Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

In Our Own Image: Savior or Destroyer? the History and Future of Artificial Intelligence

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

In Our Own Image: Savior or Destroyer? the History and Future of Artificial Intelligence

Article excerpt

IN OUR OWN IMAGE: Savior or Destroyer? The History and Future of Artificial Intelligence by George Zarkadakis. New York: Pegasus, 2016. xxi + 362 pages, endnotes, index. Hardcover; $27.95. ISBN: 9781605989648.

The origins and possibilities of near-ubiquitous and transformative AI (artificial intelligence) constitute the important subject of this clearly written, often insightful, and provocative work. The book consists of sixteen chapters, framed by an introduction and an epilogue and timeline. This is ambitious popular science writing that weaves together often-contested or speculative ideas and disciplines from history and cognitive archaeology, mathematics, sciences (from quantum theory to psychology), philosophy (expositions here are one of Zarkadakis's strengths), religion (not so much), engineering, and science fiction (he cites many morally serious science fiction stories, novels, and movies). A problem with multidisciplinary attempts, of course, is that one cannot have expertise in everything or be familiar with all the relevant scholarship; the science fiction references, for example, are interesting but far from comprehensive. To his credit, the author, a computer scientist, argues that "essential aspects of being human" remain beyond technological reproduction; our intelligence "cannot be captured in formal rules" and is distinctively embodied; and biological consciousness cannot be reduced to computational machines (pp. 278-79). He is doubtful about an imminent, apocalyptic "singularity" of artificial super-intelligences.

The book begins with two chapters on deep history. Between 150,000 and 50,000 years ago--before religion or science--language birthed intelligence; we created a symbolic "world of animals and things" endowed with spirit, mind, and meaning. This was "the [cognitive] big bang" that, with naturalistic Paleolithic painting, let us come to terms with inevitable death and ultimately imagine making "robots ... as intelligent as ourselves" (pp. 15-16). Zarkadakis zips through millennia of thinking (Aristotle: good; Plato and Descartes: bad), rejecting any hint of nonmaterial life forces or uploadable minds, with helpful discussions of the roles and implications of metaphors, analogies, and narratives in scientific thought about AI. (See chapters three and six on limits to our knowledge.)

Science fiction readers will enjoy the discussion in chapter four, including the old trope of superior robots/androids rising up to exterminate their human creators (see also pp. 270-75). Chapter five, "Prometheus Unbound," further examines fictional anxieties and fears, especially Mary Shelley's incomparable Frankenstein (1818); the familiar analysis does not engage the scholarly literature, however. We are becoming cyborgs (chap. six) and could create "digital gods" of "infinite wisdom" but we would lose our humanity in merging with them, Zarkadakis cautions.

Chapter seven discusses questions of mathematics, mind, and more philosophy. Chapter eight argues against mind/body dualism, which contradicts physics and disallows humanlike AI (pp. 118-30). The author criticizes Ray Kurzweil's singularity thesis (after about 2045, AI will be utterly beyond our comprehension) as a "quasi-religious" belief inspired by Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary theology (as is the cosmic anthropic principle, pp. 126-28). Scientific claims are verifiable or falsifiable; religious ones are neither (p. 130). Chapter nine again contests philosophical dualism; Daniel Dennett's 1991 reductive/materialist explanation of consciousness is highly regarded (pp. 143-46). Chapter ten unpacks the meanings of "consciousness" following Francis Crick's claim--in his 1994 Astonishing Hypothesis, "a book that changed everything"--that it is "entirely due to the behavior of cells ... and the atoms ... that make them up" (p. 155). Chapter eleven regards cybernetics as omnicompetent, if not omniscient and omnipotent: "ultimately" it could "show us how to govern the evolution of life and the universe," including fully conscious AI (pp. …

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