I think, therefore He is
There was a time when human beings looked to the stars to discover intelligent life. If there was a mind in the universe other than ours, it was definitely going to be found ‘out there’.
But from The Avengers’ sequel to Chappie, Hollywood continues to suggest the first new mind we encounter will most likely be one we manufacture ourselves — an artificial rather than an alien intelligence. But do scientists share the film industry’s conviction that it will be a real consciousness?
Of course humanity has long harboured a deep-seated angst over the consequences of creating new life. Conceived by author Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s monster was feared as much for his terrible strength as his horrific looks. And many fictional films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, or I Robot have followed in that monster’s footsteps, troubling us with what our superior children might do.
Meanwhile, in the factual world, leading scientists have issued parallel cautions, particularly about creating artificial intelligence (AI) capable of learning for itself. The ability to improve at an exponential rate led physicist Stephen Hawking to conclude artificial intelligence might very well “spell the end of the human race”.
Yet, despite these drawbacks, the development of AI is being seen on and off the big screen as a coming-of-age for the human race. The creation of a thinking, self-aware being has been held out by some as a potential proof there is no God. The argument goes that if we can create a being that is in every respect indistinguishable from human life, then we have created life itself. Consequently there is no need to imagine a divine being who bestows it – and so God disappears in a puff of logic. To quote the entrepreneur Peter Weyland in sci-fi film Prometheus, “We are the gods now.”
But at this point, Hollywood’s vision of electronic brothers and sisters may amount to little more than straw men manufactured from silicone and circuits.
Scientists are far less certain they will be able to create a mind of the sort movies imagine.
In 2015 cinema release Ex Machina, the film’s would-be gods used the Turing Test (devised by the computational genius Alan Turing). The test holds that a machine capable of performing like a human being in every respect is capable of intelligent behaviour. One that could do the same tasks even better than humans might be considered a superior intelligence. But the philosopher John Searle has pointed out that replication, however advanced, does not equate to consciousness, or even understanding.
What if our struggle to create life, off and on the screen, was actually pointing in a direction other than the demise of God? Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am” suggests our ability to perceive ourselves is the key proof that we exist. A computer’s circuitry might be brought to simulate every connection of the fatty tissue and electricity that make up the human brain, but self-perception would still exist somewhere outside of its box. Not within all that wiring.
However, let us imagine for a moment that humanity is one day able to produce an electronic mind capable of thinking creatively and perceiving itself. What might that prove? Even Alan Turing was cautious of mistaking the shell for its contents:
“In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping [God’s] power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.”
As the writer Kel Richards once put it, “An explosion in a brick factory is not likely to produce a radio station.” No, the sheer difficulty of what we might one day achieve will argue for the existence of our own Designer, not pronounce His death. In which case “I think, therefore I am” may actually lead us to conclude, “I think, therefore He is.”