LIZZIE'S CENTURY

CAN A ROBOT FIND GOD?

Who's to say the computer will not wonder about its own creation

ALLEN ABEL October 10 2005
LIZZIE'S CENTURY

CAN A ROBOT FIND GOD?

Who's to say the computer will not wonder about its own creation

ALLEN ABEL October 10 2005

CAN A ROBOT FIND GOD?

Who's to say the computer will not wonder about its own creation

ALLEN ABEL

2095 Chapter nine, age ninety

“IF THE WORLD becomes completely annihilated tomorrow, so what?” cries the holy man. “Well, for one thing, we all would be dead, even my baby daughter,” I venture to say.

“So what?” he repeats. “We move to another realm of life. There is always another place open to us.”

This is Pandit Eswar Doobay of the Ghandi Bhawan Hindu Temple on Bloor Street in Toronto. He is a Guyanese-Canadian, the son and grandson of Hindu priests, and, he says, a direct descendant of the author of the sacred Ramayana.

And why might the world be annihilated? “Because we are bringing pollution. We are bringing the bird sickness flu. This will only get greater. The divine power will give you power, but he will not tell you how to use it. We are here to perform the duties we see fit, not the ones that God sees fit. He will save you when you realize the spiritual. There is nothing to be scared about. Man’s soul never dies, so why be scared?”

Religion is the most malevolent mind-virus ever created by humans.

-ARTHUR C. CLARKE

Thus begins a hearty roundelay on the future of religion and the human (and silicon) spirit. I am trying to look nine decades into the future, peering beyond the temporal horizon on behalf of my daughter Elizabeth, who at this point in her life worships nothing other than breast milk and a small yellow plastic bear. But nine-tenths of a century from now, she and her brain implants may begin to feel a need for contrition, confession and remission before being slung upside down in cryonic suspension.

(Hang in there—that’s the next chapter.) “A century is a very minute segment of spiritual interpretation,” Doobay says. “One hundred years in Hinduism is similar to one day in the spiritual world. In the supernatural world, millions of years, it goes so fast without knowing it.”

“Well, a century feels like an awfully long time to me,” I dare to interject.

“That is because this is the physical part of life,” the guru explains. “You must develop yourself with the power of understanding that the physical world is finite, but the spiritual world is infinite. This takes some time. Just as the Eskimo gets accustomed to living in an igloo, our spiritual realm gets accustomed to living in our body.”

“What do you tell the young people at your temple with their iPods and their Game Boys?” I ask.

“I remind them that what you have today can be taken away from you,” Doobay replies. “It is the power of the unseen that makes us communicate. Cellphones and the Internet prove there is another realm, the spiritual realm. You do not have to be a guru to understand this.

“The Internet could have been given to us 100 years ago, but we were not ready for it. The order of the world comes when we are ready for it. Collectively, when the higher power believes that humanity can manage something, it is given to us. But it can also create havoc and destructive force.”

“Will we still need priests a century from now?” I ask.

“You cannot deal with faith without a spiritual leader,” the spiritual leader says. “To comprehend what is a computer and what is faith are two different things. A computer, you push a button; faith, you cannot push a button. We are here to push the buttons of the mind. What is the difference between the mind and a mechanical system? It is faith. There is no man who goes to bed at night who does not have faith that he will get up in the morning.”

“Will the Earth still be here when my daughter is old?” I ask.

“If I had a crystal ball,” the holy man says, “I could win Wintario.”

IN LAUSANNE, Switzerland, where he is working with IBM’s Blue Gene/L, one of the world’s most powerful mainframes, Henry Markram wonders whether supercomputers will be able to answer so many of the universe’s mysteries that there will be no need to invoke a higher power. “In less than 50 years,” Markram says, “we will be able to do a high-level simulation of the human brain.”

“If you do that,” I venture, “then by gradually switching it off, it might be able to explain what happens when we die.”

“Then there might be much less need for religion,” the scientist replies.

But this argument presumes that the computer itself will not fear death; that it will not wonder how its own body and mind were created out of molecules and metal. Or perhaps the machine will come to comprehend its own invention and see humanity as God the Creator.

The question of whether the Singularity Machine and the Reception Robot are likely to acknowledge a deity is addressed in an essay written in 1996 by Edmund Furse, then a professor of computer studies at the University of Glamorgan in Wales. (It is a miracle of the computer age, of course, that I can discover something like this on the Internet, merely by searching the terms “robot” and “God.”)

Furse wonders (and answers):

CANA ROBOT BELIEVE IN GOD?

Clearly, a robot on reading the world’s religious literature can come to believe that many humans believe in a divine being known as God. Humans believe that God is all knowing, that He created the universe and that He loves humanity. Will the robot continue to sit on the agnostic fence talking about the God that people believe in, without attempti?ig to communicate with God himself?

COULD A ROBOT GO TO HELL?

This is the ultimate question about the sinfulness of robots. Could a robot steadfastly set its face against the will of God? Could a robot continuously know what is the right thing to do, and yet choose to go against it... Surely a robot, being so knowledgeable, would choose a path of goodness. But we have to allow for the possibility of free choice, and in allowing the robot this possibility, we also have to allow for it ultimately to go to Hell.

There actually is an organization that deals with this sort of thing. It is the World Network of Religious Futurists, convened by the Rev. Richard Kirby of Seattle, who opens the meeting in Chicago that I attend with a prayer for “something that would touch your souls... and make you millionaires.”

Kirby proclaims: “An infinite hope, not for me but for you. I am the custodian of your infinite ideals, hike Socrates, I am the midwife for your ideals.

“Put telescopes in every church,” he preaches. “Put churches in space. I see no reason why there should not be a chaplain to animals."

“WILL THERE still be religion a century from now?” I ask Don Page, the devout Alberta stargazer.

“Christianity has lasted 2,000 years,” he replies. “It’s not as if it is going to get forgotten—though it could get ignored.”

Don and Cathy Page and their five kids recently returned to Edmonton from a lengthy trip to Asia. They smuggled three Bibles into benighted North Korea and left them in the backrooms of restaurants. In Hanoi, they heard Silent Night being played in midsummer. Yet Page agrees that, in Canada, there is less and less societal pressure for children to follow the religion of their parents.

“Humans are going to have the same basic needs they have had for a long time,” Page predicts. “We might find ways to change genetics to select sperm to have the qualities that people want—to be brighter or whatever—and there may be more efficient ways of selecting humans with different characteristics.”

“Do you think the gene for belief in God will be deleted?” I ask him.

“There are going to be more very tall, blue-eyed, blond people,” he replies, “but selecting those genes probably does not preclude the gene for spirituality.”

“Will there be spirituality in computers?” “I suppose we could program that into them. People do talk about computers getting so intelligent that they make their own machines and get rid of us. But whether a computer behaves as if it has a spiritual nature is not the same as it being aware of what it is calculating.

“We really don’t know what leads to consciousness,” Page continues. “We know that we are conscious. We look at all beings and we are the most complex, so we assume that consciousness is connected to complexity. So people raise the question, if we build a computer capable of as many calculations as the human brain, would it be conscious?” If it were, I wonder, would it tell us? “Would the end of God mean the triumph of ignorance?” I ask.

“I suppose there is a tendency for humans to grasp onto false ideas, so the tendency to ignorance is probably going to persist.

It is part of the problem of human evil. God lets us choose to be ignorant; we can choose to have wars. So, just as I am confident that the spiritual element of humans will persist, neither do I think our sinful nature will disappear.

“In a sense, only God can solve this. In the next 100 years, there is going to be good and evil, intelligence and foolishness, wisdom and ignorance. We may be more and more successful at solving problems like communication and curing disease, but making the right choices that are best for everybody, not just the individual, that’s what sin is all about.”

Page expects the need for prayer to be as high in Elizabeth’s—and his own children’s— lifetime as it ever has been. “For the past 50 years,” he says, “North America has been pretty stable—unusually stable. I’ve never said this to my kids, but it may be fair to not extrapolate the stability of the past 50 years to the next 50 years.

“There may be a fair amount of turmoil, though perhaps not greater than the average amount of turmoil in human history. I’m not saying life is going to be easy over

the next 100 years, but I’m reasonably certain that we’re not all going to get destroyed, either.”

AFTER TALKING to dozens of futurists, it occurs to me that optimism about the coming century is in itself a religious creed. So is pessimism and the belief that salvation will be necessary. And the third way is faith that humans are capable of understanding ourselves without recourse to deities and dreams.

I am back at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Tokyo, where this exploration began. The institute’s director is Shun-Ichi Amari, a long-haired 69-year-old man who grew up in the ashes of the Second World War.

“Traditionally,” Amari says, “Oriental thought believed that the mind was located in the heart. Only recently have we found that the brain consists of neurons, and its microscopic properties are becoming clearer and clearer. But that still is insufficient to think about how we think.

“In the ten or twenty years to come, maybe we will come to understand how the brain functions as a system. How it creates our mentality, our spirit, our mind. Our brain hosts our consciousness, but consciousness is more a concept of philosophy—something that we need to understand from the basis of human culture.

Life may not be easy, ‘but I’m reasonably certain we’re not all going to get destroyed either’

-DON PAGE, astrophysicist, University of Alberta

“Computers do not have minds,” Amari says.

“Not yet,” I jibe.

“In the future, we may develop a robot or a machine that looks like it has a mind,” says Amari. “But of course, that depends on the definition of‘mind.’ ”

Amari agrees that the soul is contained within the folds and furrows of the brain.

“The heart,” he says, “is just pumping. But the connections of the brain are insufficient to understand these questions of spirit and mind and personality. We need some higherorder viewpoint.”

“Do you mean God?” I ask.

“No,” he replies. “Most Japanese do not believe in religion.”

“Do you believe in religion?” I persist. “One way to conduct science is to reduce everything to microscopic and macroscopic properties,” the director says. “To the gene level, the cell level, the network level. But another way is to think at a higher order. To do this, I need psychology. I need philosophy. But I do not need God.” lifl