As late as the eighteenth century, plagues were believed to be caused by polluted air and mediated by creatures of putrefaction such as rodents and witches. Public health specialists agree that the sanitary efforts brought about under the miasmic paradigm were effective. If we think that current views of epidemics and pollution are devoid of the mythical thinking of our predecessors, we might humbly want to reassess our position. The mythical is still embedded in scientific inquiry today.
As it turns out, if our purpose is to test the simulator hypothesis against religious belief, it is only in the specifics that we can easily distinguish between the two. The Deist God, who creates the universe, and then leaves it to run entirely on its own, is not easily disambiguated from the hands-off simulator. One might well call them one and the same. Similarly, the Platonic ideal of good, which remains removed and remote in eternal perfection while the demiurge creates the world in imitation of it, needs not change at all if we choose to think of the demiurge as working with pixels and electrons rather than with primal matter. Such abstract, philosophical conceptions of God are general enough that even a shift as dramatic as reconceptualizing reality itself as a simulation can be integrated relatively easily. It is more of a challenge, however, to reconfigure the simulation hypothesis in order to yield the specificity of Christ.
As we sink deeper and deeper into the realm of religion, we find ourselves forced to face up to a core religious dilemma of the modern, globalized world, the same dilemma glossed over by Pascal in his wager: In a world filled with so many different and often contradictory religions, how would we choose one as more plausible than the others?
From a Neoplatonic point of view, what goodness there is our world must come from the world deeper than ours, the one doing the simulating. The evil and chaos and disorder could all be nothing more than random numbers firing, but the beauty and the nobility and the truth in the world demand some source. And if the next world deeper is somehow a dirtier, nastier, less good place than ours, then our world must be reflecting some yet higher-still world toward which the artisans who created our simulation are striving.
When God is in everything, and everything is within God, does that not implicate God in our crimes of the spirit as well? Is God present in our angers, and our wars; our dirty jokes and our pornography? Here, perhaps, we have made a mistake by conflating God, as traditionally conceived, with our conception of “the Dungeon Master,” who is merely the maximally simple simulator. But then again, our entire purpose was to determine if there is any necessary connection between the two; between the simulator predicted by Nick Bostrom’s theory and God as envisioned by theologians and believers throughout the ages.
The simulation theory, however, does not have to be turtles all the way down. For example, imagine that somewhere along the chain of simulators, perhaps directly above us (what Bostrom calls “below”), or perhaps much further on up toward the top, we reach an entity we might call the “maximally simple simulator,” an entity of pure and limitless intellect, unbounded in time (and therefore eternal), with no body at all, in a universe containing nothing else but itself, the simplest possible universe.
The reason, perhaps, that Bostrom’s demonstration of the probability of God’s existence has received so little attention and notice (especially as compared to the stir and commotion caused by his demonstration of the probability that we live in a simulation, and despite the fact that both conclusions are entailed by the exact same line of argument) is because readers have failed to note the connection between Bostrom’s simulator and God.
In the years since Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain, there have been thousands of studies, of varying degrees of quality, on the effects of meditation on the human brain. Here, Lachlan Dale reviews some of the highlights of that research as it’s presented by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson in Altered Traits.
The setup of Pascal’s Wager, as this argument is generally known, is quite similar in form to Newcomb’s paradox. The glass box with the visible $1000 bill is your ordinary life on earth: you know it exists, and is yours to spend. The opaque box is your eternal reward. It might be empty, or it might be filled with a vast reward far beyond the one in the glass box. You will discover which one is the case only when you die and the box is opened. Do you take the glass box with the known, but finite reward, or the opaque box that could have nothing or everything inside it?
The thing about the Basilisk that makes it so scary is its combination of vast power with certain both human and mechanical weaknesses. It is designed by human beings to be the greatest and most benevolent force in the universe, but all we can gift it is our best guess at an ultimate rational moral standard, utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number. And as a machine, it administrates this implacably, and entirely without mercy. Roko’s Basilisk is scary because it is simultaneously our parent and our child.
Another possible strategy for fending off the robot apocalypse is to ask if there are characteristically human traits or characteristics that are humanity-preserving, and if so, can those be passed along to our machines? What is it that has given us our identity as a species, all these years, and that, if we lose, we run the risk of losing everything?
Given how likely killer robots are, and how clearly the paths we are currently embarked on lead to that eventuality, can this destiny be averted? Acceptance of the unstoppable inevitability of progress is the motivation behind yet another approach to artificial intelligence called “Friendly AI.” It starts with the assumption that runaway technological progress is inevitable, that some one among the many teams around the world working on artificial intelligence will soon succeed, and that disastrous robotapocalypse is the far most likely result. Given that, the belief of the Friendly AI camp is that it is absolutely essential that we ensure the first artificial superintelligence is “friendly,” meaning that it has the best interests of humanity at heart, and is willing and able to protect us from its nastier cousins.
For a more realistic portrait than Kurzweil’s of what a future dominated by technology might look like, one plausible place to start is with our present domination by technology, and how it is already transforming us as human beings. For example, why has our society become so oriented around statistics to the point that they mean the difference between success and failure, promotion or demotion, profit or loss, in so many different realms of life? As it turns out, what the computers do not see—what they cannot see, what is invisible both to the computer and to all those at the upper-level of management who see through the eyes of the computer—are all the purely human interactions of any job. And depending on what the job is, it can end up being the core competencies of the profession that end up neglected.
In 1989, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the second major iteration of the durable televised Star Trek science fiction franchise, introduced a terrifying new villain called “the Borg.” An unhallowed melding of a humanlike life form with cybernetic technology, the individual members of the Borg were born, raised, lived, and presumably died entirely surrounded by technological innovations. There was no such thing as “natural childbirth” for them, they were cloned mechanically, nurtured in artificial wombs, and raised to maturity in pods. An implacable collective intelligence, they mercilessly converted any creatures they encountered into extensions of themselves, cannibalizing their planets for raw materials, and sucking other intelligent lifeforms into the inescapable machine.
If you plot the graph of technological progress, it looks exponential. It is long and nearly horizontal extending into the past, it curves rapidly upward in the present, and many people expect that it will be nearly vertical at some point in the near future. The question is, what happens then? The technological singularity is the idea that at some point, perhaps even in the next few decades, computing power will essentially become infinite.
It is possible, given that we still understand so little of the brain, that it has evolved in such a way that it does bridge the gap between the subatomic world and the macroscopic world? Perhaps the free will of the quark is transmitted up through the intermediary of the brain and into the otherwise deterministic macroscopic world. But if this is true, does it preclude the possibility of a truly living simulation? Are the human beings inside the computer doomed to be dead, deterministic automata, lacking the quantum free will of the real ones?
The paired opposite to reductionism is called emergentism, and in recent years it has begun to gain an increasing number of advocates. In summary, it means that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Unexpected behaviors and properties can emerge, even from simple well-understood parts, at high enough levels of organization… Some of the ways emergentists have proposed creating artificial intelligence include building or simulating artificial neural nets, or using quantum computers, which take advantage of wave-particle duality and superimposition to perform fuzzy logic. Others reject the entire idea of shortcuts to emulating human intelligence, in favor of simply duplicating the entire fine structure of the human brain in virtual form –something not possible today, but perhaps in the future.
At root, Bostrom’s argument hinges around a single controversial question. Is it possible to truly create or simulate a person? Is there any point, with any level of technology, no matter how advanced, that this becomes possible?
We left off last week with the question of how much weight we should give to Nick Bostrom’s argument that we are not only possibly simulated, but likely to be so. This argument, or at least our representation of it, rests on two key claims: first, that our descendants will be able to create people just like ourselves; and second, that they will create a lot of them. The argument is compelling only in the case that both are true.
Although there have been attempts at creating true simulations of intelligence, machines that can learn and respond appropriately to unbounded input, they have not, as of the time of this writing, progressed significantly far in the way of believably duplicating human interactions (although they have mastered tasks as diverse as as playing chess, competing on the television game show Jeopardy, and identifying other robots as robots). Are these major steps on the pathway, or deceptive dead ends? Could technology ever improve to the point where it could convincingly simulate, not you perhaps, but other people, in all their deep, multifaceted, and endlessly surprising soulfulness? Is true artificial intelligence, to the point that computers could believably create people, actually achievable?