Fortunate Ghosts in Forgotten Machines

It’s funny how this works. You float through the scene like a ghost. Your legs must be working because the picture keeps changing. Your hands flit in and out of view; reaching, holding, typing. You don’t stop to calculate the angles required of your joints, the proper contraction of your pupil, or the six muscles that aim your eye. It all just works. Without batteries. Without software. Almost without thought.

It’s a lucky break, to say the least. Start with a dead planet, then – bam! – it springs to life because, of course, that’s what dead planets do. A simple creature morphs into increasingly complex and elegant creatures until it ends up like you because, of course, that’s what simple creatures do.

Except they don’t. For many years, brilliant scientists in expensive laboratories have been trying to make dead things come to life. But they can’t. And they can’t make a simple creature change into a complex creature, or into a different kind of creature (or find evidence that this ever happened).

But luck, we are told, can easily do what scientists can’t. Welcome to the religion of the modern world.

Someone will object – will say that Darwin’s theory of evolution explains that. But it doesn’t. Natural selection can only select something that already exists. And if it exists — the theory claims — it was produced by a random mutation. And if it was random, that’s luck.

I’m not saying our admiration of luck is bad; just that we’re not very consistent. When we’re sick, we don’t ask for a referral to the luckiest surgeon. If we want a new car or house, we don’t look for the luckiest engineer. We don’t think luck can do complicated things.

Except, of course, really, really complicated things, like designing the human being who performs the surgery or the verdant planet upon which our house will sit and our car will drive. Somehow, luck can easily do those complicated things.

If you find a horseshoe in your garden, no one will believe it was formed by luck. They will only believe it’s luck if you find an entire horse. No one thinks luck can compose a painting, but we’re assured that it can easily compose a painter. Luck can’t design a computer – merely the mind that designed the computer.

Such is the faith required by our modern religion: To know from experience that luck builds nothing, yet to simultaneously believe that it built almost everything. To believe that art and music and beauty and kindness – that every longing of our hearts — came from nowhere and mean nothing.

Yet we are surrounded by wonders. Our amazing, automatic bodies. The incredible diversity of elegant creatures, so naturally sustained by this beautiful planet. The fact that we can think about these things and wonder what they mean.

These wonders require an explanation that luck does not provide.

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“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven… he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else… so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

-Acts 17

The Brains We Are Building

It’s the most important job of each generation, and we get to do it twice.

We are building the brains that will replace us – those of our children but also those vast new mechanical brains that read and remember more than we can imagine.

The brains we build will believe us, at least for a while.

And that might be a problem. Take the recent experience of law professor Jonathan Turley. A recent article composed by the artificial intelligence (AI) tool, ChatGPT “reported on a claim of sexual harassment that was never made against me on a trip that never occurred while I was on a faculty where I never taught. ChapGPT relied on a cited Post article that was never written and quotes a statement that was never made.”

This is a helpful example because the facts can be easily verified. The AI brain lied.

Our Washington representatives have been discussing “the weaponization of Government,” which is indeed a disastrous thing. But, here, we meet something dramatically more disastrous – the weaponization of speech.

Speech is at the heart of human relationships. We speak to transmit. We listen to learn. The invisibly obvious assumption behind every conversation is that the words will be true.

A lie murders speech. It makes a weapon of the hearer’s good faith and uses it against her. It betrays trust and attacks the very possibility of human connection.

And our culture is full of lies.

The brains we build will believe us, at least for a while. The vast mechanical brains of AI will be as truthful as their programmers, and the lies they create will be bigger, faster, and more alluring. The brains of our children will be as discerning as our educational system, which distorts our history and can no longer tell a girl from a boy.

It’s the most important job of each generation, and we’re failing at it twice, in heartbreaking ways that may cripple future generations.

Let’s hope their precious brains don’t believe us for long.

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“He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
-Jesus, describing Satan in John 8.

More about Professor Turley and AI: https://jonathanturley.org/2023/04/06/defamed-by-chatgpt-my-own-bizarre-experience-with-artificiality-of-artificial-intelligence/

Is Anything Simply True?

A bulky robot trots stiffly across the lawn, pauses before an obstacle then clears it with an awkward jump. A computer-generated voice on the telephone negotiates an appointment for a haircut. We watch the demonstration videos and stare, amazed.

It has been a big week for technology news and there are several miracles here. First, that we have – through the expenditure of great genius and motivation and resources – produced machines that move and talk a little bit like humans. Second, that the earth – possessing no genius or motivation or resources – produced the humans who made the machines.

It is not quite safe to think about that. We believe two contradictory things and those things must be kept apart or awkwardness ensues. It is perfectly respectable to say that our own complexity is the product of luck and muck and time. On the other hand, no one throws parts in a box, shakes it for a while and expects an assembly to emerge. As we have all learned to our sorrow, life does not work that way. Luck does not do work. Luck does not make machines.

It is uncomfortable to think contradictory thoughts, so we don’t. We build mental fences to keep our hard-fought experience away from our fragile theories.

I read an editorial yesterday that wondered if anything is simply true – true for everyone. Subjectivism is a popular theory these days and many people liked what she wrote. I don’t know the author, but I suppose that she has a car, and perhaps a spouse, and maybe even children. If so, she probably believes in stop lights and is confident that other drivers do, too. Very likely, she believes in hunger and is anxious to prevent it in those who depend on her. As a successful person, I think she must believe in kindness, and probably takes care to encourage and protect those around her.

In fact, she believes that many things are simply true and she expects that other people should believe those things, too. Without shared truth, we could not live together in peace.

I respect the robotic accomplishments demonstrated this week – the tenacity and tough, independent thinking required to learn how things work. Our thinking about the creatures who inspired and produced the robots should be that way, too – grounded in logic and experience and open to all of the data around us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjSohj-Iclc
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5VN56jQMWM

Living in Babel

I’ve lived in Babel for some time now.  At first, I would just come to visit.  I was excited by the riot of faces and voices and ideas.  When I left, the clamor of the place jangled in my ears for a while and it was good to get away but, over time, I developed a taste for it.  I began to stay longer and when I left it was the quiet that seemed strange to me as if something was missing.  Eventually, I moved in.
And so it was quite a shock last week when a tree limb, bowing under a heavy layer of ice, snapped and fell, dragging a power line to the ground and severing my connection to Babel.  The restless city, to which I was linked through television and radio and computer, fell silent and I was alone with my thoughts, which is to say, quite alone indeed.  This was late afternoon and the brooding sky was already growing dark and, with it, our soundless, waterless and rapidly cooling home.  The darkness and silence felt like an invasion, a blitzkrieg of some foreign power, suddenly cutting us off from the world.
It took a few minutes to recognize how wrong I was, which tells you something about the severity of my condition.  So addicted have I become to consuming the clamor of Babel that I felt lost without it.  Our little house had not moved, nor the sky above.  The quiet and the dark had always been there, though for so long suppressed that they seemed new to me.  The rhythms of the planet, which felt strange and arbitrary, were those into which I had been born.  When Babel fell, the invasion ended and I reentered the real world.  I did not like it.
My television remote and my browser have given me a God’s-eye view of the earth.  I can see almost anything happening almost anywhere.  The world is small, I think.  But I sometimes forget the distinction between observing and experiencing.  Good-looking and intelligent people provide expert commentary on everything under the sun.  I know what’s important, I think.  But I forget the difference between hearing and thinking.  My devices allow me to effortlessly calculate, navigate and communicate.  I am capable, I think.  But I have forgotten the distinction between using and understanding.
When we came to our senses we lit a few candles, huddled on the sofa and read some stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, soon wondering why we do not do this more often.  C. S. Lewis warned (even before the television and computer era) against “chronological snobbery”: the mistaken sense that we see the world (and ourselves) clearly.  He suggested a regular diet of voices from previous generations to help us see into the blind spots common to our age.  What seems odd about the ideas of Laura, or Mr. Lewis or (far better) the Bible may, in fact, be the shape of a forgotten truth, seen through the distorted lens of our forgetful culture.
I’ve lived in Babel for some time now and I have been changed by it.  When it is taken from me I feel awkward, empty and lonesome –  a consumer made superfluous by the absence of something to consume.  People talk about the tower of Babel but, reading the story again this morning, I notice that the problem was really the city of Babel, that riot of faces and voices and ideas that murdered solitude, excelled at self-congratulation and, yes, sprouted into a tower.  But I don’t think that God was afraid of towers.  He stopped the riot of Babel, as he perhaps stopped my electricity, so we would be quiet for a little while, reenter the world and, possibly, hear his voice.