Category: Artificial Intelligence

Theology and Technology in Review

Demerzel, the literally faithful android in David Groyer and Josh Friedman’s interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Extending from the last missive on Computational Theology, I want to dive into the question of what it means to have a theology of machines, a machine theology, or a theology generating machine. Each of those three descriptions is different – a theology of machines is about believing in machines as otherworldly things. It’s a little challenging to think about how we might worship a toaster, but perhaps less fantastic to think about how we might worship a machine that no one had ever seen before, and that landed on earth from outer space. A machine theology asks what do machines believe? To assign belief to a machine, to assert that machines demonstrate a teleological sensibility, may be a stretch; but let’s see, shall we? When we consider ‘machine ethics’, we are opening up Langdon Winner’s question of whether artifacts can have politics; I go further than he does. Winner suggests that a machine can’t have its own politics, but that it can embody political biases. I would argue – in considering the distinction between lived and transcendent theologies that I wrote about in my last post, and the further distinction of strong lived theologies that trend towards the transcendent – that advanced machines machines can possess a strong lived theology. A theology generating machine is a more future looking device that predicts likely futures based on a Laplace’s Demon kind of model, becoming through its predictions a time machine of sorts. It has parallels in the Oracle at Delphi, Psychohistory in Asimov’s Foundation series, and is grounded in the biblical divinity of prophesy (the prophets, those who tell the future, are closer to God), and ancient practices of divination.

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Computational Theocracy

Creation of Robotic Adam - Stock Image - C002/8593 - Science Photo Library
Is God creating robots, or are robots creating God?

In considering technological theology, it is necessary to distinguish between what I refer to as transcendent theologies: belief, absolutes, or truth, and what I call lived theologies: scripture, ritual, mantra, holy places and order. Transcendent theologies are claims to higher knowledge, beyond what is possible in nature, in areas like life after death, and the existence of God (upper case ‘G’). Lived theologies are claims about how one should live in order to serve god (lower case ‘g’), what it means to live a good or successful life. Transcendent theologies in one sense do not matter to our life on earth; they are by definition unprovable, revealed to us through prophesy, and while they may inform our lived theology, they relate to a higher order of existence than that with which we are currently concerned. Lived theologies are extremely important, and while often informed by revealed religion, they predate all of the great modern religions. Each of us adheres to a lived theology, with some base understanding of right, and righteousness, whether that’s an altruistic, socially sensitive collectivism, or a Darwinist individualism. In each case we seek to advance our interests based on an understanding of the world, an evolved ontology – that is our lived theology.

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Epistemic Theology and Epistemic Technology

The 'Robotic Moment' | Essay by Sherry Turkle | Britannica
We are in what Sherry Turkle calls ‘the robotic moment’

In considering my proposal of technological theology as a waypoint in our current trajectory, from religious, political and economic theology, the idea of epistemic theology was brought to my attention in considering the grounding of Carl Schmitt. There have been questions about the theology of Schmitt (was he primarily Christian, or secular?), and some questions over whether political theology is about the politics of theology or the theology of politics; medieval political theology certainly appears to have been about the latter. Adam Kotsko suggests political theology is more concerned with the relationship between the two fields of theology and politics, though the consensus is moving towards what he calls a politically-engaged theology. My reading, reflects a range of kinds of theology, in that political theology is an ontological structure, allowing the world to be understood and engaged with. Just as Deleuze and Guattari argued that the role of the philosopher is to ‘create concepts’ (What is Philosophy?, 1991(FR), 1994(transl.), Columbia, p.5), so political theology is a way to understand the world, to understand the real in social, or more specifically political terms. It is, in Schmitt’s explanation, a secular theology (Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Chicago UP, 1985/2005).

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Loneliness and The Cyborg Transmutation

Robots need friends too!

In the late nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear, social alienation became a significant concern of both social workers (in particular religious pastors and ministers) and policy makers. Durkheim’s anomie was one of the first studies of the phenomenon (The Division of Labour in Society, 1893), though it’s conceivable that such alienation was only made possible by urbanisation and the size of communities permitted through industrialization. Simmel (The Philosophy of Money, 1900) and Tönnies (Community and Civil Society, 1887) each looked at the money system and the built environment respectively as contexts for understanding alienation. Man was alienated from his species essence, in Marxist terms, a fundamentally economic alienation from labour and the product of that labour. The fullest expression of that alienation is ‘in the role of machines in modern life,’ (Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation, 2009) those things that take touch away, that dehumanise. The industrialisation of the machine in the form of the city scaled that effect to community and social dimensions.

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The Ontologies of Technology

Richard Lindner, Boy With Machine, 1954

In Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s 1991 book What is Philosophy?, the writers make the argument that philosophers are things of their time, creators of concepts through which the world can be interpreted. Philosophy, juxtaposed alongside science and art, provides the fundamental constructs that those disciplines require as a kind of prima terra, before any art can be made, or any science can be done. Philosophers, then, are in the business of creating ontologies.

This is of course a rejection of truth, at least in the absolute sense of the word. Richard Rorty distinguished between the concepts that ‘the truth is out there’ versus ‘the world is out there’. This goes all the way back to Wittgenstein and language, and the relations between the subject and the world: truth can only exist with language; and language can only exist with a subject. Therefore truth can’t exist ‘out there’, only the world can be out there – with its phenomenona (Husserl) and forms (Plato) and things-in-themselves (Kant).

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Falling Down

In Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, he refers to verfallen as a characteristic of being, or dasein. It means fallen-ness, or falling prey, an acknowledgement that we do things not because we want to do them, but because we must; we act in particular ways, we fall into line, we do jobs, have families, get a mortgage and a pension, obey the law and so on. We consciously engage with the systems and societies into which we have found ourselves. It is surprising how frequently this concept of ‘the fall’ emerges in philosophy, theology and popular culture.

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World Religions and AI

There are practical, ethical and theological challenges for religion posed by technology and AI. But what if the technology is actually becoming theological in itself?

AI poses several challenges for the religions of the world, from theological interpretations of intelligence, to ‘natural’ order, and moral authority. Southern Baptists released a set of principles last week, after an extended period of research, which appear generally sensible – AI is a gift, it reflects our own morality, must be designed carefully, and so forth. Privacy is important; work is too (we shouldn’t become idlers); and (predictably) robot sex is verboten. Surprisingly perhaps, lethal force in war is ok, so long as it is subject to review, and human agents are responsible for what the machines do: who those agents specifically are is a more thorny issue that’s side-stepped.

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AI and Las Meninas

Tomorrow I’m going to visit Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid, and I hope to learn something about how we are designing AI machines. How can a painting from 1656 and a technology from the twenty-first century have anything in common? Well, in a sense, both address the problem of subjective and objective reality, perspectives on the world and on memory. Diego Velazquez would have been an outstanding AI ethicist!

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AI Reshaping Reality

I finally did the TEDx talk at Ballyroan Library a few weeks ago, and the video has just been published. As I’ve considered the impact of technology on politics generally, and AI on society more specifically, it seems to me that the most significant impact is on meaning, and understanding, on our systems of knowledge and epistemology. This crystallised somewhat in the talk. It was necessary for the format to simplify the ideas somewhat. I think at least in part that worked.

Machine Generated Illusions of Intimacy

Later this week I’m speaking to the UCC conference on Eco-cosmology, Sustainability and a Spirit of Resilience, on the subject of ‘Machine Generated Illusions of Intimacy’, about the challenges of modernity and computational epistemology. Here’s a sneak peak.