Remembrance of Later Things

 Nicholas Ward, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun  (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Would Solomon still have written this if he had seen today’s world, with its satellites and computers and autonomous vehicles? On the outside at least, the world has changed immensely since he wrote those words. Have science and technology allowed us to break free of this cycle, to overcome the hopelessness of nature?

Over the past few centuries in particular, technological change has accelerated tremendously, bringing significant changes to every area of life. These changes have had innumerable benefits, including an extraordinary increase in the well-being of the developed world. Prosperity is slowly spreading to other parts of the world, with 100 million people in India lifted out of extreme poverty in the past few years.1

Technology has brought changes to power as well as to prosperity. Wealth and influence have been shifting to those who understand new inventions and know how to use them, sometimes leaving others behind. States and national actors are using technology in different ways for their own power plays. At times this has helped level the playing field, as with the Stuxnet virus, used by Israel to protect itself from Iran.2 Yet more often than not, it has simply benefited those already in the superior position, as seen in Russia’s unchallenged cyber attacks on Estonia.3

Overall, then, it is clear that technology’s effect on power has been mixed. However, there is a more important question. While technological change may indeed have shifted power among different groups of people, one of its most-touted promises is the ability to give us control—not over each other, but over the world around us. We are now able to control nature in radical ways. We can predict weather changes and natural disasters. We’re no longer subject to the constraints of distance, thanks to new forms of communication. We have more control over our lives, our schedules, our physical environment. But has this really given us more power?

Many thinkers are excited about the possibility of taking these changes to what seems to be a logical conclusion: controlling everything, eventually, including our own bodies and minds. “Transhumanist” thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Eliezer Yudkowsky look forward to a future when humans transcend our current limits. Once we can augment ourselves with cybernetic implants, we can solve disease and poverty and extend our lifetimes indefinitely, they say. Meanwhile, entrepreneur Elon Musk recently revealed a vision of humans merging with machines and becoming exponentially more intelligent.4 Once this happens, new, immortal, human cyborgs would be able to upgrade themselves and do what they like.

Isn’t that power for the human race? No longer subject to the tyranny of nature…free from sickness and every kind of physical constraint? C.S. Lewis addresses this in The Abolition of Man, a prophetic collection of essays written in 1943. He describes a future where a technologically triumphant group of humans has found the key to controlling every aspect of ourselves. The question, he says, is what they will do with that power.

Lewis envisions these “Conditioners,” powerful scientists whose generation has cracked the code of human genetics, as having gained total power—and having completely lost meaning. Given the ability to control the future of the human race, of the entire world, they will have nothing to do with it. The Conditioners have the ability to redefine morality, conscience, and honor in future generations…but which of these can motivate them? Now that all our human values have been “seen through,” no motivation can remain other than instinct and emotion. In a dark twist, Lewis says, “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”5 This echoes even earlier thoughts by American historian Henry Adams: “Man has mounted science, and is now run away with…before many centuries more, science will be the master of men.”6

In some ways, this prediction is already starting to come true. Discussions are frequent about how to make AI safe, so that it doesn’t discard human life as an irrelevant resource in its relentless pursuit of efficiency. Others consider how to ensure that the goals of artificial superintelligence align with those of humans—at least, those of the humans who are lucky enough to be involved. Many papers have been published which examine, for example, the “ethics of artificial intelligence.”7 UC Berkeley professor Stuart Russell has focused extensive research on “reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks” of AI.8 For instance, one new technique called “inverse reinforcement learning” involves machines watching humans and trying to codify the ethical behaviors they observe.9

But what is truly ethical, especially when different humans have contrasting ideas? When we can reprogram every motivation in our new superintelligent incarnations, which ones are worth keeping? Similarly, which of the many goals for which people spend their lives should these creations prioritize? What reason could any purpose claim for being better than the others? That will always be a problem from the secular, naturalistic perspective. The atheistic philosophy that has taken hold over the past few centuries has been bent on denying the existence of any universal spiritual truth, any value system apart from personal preference. The growing dominance of technology and artificial life will require us to explicitly state and codify our priorities…and naturalism has nothing to say.

There is no solution, as Lewis argued long ago, outside of objective morality. The Bible offers unchanging truth, a sovereign god who defines ultimate good, unaffected by the changing ideas of any person, or any machine. From a scriptural perspective, then, how ought we to respond? I can’t claim to know all the answers, but I have some ideas.

Certainly, we need to remember that no matter what changes the modern world brings, the Christian gospel is unchanged. While Christians have always been at the forefront of saving and improving lives on earth, people’s eternities are more important than anything that takes place in these short lives. So while science and technology have helped in innumerable ways, they are not, and never will be, the answer to our greatest need. All the advances and inventions have not made us into better people. They give us no power over our greatest enemy—our own broken nature. Jesus is still the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and that hasn’t changed.

However, to retreat from the modern world and set up exclusive communes, as increasingly many Christians are, is as misguided as ever.10 And opposing technological progress (like Christians of past generations who called credit cards “the mark of the beast”) cannot succeed and instead risks alienating others. Instead, we should be grateful for all the blessings we have received, including new advances, and be intentional in using all of them to bless others. Our new connectivity can provide exciting new ways to discuss life’s important questions, to share different perspectives, and to explore truth. For Christians, new opportunities for evangelism and discipleship abound. Efforts like InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces and the global Indigitous platform are only starting to explore these possibilities.

In particular, those of us blessed with jobs in the tech industry and involvement in the Silicon Valley ecosystem should keep in mind possibilities beyond making money and creating new, flashy apps. All of us need to remember that when we interact with others through the Internet or other modern methods, we’re still connecting with real people—people who matter. In all our use of technology, we should strive to be a blessing to others, rather than to grasp for power. We have new ways to try to exalt ourselves, but also new ways to empty ourselves for others, following the example of Jesus (Philippians 2:1–11).

Sometimes it’s not clear how to respond to changing times and seasons. Jesus didn’t give many details about what to expect, but he did make clear that we should follow him and be his faithful witnesses. And he promised that, no matter what, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

_____

1Manas Chakravarty, “The World Bank on India’s poverty,” Mint, October 13, 2014, http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/xrATLLP8ojKEVEQgJV0UxJ/The-World-Bank-on-Indias-poverty.html.

2Kim Zetter, “An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon,” Wired, November 3, 2014, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/.

3Patrick Howell O’Neill, “The cyberattack that changed the world,” The Daily Dot, May 20, 2016, https://www.dailydot.com/layer8/web-war-cyberattack-russia-estonia/.

4Olivia Solon, “Elon Musk says humans must become cyborgs to stay relevant. Is he right?,” The Guardian, February 15, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/15/elon-musk-cyborgs-robots-artificial-intelligence-is-he-right.

5C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 68.

6Henry Adams. AZQuotes.com, Wind and Fly LTD, 2017. http://www.azquotes.com/quote/650670.

7See, for example, Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky, “The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” Machine Intelligence Research Institute website, https://intelligence.org/files/EthicsofAI.pdf.

8Stuart Russell’s website, “The long-term future of AI,” https://people.eecs.berkeley.edu/~russell/research/future/.

9John C. Havens, “The ethics of AI: how to stop your robot cooking your cat,” The Guardian, June 23, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jun/23/the-ethics-of-ai-how-to-stop-your-robot-cooking-your-cat.

10Ian Lovett, “Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart,” The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/communities-built-on-faith-1487349471.

Nick is a third-year math and computer science major, born in Switzerland and raised in the East Bay. He’s happiest when covered in chalk or covered in flour.

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