Thursday, January 02, 2014

Our Possible Imminent Divinity

We might soon be gods.

John Searle might be right that digital computers could never be conscious. Or the pessimists might be right who say we will blow ourselves up before we ever advance far enough to create real consciousness in computers. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Searle and the pessimists are wrong: In a few decades we will be producing genuinely conscious artificial intelligences in substantial quantity.

We will then have at least some features of gods: We will have created a new type of being, perhaps in our image. We will presumably have the power to shape our creations' personalities to suit us, to make them feel blessed or miserable, to hijack their wills to our purposes, to condemn them to looping circuits of pain or reward, to command their worship if we wish.

If consciousness is only possible in fully embodied robots, our powers might stop approximately there, but if we can create conscious beings inside artificial environments, we become even more truly divine. Imagine a simulated world inside a computer with its own laws and containing multiple conscious beings whose sensory inputs all flow in according to the rules of that world and whose actions are all expressed in that world -- The Sims but with conscious AIs.

[image from http://tapirangkasaterbabas.blogspot.com; go ahead and apply feminist critique whenever ready]

Now we can command not only the AI beings themselves but their entire world.

We approach omnipotence: We can create miracles. We can drop in Godzilla, we can revive the dead, we can move a mountain, undo errors, create or end the whole world at a whim. Zeus would be envious.

We approach omniscience: We can look at any part of the world, look inside anyone's mind, see the past if we have properly recorded it -- possibly, too, predict the future, depending on the details of the program.

We stand outside of space and to some extent time: Our created beings can point any direction of the sphere and not point at us -- we are everywhere and nowhere, not on their map, though capable of seeing and reaching anywhere. If the sim has a fast clock relative to our time, we can seem to endure for millenia or longer. We can pause their time and do whatever we like unconstrained by their clock. We can rewind to save points and thus directly view and interact with the past, perhaps sprouting off new worlds from it or rewriting the history of the one world.

But will we be benevolent gods? What duties will we have to our creations, and how well will we execute those duties? Philosophers don't discuss this issue as much as they should. (Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky are exceptions, and there's some terrific science fiction, e.g., Ted Chiang. In this story, R. Scott Bakker and I pit the duty to maximize happiness against the duty to give our creations autonomy and self-knowledge.)

Though to our creations we will literally have the features of divinity and they might rightly call us their gods, from the perspective of this level of reality we might remain very mortal, weak, and flawed. We might even ourselves be the playthings of still higher gods.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

`Keep an eye out for Godzilla dropping from the sky.

Dr Gene Landrum said...

I read the article, and it makes lots of points, points that have been made by SyFy seekers many times in many ways; (Movies, Comic Books, Visions, etc.) "Fiction today, Non-fiction tomorrow!" is my book, based on Fiction! or is it? My Play, based on the Book, called; Orbs, Energy at Play" Both the Book and Plan are based on Quantum Theory of Everything, "Where Everything is Energy, even God's Energy is Pure Energy, and we human's are Sparks of Energy." Dr. Gene~Landrum, Philosopher of Quantum Theory. "Our Earthly Bodies are made of Earthly Elements, to be returned to the Earth as Dust, our 2 Minds are made of Energy, Energy cannot be destroyed, only distorted, by our Energy." Can we put our Energy into a 'Robot' Yes! Will it be Human, No! We are closer to 'Clone' of Humans, than to 2 Minded Robots. My Prediction and I'm stickin' to it! Dr. Landrum

Dr Gene Landrum said...

I'm looking forward to more interesting insights into "The Splintered Mind" As long as Human's can question, there will be answers and those answers will create more questions, because we humans will never ask the last question, for a final answer, just as we can't go faster than the speed of Light! Question, how long does it take for our 'Freed' Spirit, go from the Earthly Bodies, to the Cosmos? I'll bet its 'faster than the Speed of Light' how do I know because Light was created for Mankind, not God!

Callan S. said...

If the sim has a fast clock relative to our time

Well, that spoilers the hypertime idea in Bakkers series... ;)

So, in what other ways can we be bad parents, anyway?

Wait, what, were saying were gods, rather than parents?

Scott Bakker said...

For my money David Roden has the most perspicuous account of all these possibilities. He has a book on the topic, Posthuman Life, coming out this spring: http://www.amazon.com/Posthuman-Life-Philosophy-Edge-Human/dp/1844658066/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1388753892&sr=8-1&keywords=David+Roden

I've always been fascinated by the way technology allows approximations of traditional transcendence. I have a cheeky piece I gave at the Toronto Specfic a couple of years ago(http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/less-human-than-human-the-cyborg-fantasy-versus-the-neuroscientific-real/) which explains my pessimistic take in our story.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! And thanks, Scott, for the link to your piece (which I pretty much agree with) and for the heads up on Roden's forthcoming book, which looks very interesting.

Amod Lele said...

It seems to me it's by definition not omnipotence or omniscience if it applies only to one world and not another...?

Helen said...

In the science fiction novel Simulacron 3, written by Galouye, people are making a simulation for marketing purposes, to test out products in the simulation to see what will sell (a while ago I read it so...sorry if it's a bit blurry). They then gradually discover that they themselves are part of an even larger simulation (I'm not giving a spoiler here, it's fairly easy to see).
The main character, Douglas Hall is the avatar (not in the sense that he's being steered, like Lara Croft, rather he's the perfect copy of the guy, in an incarnational sense) who designed the simulation they live in. But interestingly, the guy in the "real world" (or the highest level up discussed in the book) is a real bastard, a cold, callous horrible guy who doesn't care one whit for his simulation.
The point is, Douglas Hall, when he realizes that he's in a simulation and who's behind it, doesn't think the people behind it (the level up) are gods. He sees them for the opportunistic people they are, and that is an interesting point. If the simulators are doing something that we can do, or conceivably do, there's no reason to think they're gods. Suppose we found out we were in fact in a simulation, the response would not be to think those people are gods. Something along the liens of Anselm is at work: if it's not the greatest conceivable thing (and simulations, let's face it, aren't that great), then it's not God.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Amod: Maybe not. And it's probably not strict omnipotence or omniscience in any case. But it's far more than Zeus has over the Greeks, and that's good enough for the sims to properly refer to their creators, in their own language, as gods. (There might be an interesting philosophy of language question here about the translation of their term "god" into our language.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Helen: I disagree! Ares is a god, no?

Helen said...

Eric: but if you think about a god like Ares, then you are far from the divine omni-attributes you outlined earlier (Ares can be tricked, so clearly doesn't know everything that goes on, he can be overpowered etc). Perhaps we could imagine, in Humean sense, our simulators as gods that are very powerful, but that can still be tricked, flattered etc.

Amod Lele said...

Yeah, I think in many respects we're looking here at the difference between a small-g and a capital-G god.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Helen & Amod: My thought here is that if Ares is a god, then the sim creator ought to be properly referred to as a god by people within the sim. This god has much more power over the sim world than Ares had in ancient Greek mythology. The being is still short of the perfections often attributed to the "omni-God" of orthodox Western monotheism, but the being does seem to approach the power and the knowledge perfections.

Jorge A. said...

What is the earliest known work that has a character meet an author that is writing the novel the character is in?

As far as I know it is Mist (Niebla) by Miguel de Unamuno.

C said...

>>We approach omnipotence: We can create miracles. We can drop in Godzilla, we can revive the dead.

I wouldn't be so certain about the last one (reviving the dead). Whether a dead person has been revived involves metaphysical questions about personal identity that aren't necessarily under our control (e.g., did you really revive the dead person, or did you just create a new, similar person?) The problem doesn't disappear when you're talking about virtual-people in a virtual environment.

Anyway, to echo some earlier comments, I think a lot of monotheists think there is a lot more to God than the attributes you describe; that's why they tend to balk at the "who created God?" question - they don't think of God as just some smart, powerful dude who happens to create and control the universe. He's also the 'ground of all being'...or something like that (and that's not even getting into things like God's moral perfection and unchanging nature). So even in the situation under consideration, I don't think we'd be anything like a God of this sort.

You might say we're more akin to the Greek gods, but in that case I think we're already there - at least with respect to our ability to control lab animals and their environments.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jorge: That's the earliest one I know, too. I love that book!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

C: I think there's a pretty interesting space between the Greek gods and the orthodox absolutely perfect monotheistic God. That's what I'm aiming for.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Oh, and yes, C, I think you're right that the question of personal identity in resurrection is a complicated one.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit surprised that this post doesn't address the most obvious question of all viz. how do me know that human beings are not already in this state? We do not need to imagine "The Sims" with fully conscious AI because we live it everyday. Right now. This second.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Indeed, I don't rule out that possibility! I discuss it in other posts, including the one I link to at the end of the current one.

Howie Berman said...

If the world is a quantum computer, then aren't we all in Denmark, so to speak or in other words isn't the world a SIM?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yeah, maybe. Check out David Chalmers on the Matrix as Metaphysics for some interesting reflections on that issue.

Anonymous said...

in that picture, we look perfect. humans.
can we imagine ourselves not being perfect?
what's the end of perfection? actually, it looks like barbie and ken. but still, it's about perfection, the way each of us understands