ARE WE SPIRITUAL MACHINES? | The Beginning of a Debate

June 7, 2001
George Gilder, Jay W. Richards
Discovery Institute (2001)

are we spirital machines

This volume springs from the crucible of controversy that climaxesevery Gilder-Forbes Telecosm conference. Conducted by Gilder Publishingwith Forbes every September in Lake Tahoe, the event brings togethercomputer and network experts, high tech CEO’s and venture capitalists,inventors and scientists. While most of the panels introduce newcompanies and technologies on the frontiers of the nation’seconomy, the closing session waxes philosophical and teleological,addressing the meanings and goals of the new machines. At Telecosm’98 the closing topic was whether the technologies introducedin the earlier sessions might ultimately attain consciousness andusurp their creators.

Affirming the hypothesis of man-machine convergence is a theorycalled “Strong Artificial Intelligence” (AI), which arguesthat any computational process sufficiently capable of alteringor organizing itself can produce “consciousness.” Thefinal session in 1998 centered on a forthcoming landmark in thefield, a book by gifted inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist RayKurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking, 1999).

Now available in paperback, this book was a more ambitious sequelto Kurzweil’s The Age of Intelligent Machines (Cambridge:MIT Press, 1990), in which he made some remarkably prescient predictions about future developments in information technology. He even predicted correctly the year when a computer would first beat a Chess Masterat his own game. As we all know, a special purpose IBM supercomputernamed Deep Blue vanquished Gary Kasparov just seven years afterhe had denied that such a feat was possible. At a minimum, Kurzweildemonstrated that he understood chess more fully than Kasparov understoodcomputing.

Kurzweil’s record as a technology prophet spurred interestin his more provocative prediction that within a few decades, computerswill attain a level of intelligence and consciousness both qualitativelyand quantitatively beyond human capabilities. Affirming Hans Moravec’sassertion that even “a genetically engineered superhuman wouldbe just a second-rate kind of robot,” he concluded that furtherevolution of our species will be inextricably bound to our abilityto enhance our bodies and minds with integrated computer prosthetics.

Needless to say, this is an affrontal idea, and we wanted someserious intellectuals to interact on it. For that reason, we broughttogether a diverse panel to respond to Kurzweil, albeit all criticsof strong AI, which included philosopher John Searle, biologist Michael Denton, zoologist and evolutionary algorithm theorist TomRay, and philosopher and mathematician William Dembski. Denton and Dembski are Fellows of Discovery Institute, which helped arrangethe panel.

In the discussion, a cluster of important questions emerged: Whatis a person? What is a human person? What is consciousness? Willa computer of sufficient complexity become conscious? Are we essentially computers ourselves? Or are we really software stuck in increasinglyobsolete, fleshy hardware? Can biological organisms be reduced totheir material parts? How are we related to our technology? Is thematerial world all there is? What is our purpose and destiny?

Although Artificial Intelligence may seem like an esoteric topicwith little relevance to anything else, in fact, many of the mostimportant questions we face from technology to theology convergeon this single subject.

This Telecosm ‘98 session was so engaging, and theissues it raised so important, that it deserved a wider audience. For that reason, the Discovery Institute decided to produce thisvolume, with the agreement and hard work of the contributors, especially Ray Kurzweil, who is the centerpiece of attention. We don’tintend for it to resolve the larger issues, but rather to initiatean important conversation as well as to expose a broader audienceto a topic that primarily has been the domain of philosophers, scientistsand computer geeks.

Each of these scholars brings a unique expertise and perspectiveto the topic, including a diversity of worldviews. A clash of worldviewsevokes the commonplace metaphor of an elephant hiding in the corner.Everyone sees it but few are willing to point it out. Moreover thespecialists in the field all too often focus on the trunk or tailor thickness of the skin or complexity of the DNA or nature of theecological niche alone and remain blind to the larger or holisticdimensions of the animal. Some wonder, “Is it really God?”Others banish the thought. Kurzweil speaks of spiritual machines,yet focuses on materialist explanations. Others believe that thejungle of philosophy is full of metaphysical elephants. Most ofthe interesting (and pachydermic) creatures in the AI debate embodylarger, unannounced, and often thick-skinned assumptions about humannature and physical nature.

We would say that Kurzweil, Searle, and Ray are philosophical “naturalists”or “materialists.” They assume but don’t actuallysay that the material world “is all there is, or ever was,or ever will be” [Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: BallantineBooks, 1993, p. 4]. While they disagree on important details, theyagree that everything can or at least should be described in termsof chance and impersonal natural law without reference to any sortof transcendent intelligence or mind. To them, ideas are epiphenomenaof matter.

Nevertheless, they express this perspective in different ways.Kurzweil is an intriguing and subtle advocate of Strong ArtificialIntelligence. He believes that with neurological architecture, sufficientcomplexity, and the right combination of analog and digital processes,computers will become “spiritual” like we are. His referencesto spirituality might lead one to suspect that he departs from naturalism. But Kurzweil is careful with his definition. By saying computers will become spiritual, he means that they will become conscious. While this differs from the arid materialism of Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, who treat consciousness as anillusion, the identification of the spirit with consciousness isa naturalistic strategem.

Searle shares Kurzweil’s naturalism, but not his penchant for seeing computation and consciousness on a continuum. In hisessay, Searle makes use of his telling Chinese Room Argument. For Searle, no computer, no matter how souped up, will ever become conscious,because, in his words, it is not designed to produce consciousness.The brain, unlike a computer, is designed to produce consciousness. Any artificial hardware system that does so will need to be designedwith the requisite causal powers. This appeal to teleology is an odd argument for a naturalist like Searle to make, since it seemsto draw on resources he doesn’t have. Nevertheless, Searlesees the difference between computation and consciousness as obvious,even if the distinction doesn’t fit comfortably with his metaphysicalpreferences.

Thomas Ray has some specific disagreements with Kurzweil, but he doesn’t object to the idea that computer technology might eventuall yevolve its own type of conscious intelligence if allowed to do soin an appropriate environment, such as unused portions of computersand the Internet. After all, he reasons, environment and purposeless selection evolved biological organisms into conscious intelligenceon Earth. Who’s to say that, given the right environment andselection pressure, our information technology won’t do thesame?

Denton and Dembski, in contrast, believe there’s more to realitythan the material world. Denton is cautious here, but he impliesthat biological organisms transcend physics and chemistry. Whilethey may depend on these lower levels, they can’t be reducedto them. Thus he speaks of “emergence” in a differentway. While materialists use the term to mean the spontaneous andunguided evolution of complex phenomena, Denton implies that thingsevolve according to some sort of intelligent plan or purpose. Themechanistic paradigm forces a false reductionism of organisms tomachines. Kurzweil, according to Denton, has not properly attendedto the important distinctions between them.

Dembski’s critique is more explicitly theistic, and, likeDenton, he criticizes Kurzweil for identifying persons with machines.He is the only one explicitly to criticize Kurzweil for what hecalls “tender-minded materialism.” In his essay he arguesthat Kurzweil’s materialism doesn’t do justice to humanpersons and intelligent agents generally. Like Searle, but froma quite different perspective, he says that Kurzweil has underestimatedthe challenges to his project.

To avoid an unbalanced and unfair volume, in which four criticsline up against one advocate, we have included Kurzweil’s individualresponses to his critics, and left them without editorial comment.Inspired by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia Statute of ReligiousLiberty is appropriate here: “Truth is great and will prevailif left to herself. . . . She is the proper and sufficient antagonistto error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by humaninterposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument anddebate.”

Bill Joy’s Left Turn

Kurzweil’s ideas have already had a profound effect on thosewho have heard them. One well-known effect came from a Telecosm‘98 conferee who missed the actual Kurzweil session. Bill Joy,co-founder of Sun Microsystems, happened to sit with Kurzweil inthe lounge after the closing session, and Kurzweil briefed him onhis vision for the future. Joy was deeply affected, because he knewthat Kurzweil was one of the great intellects of the industry, apioneer of computer voice recognition and vision. Coming from Kurzweil,what had previously seemed like science fiction now appeared toJoy as “a near-time possibility.” As a result, Joy publishedhis alarm in the April 2000 issue of Wired (“Why the futuredoesn’t need us.”) The eloquent and stirring ten-thousandword personal testament evoked more mail and comment than any previousarticle in the magazine (or in any other magazine in recent memory).The difference is that while Kurzweil is upbeat about the futurehe sees, Joy is filled with dread.

Kurzweil’s argument, and now Joy’s, drastically compressedand simplified, is that Moore’s Law, which for almost 40 yearshas predicted the doubling of computer power roughly every 18 months,is not going to expire later this decade. Of course traditionalchip manufacturing techniques will hit the quantum barrier of near-atomicline-widths. Nevertheless, Joy now believes that “because ofthe recent rapid and radical progress in molecular electronics—whereindividual atoms and molecules replace lithographically drawn transistors—andrelated nanoscale technologies, we should be able to meet or exceedthe Moore’s Law rate of progress for another thirty years.”The result would be machines a million times as fast and capaciousas today’s personal computers and thereby “sufficientto implement the dreams of Kurzweil and Moravec,” that is,intelligent robots by 2030. And “once an intelligent robotexists it is only a small step to a robot species—to an intelligentrobot that can make evolved copies of itself.”

Joy’s nightmares do not stop with sentient machines. Intimatelyrelated are the very “nanotechnologies” that may enablethe extension of Moore’s Law with genetic engineering. Centralto this GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics) trinity of techno-terrorare two characteristics that could hardly be better calculated toinspire fear. The first is what Joy calls the “dematerialization”of industrial power. In the past, you needed rare resources, largenuclear plants, and huge laboratories to launch a new holocaust.In the future you will need only a computer and a few widely availablematerials.

The even more terrifying common thread is “self-replication.”As enormous computing power is combined with “the manipulativeadvances of the physical sciences” and the revealed mysteriesof genetics, “The replicating and evolving processes that havebeen confined to the natural world are about to become realms ofhuman endeavor.” New germs are self-replicating by definition.So too, Joy’s “robot species.” And then there isthe gray goo.

Joy’s journey from his Silicon Valley throne to his currentsiege of Aspen Angst began in earnest when he encountered Eric Drexler’sbipolar vision of nanotechnology, with its manic-depressive alternativefutures of utopia and dystopia. Nanotechnology envisages the ultimatecreation of new machines and materials, proton by proton, electronby electron, atom by atom. Despite its potential for good, the nightmareis that combined with genetic materials we could create nanobots—self-replicatingentities that could multiply themselves into a “gray goo,”outperforming photosynthesis and usurping the entire biosphere,including all edible plants and animals.

As terrifying as all this is, Joy’s nightmare has one moretwist: “The nuclear, biological and chemical technologies usedin 20th century weapons of mass destruction were . . . developedin government laboratories,” Joy notes. But GNR technologieshave “clear commercial uses.” They are being developedby “corporate enterprises” which will render them “phenomenally”profitable. Joy has transformed Kurzweil’s hopeful vision offreedom and creativity into a Sci-Fi Doomsday scenario.

Joy, whose decades of unfettered research and entrepreneurshiphave made him what he is today, has fingered the real culprits:capitalism and freedom. Fortunately he has the answer, which hedelicately phrases as “relinquishment” of key GNR technologies.

Relinquishment means what it seems to mean: to give up; forgo;abandon not only the use of such technologies but even the basicresearch that might enable them “to limit the development ofthe technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuitof certain types of knowledge.” Such relinquishment will requirea pre-emptively intrusive, centralized regulatory scheme controlled,of course, by the federal government. The spectacle of one of theworld’s leading techno-entrepreneurs offering himself as theprime witness for the prosecution (that is, the anti-capitalistleft) against his own class is transforming Joy into a celebrityintellectual and political force.

It’s amazing what one late night conversation in a bar canset in motion. Joy chose to sound the alarm and call out the cavalry.Perhaps this volume can help get that original debate back on track.In any event, no one should interpret the philosophical criticismsof Kurzweil’s views in the following pages as endorsementsof Joy’s thesis.

Conflicting Visions of the Future—and Reality

Still, Joy’s public response does help underscore a profoundlyimportant issue: What will happen when our technological achievementsgive us Promethean powers—powers once thought the exclusiveprovince of God—just when most of those in charge have ceasedto believe in anyone or anything like God?

Many scientists and intellectuals today are very confident thatthey can do without God. That confidence takes one of two basicforms. The first, cheerful but somewhat hollow, is much in evidencein following pages. Kurzweil, for instance, snatches purpose froma purposeless evolutionary process by defining evolution as thepurpose of life. The second is ably represented by Joy. For Joyand those of similar persuasion, the future is a source of fear.They can find no answer but brutal exertions of power to terminatethe uncertain bounties of human creativity. Their modern naturalisticworldview renders human life and history accidental, unlikely, andsure of a bad end.

Seeing history as a domain of mere chance, they wish to bring itto a halt. Seeing that science cannot prove a negative—guaranteethat some invention will not cause a catastrophe—they insiston a “cautionary principle” for new technology that wouldnot have allowed a caveman to build a fire. After all, over themillennia millions of people have died from fire. Seeing that sciencecannot assure safety, they believe that the endless restlessnessand creativity of human beings is a threat rather than an opportunityor a gift.

The human race has prevailed against the plagues and scarcitiesof its past, not through regulation or “relinquishment”but through creativity and faith. It is chiefly when we give upon freedom and providence, and attempt to calculate and controlour destinies through a demiurgic state, that disaster occurs. Itis chiefly when we regard the masses as a mob of mouths, accidentallyevolved in a random universe, that evil seems inevitable, good incomprehensible,and tyranny indispensable.

To the theist, reality is more than mere chance and mechanisticlaw. These categories are subsumed by divine freedom and creativity,and become the arena of human freedom and creativity, the proximatesources of technological innovation and wealth. Human creative freedomflourishes in an environment of top-down law and transcendent order,a monotheism that removes the arbitrary from science and deniesthe ultimate victory of evil in the universe. From such a perspective,one is able to embrace what is good in invention, innovation andtechnology, while denying them the last word. Without such a viewpoint,one is doomed to lurch between two sides of a false dilemma: EitherPromethean anarchy in which we are masters of our own, self-definedbut pointless destiny, or servants of a nanny state that must protectus from ourselves and our own teeming ingenuity.

Ray Kurzweil understands and celebrates human freedom and creativityas sources of wealth and fulfillment, and opposes Luddite attemptsto stifle them. Forced to choose between Kurzweil and Joy’svisions of the future, we would choose Kurzweil’s. But we aren’tforced to make that choice. Kurzweil and Joy share a naturalisticworldview with many other leading intellectuals. This dramaticallyrestricts their options, and in our opinion doesn’t reallyallow for a resolution of our current dilemma.

In the following chapters, many conclusions follow as logical consequencesof implicit naturalistic presuppositions. Since most intellectualsshare these assumptions, there’s rarely reason to bring theminto the light of day. Once stated explicitly, however, it becomesclear how very bright individuals can so heartily disagree.

  • Human intelligence is ultimately the product of a process thatdidn’t have us in mind.

So, the only designed—and transcendent—intelligence Kurzweiland others envision is a higher technological intelligence evolvingfrom our own, which itself evolved from an unintelligent process.

  • In the final analysis, we must be some material combinationof computational software and hardware.

After all, what else could we be?

  • When our technology achieves a sufficient level of computationalarchitecture and complexity, it will become conscious, like weare.

Otherwise, human consciousness might be something inexplicablein materialistic categories.

  • If we’re a carbon-based, complex, computational, collocationof atoms, and we’re conscious, then why wouldn’t thesame be true of a sufficiently complex silicon-based computer?

Given the naturalistic premise, these conclusions seem reasonable.But what if we don’t assume the premise?

Accordingly, for Kurzweil the only salvation and the only eschatologyare those in which we become one with our own more rapidly evolving,durable and reliable technology. If we seek immortality, we mustseek it somewhere downstream from the flow of cosmic evolution,with its ever-accelerating rate of returns. Upstream is only matterin motion.

Kurzweil’s seems to be a substitute vision for those who havelost faith in the traditional object of religious belief. It doesnot despair but rejoices in evolutionary improvement, even if thevery notion of improvement remains somewhat alien in a materialisticuniverse. It’s hardly surprising, then, that when he developsthis conviction, he eventually appeals to the idea of God. Thushis perspective is closer to human religious intuitions than isthe handwringing of Bill Joy or the reductionist Darwinian materialismof the previous century. This makes it intrinsically more interestingand attractive for those, like Kurzweil, who still seek transcendencein an intellectual culture that has lost its faith in the Transcendent.It also makes it worthier of the serious consideration and scrutinyit receives in the following chapters.

Copyright © 2002 by the DiscoveryInstitute. Used with permission.