“Things are getting weird. And they are getting weird fast.”
—Elon Musk, in his recent interview with Tucker Carlson
I’ve never been a huge science fiction fan, mostly because of the lack of aesthetic appeal. I was always drawn to literature that went to the heart of what makes us human and also to our relationship to the natural world. Space exploration, flying cars, and robots—while interesting objects of imaginative curiosity—just didn’t do it for me.
But I also think it’s because many sci-fi authors end up being ahead of their time. Arthur Schopenhauer, in his 1819 book Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation), said, “To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial.”
Take Blade Runner, the 1982 Ridley Scott film about bioengineered humanoids that are so human-like that they are virtually indetectable among the populace. Harrison Ford plays a retired law enforcement officer who can tell them apart, and he grudgingly agrees to root out and hunt down the renegade replicants. Even the 2013 film Her (with Joaquin Phoenix), in which a lonely, introverted man falls in love and develops a relationship with an AI operating system named Samantha, toes this line of the exploration between the virtual and the real.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Now, forty years after Blade Runner, science fiction is approaching reality with so-called “strong AI.”
Our (over) reliance on technology is no secret or surprise, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle with regard to the internet, smartphones, etc. But that’s so early-21st-century. The fact that many theorists are speculating that artificial intelligence is approaching a point of technological singularity, a “hypothetical future point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization,” is something we should all be nervous about.
It doesn’t help that former Google chief Eric Schmidt has said that AI poses an “existential risk” to humanity. This makes executives like Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, expressing regret for his part in building tools that destroy “the social fabric of how society works” seem quaint in comparison.
I had my own disconcerting run-in with AI recently. Peter Kwasniewski recently shared a post of mine on his Facebook page. When someone in the feed asked about the photograph I used in the post, he tagged “me” to ask about it. The thing is, I have been off Facebook for a year and a half now, having deleted my account.
My wife, however, still has Facebook and was able to see that the “Rob Marco” that was tagged had responded. When we looked at the profile, the “Rob Marco” had many mutual friends with my wife (and former “friends” of mine), and this bot’s daily posts were a series of verses from the Bible (the Douay-Rheims, no less!). The response seemed close, but off, and appeared to be AI generated.
Needless to say, I was a little shaken by this, especially since people just assumed it was me!
AI is kind of like contraceptive sex, or transsexuality: close but no cigar. Artificial intelligence may serve some utilitarian functions, but it also apes what is human with a hollow core. However, it appears to be advancing at a fast clip, and since we have lost our moral and philosophical ability to reason as a human society, everyone is asking, “How can we do this?” rather than the more pressing question: “Should we?” AI is kind of like contraceptive sex, or transsexuality: close but no cigar. Tweet This
The Church has never shunned technological advancements in the way the Amish might. Organizations like the National Catholic BioEthics Center, for example, recognize that to the degree that medical advancements can serve human life, they should be utilized, assuming that they are in line with Catholic moral reasoning (which is rooted in the Divine and Natural Law). Just because we can create human life in a petri dish, for example, does not mean we should. Nor is termination of pregnancy (abortion) or the use of contraceptives ever morally justified.
In other areas—such as economics—the Church can provide guiding principles, while recognizing that such fields may technically lie outside her field of expertise. This does not mean that she has nothing to say. Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum is one example of Catholic social teaching which posits that the economy must serve the purpose of human flourishing, rights, and dignity.
The one thing the Church has always held expertise in, however, is the bridging of what is Divine with what makes us human. This may be expressed in what is known as the transcendentals—Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, that which “spills over to encompass every level of being, surpass[ing] all the limits of essences and are coextensive with Being” (J.B. Lotz, “Transcendentals,” 4: 240-41).
Artificial intelligence may have reason and logic on its side, and even excel in the sphere of utilitarianism. But it also undermines not only theistic understandings of the soul and human spirit, of love and free will, but also the very essence of these transcendental pillars. Once upon a time, Humanism attempted to supplant Deism. Now it is Transhumanism which seeks to supplant mere Humanism.
Imagine a world in which we do not know what is real—not in a mere philosophical sense but in every aspect of human society. From the call-center representative to the gallery art to the “friend” you are chatting with online. Or imagine meeting a female counterpart of such striking beauty and falling in love, only to realize that “she” is no woman at all. When these artificial encounters become almost indistinguishable from what we believe to be real, we have truly entered into a digital epoch akin to that of the nuclear age.
There are those that may argue that such progress is inevitable and that we cannot fight such technological advancements because they simply cannot be curtailed at this point. Which again goes back to the idea of singularity—an existential point of no return in which we are simply no longer in a position of power to reverse course, and The Terminator is no longer a scenario confined to film.
Just as the power of silence holds the key to sanity in a world of incessant and unrelenting noise, the true Christian knows what is true, beautiful, and good because he has encountered these transcendentals in the person of Christ. In this, he has the potential to distinguish the real from the artificial; a kind of sixth-sense mode of discernment reserved for the few with eyes to truly see.
Still, Scripture points to a time in which “even the very elect will be deceived, were that possible” (Matthew 24:24); a time in which false Christs and false prophets come with signs and wonders and their promises of an enlightened race. Could it be that the dawn of this superior AI ushers in not just a false Christ here or a false prophet there, but a world which is composed of an entire race of them?
What is the answer to this existential threat that transhumanism potentially poses? I’m afraid I don’t have any real answers here beyond the timeless exhortation of Christ Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Keep watch with me. And pray that you may not undergo the test” (Matthew 26:40).
[Image Credit: Shutterstock]