Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Veritas Forum is, let's be honest, a mildly-successful Christian proselytization tactic. They organize lectures on college campuses, ostensibly around secular topics but with a hint of that haughty know-it-all-ism that characterizes both the devout and liberal arts students. Veritas' mission is to "inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ," which is a sneaky way to undermine the whole concept of a "forum": individuals arrive with their own experience and ideas, but the forum itself grows organically out of the diversity. If you already know the answers, then you should really just get a soapbox.

Harrigan's been going to all the lectures this week, and she invited me to come along to one called "Minds, Machines, And Metaphysics: What Makes Us Human?" If you guessed Jesus, then you're right. But the talk was by a professor from MIT who worked in an artificial intelligence lab, developing "emotionally aware" software (not as creepy as it sounds), and as a scientist, she'd only make vague allusions to our divine developer, programmer, and debugger. If humans were able to build robots with consciousness, she would say, it would logically follow that those robots could deny their Creator. So, atheists, deal with that logic while you're burning in hell!

I don't see a ton of ways into or out of the whole mind-body dualism conundrum, so I sort of avoid the whole topic, and turn grumpy when I watch something like Ghost in the Shell, wondering, "Now what does that robot have to gain by falling in love?" The whole idea of automaton wants and desires — we can have a facile debate forever about how deterministic human minds are, but we're talking about glorified toasters here and desires that stand outside of whatever mathematical function the programmer uses to represent them.

And besides, couldn't you just unplug them?

The lecturer was emphatic about the point that these artificial intelligences certainly don't feel emotions yet. They built a robot with a mechanical face, for example, that smiles when you're nice to it and looks ashamed when you scold it, but obviously it's not experiencing shame in the way that we do. (Or some of us do, anyway.) It's analyzing the pitch and timbre of its operator's voice, comparing them to "pleased," "sad," "frustrated" templates and then moving its little countenance pieces. The fear that these things will someday supplant us as the dominant minds on the planet is laughable — although maybe a little less so if you believe God graced you with a soul and granted you dominion over all creatures, and along comes these godless liberal ivory tower scientists emulating that. The religious types tend to not like being humbled; I guess that's an advantage to believing that emotions are nothing more than physical brain states and free will is an illusion cloaked behind the laws of nature. We're already humbled. It won't be such a dramatic transition when we're enslaved by our future robot overlords.