Is AI meant to replace God?
“We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. […] We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors”.
This is a quote from Stanisław Lem’s “Solaris”. The idea that humans are actually looking for mirrors when venturing out into the unknown touches on a pretty deep subject.
Throughout history, humans have always manifested a so-called religious instinct. Naturally, this gave birth to a vast number of ways that address this need. From Ancient Egypt and the neolithic Anatolian settlement of Çatalhöyük, all the way up to the Greek Gods and the three major Abrahamic religions, we as a species seem to always need a way to relate to the world around us, its structure and universality. All faiths and religions have their place in time, along with their philosophies, rituals and cosmogonies (Creation myths), but they all seem to address the same basic need in ways specific to their demographic and historical constraints.
Once humanity took giant leaps during the Rennaisance and the Science Revolution, it became somewhat obvious that things are a bit more complicated than they seemed. Those fearful Gods that are spread all over the night sky watching us, turned out to be far away galaxies and different worlds. After we flew above the clouds, we noticed there was no Entity sitting on a throne, visibly governing the inner workings of our world. Hence the idea that there is no God, after all. And that was a big turning point in our moral development, one that hasn’t yet been settled.
Nietzche said that:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? […] What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann).
Of course, he was not the only one toying with the idea, but essentially he was referring to the fact that once the way we perceived God is dismantled and dispensed with, we would have to fill one big, fundamental void.
As history teaches us, one way of doing that was to create idols that took the form of actual tyrants and ruthless, psychopathic leaders that allowed some versions of Hell to be created. The Nazi regime, the Soviet Union (especially its GULAGs), Mao Zedong’s China and Hirohito’s Japan (the Nanjing Massacre, more than anything) are just a few notable examples from the 20th century. Eventually, this strategy proved to be deeply wrong, and in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War that succeeded it, Homo sapiens sapiens resorted to a more peaceful and collective approach. Political structures were formed, aimed at uniting different cultures under a common set of rules and principles (NATO, EU, APEC, etc.), and some work quite remarkably, despite the obvious difficulties they encountered along the way.
Another manner of filling the void of a Godless existence is to make ourselves Gods. Since there is no supernatural being that actively watches the individual, one is responsible and in total control of his actions, fate, body and everything else (actually, one’s not). That should open us all up to an endless array of possibilities and offer that supreme freedom we claim to desperately chase. And yes, once religious dogmas are gone, technical and scientific progress prevail, with quite a lot of benefits (looking at the way medical services are performed nowadays would suffice). But something seems wrong at a level that makes it shameful to even speak out loud.
We encounter one of the paradoxes of the human mind: when there are no limits, we wander off randomly into a sea of desperation. We need a common morality as much as we need to live in a community. We need a way to relate to the world and the forces around us, even though we understand a good deal about how they work. But we are now ashamed of stating that and end up playing the God role for ourselves.
Social media is the best tool for a person to become an adulated God. By always seeking the best portrayal and quietly eating up feedback (likes, retweets, etc.), one manages to create a virtual representation of an ideal self (which, unfortunately, is governed only by other people’s desires, dreams and expectations). But is this enough?
Apparently not. A God also creates life. But having children nowadays is seen as a limitation rather than a fulfillment. Plus, it’s too common. We want to be like the God described in the Genesis, the one that breathes life into a piece of mud and sparks a sentient being from nothing. And for that, we strive to create Artificial Intelligence.
Of course, intelligence is a very complex feature and it does not assume that someone programs it beforehand. But, in recent years, technical advances took us on the road to creating some form of a sentient digital being at some point in the future. Influential people are worried about how an autonomous AI entity would act (Elon Musk is probably the most notorious of them at the time of writing). But what is it about this…dream?
Do we hope that, once this sentient Entity created by us is released into the world, we would achieve that Godlike state even if it ends up destroying us? Will it be Genesis 2.0? Are we supposed to go along this (apparently deceitful) path, or should we accept a fact currently shunned away: living as if a God exists is the proper way to live and act out in the world.
Are we capable of extracting the essential out of a faith or religion, and use that in this moment as a way to relate to the Universe as a whole? Are we able to truly look inward and confront ourselves, in order to eventually create The Greater Good that we all need? Can we spark true empathy once again?
Or do we need not the mirror of an extraterrestrial being that may have been “created” by the same “God” that made us, but the mirror of our digital selves, crafted by our own hands in a final effort of narcissistic agony?