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Friday, February 23, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Sophistry

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

We’ve all seen this story before. Those of us who’ve lived long enough to remember Hal Lindsey have seen it repeatedly: a guy who specializes in the study of prophecy and has been teaching one book of the Bible for thirty years all over the world. His bread and butter (often quite literally) is finding something new to say about the same old subject that is also both current and, ideally, sensational.

Tom: And so, hot on the heels of Hanson Robotics’ press releases about their new “artificial intelligence” creation (and ‘her’ subsequent appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show), here comes Bible teacher Mark Correll with his latest twist on prophecy: the first beast of Revelation 13 could be … AI.

I’ll embed the video just in case anyone feels the need to have the experience we have all enjoyed this week.

Bernie, what do you think about all this?

The Uncanny Valley

Bernie: There is something well known in animation circles that is referred to as the “uncanny valley”. This “valley” is the point at which animation has become very close to life-like but hasn’t quite got it right. So for example, most people are very comfortable watching Bugs Bunny — which is clearly not real. They are equally comfortable watching a conventional Hollywood production with real actors. But people have a very strong negative reaction to something in between those extremes — something that is just a bit “off”. You may have experienced this vague repulsion if you tried to sit through Polar Express or Tintin in the last few years — people didn’t often express WHY they didn’t like those movies but most insiders now feel that it was the “they look human but they clearly aren’t” aspect of both productions.

Sophia strikes me as having that sort of challenge. She falls into the uncanny valley — people get uncomfortable because they expect human responses and movements from her — and she’s just a bit off our expectations.

Tom: My feeling too. IC?

Immanuel Can: Well, as a teacher of philosophy, the first thing I’d point out is this: don’t assume that just because an entity appears to be “intelligent”, or because it can fool everybody into imagining it’s intelligent, that it actually is. It might not be intelligent — not even a little bit.

Category Errors

This tiny video covers a huge amount in 60 seconds, but actually, it’s quite right.

To talk about “Sophia” in terms like “she decides” and “she responds”, and especially “she understands” or “she feels”, is simply to make what we call in philosophy a “category error”: to think a thing is a thing it’s really not, and to transfer the descriptions or evaluations appropriate to the thing it appears to be.

Sophia isn’t an “intelligence”, and far less a person. It’s a machine, an algorithm, an adaptation-coded simulation by software. In that sense, we might say it’s much closer to the category of idol than person: it’s a dead object being revered as if it were a person.

Bernie: Anyone who has been around my industry for long knows how fast things move and how prophetically accurate Moore’s Law turned out to be.

Tom: Moore’s Law, for the record, is the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years …

From Complexity to Where?

Bernie: We are making incredible improvements with a speed that belies any reasonable expectation. Sophia is going to be rapidly forgotten because something much better than Sophia is (literally) days away.

I’m quite certain that in the next few years we will routinely interact with creations that dwarf Sophia. I’m equally sure that will not be to our betterment as a people.

But secondly I’d add this in concert with IC: no matter what things look like, this is not consciousness.

IC: The mistake most people make in their thinking is this: they think that more programming, or more complex programming will be sufficient to turn the process in question into not programming at all. But really, it’s the same processes that take place in your pocket calculator or wristwatch, just ramped up exponentially. MORE will not make it change state. It will just make us more easily fooled.

The Emerging Singularity

Bernie: From everything I can read and understand, we are in the infancy of even beginning to understand human consciousness. There is a notion that as complexity and capability increase, consciousness will necessarily emerge. This is usually referred to as the “singularity” — the moment when consciousness emerges. But I don’t see consciousness and complexity as related at all. I think we can make really profoundly impressive mechanical models of men and women but we do not — at all — understand how to ‘give’ them consciousness, nor will their increasing detail suddenly produce it from the ether.

I was listening to a clinical psychologist speaking about an exercise he undertook personally: he started to “watch” himself as he interacted with others in an attempt to curtail his habit of lying and being deceptive. He discovered — to his horror — that he lied a LOT more than he thought; that he used words to manipulate others and to advance his own agenda. And because he was trying to stop doing that, he became aware of something else: there was a part of him that stood back and away from his active choices and seemed to be saying “Yes, that’s good — do that” or “Oh boy — that’s really bad. I can’t believe I’m saying that now …”

Tom: He started hearing his own conscience.

Bernie: You might think too of Paul’s tormented Romans 7 experience: “the good that I would, I do not”. We don’t have ANY idea how to produce that kind of ‘3rd party’ view of self in a robot. Nor — even if we could do it — is that aspect the extent or description of human consciousness.

Here is WHAT?

Tom: Okay, so we’re agreed this Sophia thing is not artificial intelligence. Be that as it may, Mark Correll’s big moment was the discovery that this thing might be in the book of Revelation. He was reading John’s words, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.” Now, in Greek, as many of our readers will know, the word “wisdom” is sophia. He stops just short of claiming the first beast of Revelation 13 is AI, but not quite short enough that a significant number of his readers won’t take that away from it.

How did you feel about that, IC?

IC: As you referred to at the start, Tom, since Lindsey et al, there have been innumerable theories about the identity of that beast and innumerable explanations for how the particulars of Revelation are supposed to play out. So far, every single one I’ve seen has been significantly flawed. But when this becomes evident, they just get dropped without retraction or apology; and this constant cycle of failure never seems to inhibit new ones from coming along. If all of that teaches us anything, it ought to be that just because a theory or interpretation seems somehow elegant or winsome to us at the moment, that does not mean it’s going to pan out; so investing too much belief too quickly is unwise.

Locusts and Images

Tom: Now, to be clear, I don’t dismiss the possibility that Revelation contains what may well be references to technology. The locusts of chapter 9 could be robotic, especially if they’re the same locusts seen in a prophetically futuristic interpretation of the book of Joel. And chapter 13 makes reference to an image of the beast that is given breath, or alternatively “spirit”. It’s not inconceivable technology is involved there.

But I certainly don’t insist on it. It may not be that way at all. And as you say, we’ve lived through a lot of theories. One of my favorites was identifying the beast with President Reagan: R-O-N-A-L-D  W-I-L-S-O-N  R-E-A-G-A-N. Six six six. That was one of the many that I think we can safely say now did not pan out.

IC: Or Henry Kissinger, or Saddam Hussein, or my favorite, Zombie Hitler. No kidding … there was a conspiracy theory to the effect that Hitler was going to get round two.

Something Lawless This Way Comes

Tom: Aargh. Yes, there have been plenty of nutbar ideas floating around. But one problem I have with this new one — the beast as AI, or even “Sophia” — is that the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians is consistently referred to as, well, a MAN.

“Man” is anthropos, meaning human — which technically leaves open the very slim possibility of a woman, I suppose — but he’s also called the “son of destruction” or “son of perdition”. (That latter word, yes, is also used infrequently to describe children generally, but the vast majority of the time it does refer to a male.) So if the “man of sin” turns out to be a woman, it seems like it would be a bit of a headfake on the part of the apostle Paul. And if he turns out to be a woman robot, I’m thinking the prophecy would simply have been worded a little differently.

I just don’t see the prophets of scripture being so “clever-clever”. They’re enigmatic. They’re not outright deceptive.

Fancy and Reality

IC: Okay, Tom … so as you see it, is there any merit at all to this kind of thing?

Tom: Well, yes … as I say, some sort of tech may be involved in the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament and Revelation. That’s not in question, at least as far as I’m concerned. But I don’t think we’re moving toward any kind of “singularity”. I can’t see that there’s anything to fear in that department. The “collective consciousness” of humankind is not going to be encapsulated in AI.

Bernie: Yeah, this technology will get good enough in the very short term to be really, really impressive. I suspect we’ll become unable to detect manufactured from born very shortly. But I don’t think we’re on the verge of a truly new ‘evolutionary step’ as many seem to hope/fear.

And I’m hoping to be ‘home’ in the truest sense before that becomes an issue for me!

Tom: Amen.

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