description that evokes similarly uncanny feelings for any who should view Turriano’s monk, for there is one inviolate rule about the robot: he is creepy.

Elizabeth King, an American sculptor and historian, notes that an ‘uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata: it is not charming, it is not a toy … it engages even the 20th-century viewer in a complicated and urgent way.’ The late Spanish engineer José A García-Diego is even more unsparing: the device, he wrote, is ‘considerably unpleasant’. One reason for his unsettling quality is that the monk’s purpose isn’t to provide simulacra of prayer, but to actually pray. Turriano’s device doesn’t serve to imitate supplication, he is supplicating; the mechanism isn’t depicting penitence, the machine performs it…

The writer Jonathan Merritt has argued in The Atlantic that rapidly escalating technological change has theological implications far beyond the political, social and ethical questions that Pope Francis raises, claiming that the development of self-aware computers would have implications for our definition of the soul, our beliefs about sin and redemption, our ideas about free will and providence. ‘If Christians accept that all creation is intended to glorify God,’ Merritt asked, ‘how would AI do such a thing? Would AI attend church, sing hymns, care for the poor? Would it pray?’ Of course, to the last question we already have an answer: AI would pray, because as Turriano’s example shows, it already has. Pope Francis also anticipated this in his November prayers, saying of AI ‘may it “be human”.’

While nobody believes that consciousness resides within the wooden head of a toy like Turriano’s, no matter how immaculately constructed, his disquieting example serves to illustrate what it might mean for an artificial intelligence in the future to be able to orient itself towards the divine. How different traditions might respond to this is difficult to anticipate. For Christians invested in the concept of an eternal human soul, a synthetic spirit might be a contradiction. Buddhist and Hindu believers, whose traditions are more apt to see the individual soul as a smaller part of a larger system, might be more amenable to the idea of spiritual machines. That’s the language that the futurist Ray Kurzweil used in calling our upcoming epoch the ‘age of spiritual machines’; perhaps it’s just as appropriate to think of it as the ‘Age of Turriano’, since these issues have long been simmering in the theological background, only waiting to boil over in the coming decades.

If an artificial intelligence – a computer, a robot, an android – is capable of complex thought, of reason, of emotion, then in what sense can it be said to have a soul? How does traditional religion react to a constructed person, at one remove from divine origins, and how are we to reconcile its role in the metaphysical order? Can we speak of salvation and damnation for digital beings? And is there any way in which we can evangelise robots or convert computers? Even for steadfast secularists and materialists, for whom those questions make no philosophical sense for humans, much less computers, that this will become a theological flashpoint for believers is something to anticipate, as it will doubtlessly have massive social, cultural and political ramifications.

This is no scholastic issue of how many angels can dance on a silicon chip, since it seems inevitable that computer scientists will soon be able to develop an artificial intelligence that easily passes the Turing test, that surpasses the understanding of those who’ve programmed it. In an article for CNBC entitled ‘Computers Will Be Like Humans By 2029’ (2014), the journalist Cadie Thompson quotes Kurzweil, who confidently (if controversially) contends that ‘computers will be at human levels, such as you can have a human relationship with them, 15 years from now.’ With less than a decade left to go, Kurzweil explains that he’s ‘talking about emotional intelligence. The ability to tell a joke, to be funny, to be romantic, to be loving, to be sexy, that is the cutting edge of human intelligence, that is not a sideshow.’

Often grouped with other transhumanists who optimistically predict a coming millennium of digital transcendence, Kurzweil is a believer in what’s often called the ‘Singularity’, the moment at which humanity’s collective computing capabilities supersede our ability to understand the machines that we’ve created, and presumably some sort of artificial consciousness develops. While bracketing out the details, let’s assume that Kurzweil is broadly correct that, at some point in this century, an AI will develop that outstrips all past digital intelligences. If it’s true that automata can then be as funny, romantic, loving and sexy as the best of us, it could also be assumed that they’d be capable of piety, reverence and faith. When it’s possible to make not just a wind-up clock monk, but a computer that’s actually capable of prayer, how then will faith respond?..

Can a robot pray? Does an AI have a soul? Advances in automata raise theological debates that will shape the secular world; from Ed Simon (@WithEdSimon): “Machine in the ghost.” Do read the piece in full.

Then, for a different (but in the end, not altogether contradictory) view: “The Thoughts The Civilized Keep.”

And for another (related) angle: “Is it OK to torture a computer program?

For more on the work of sculptor and historian Elizabeth King on the Smithsonian automaton friar, please see her articles here and here, and her forthcoming book, Mysticism and Machinery.

Alan Perlis (first recipient of the Turing Award)

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As we enlarge the tent, we might send revelatory birthday greetings to Albert Hofmann; he was born on this date in 1906.  As a young chemist at Sandoz in Switzerland, Hofmann was searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant when he fabricated lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); handling it, he absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943– a day now known as “Bicycle Day”– Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD then rode home on a bike, a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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