Lights Out

Friday, September 24, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

A heavy thunderstorm rolled through Grand Rapids on Tuesday evening.  I have most of the sensitive electronics on surge suppressors, but when I looked at all the red (severe) on the weather map, I figured it couldn’t hurt to unplug some of them completely.  I unplugged the upstairs (more expensive) television and Blu-ray DVD player and also unplugged my UPS – the uninterruptible power supply kind, not the brown truck that brings fun packages kind.  The storm was intense with loud thunderclaps and a huge whoosh of wind, but short-lived.  The line passed over our house quickly and was gone.  I then walked around the house and plugged everything back in, then sat down at our office desktop computer to do some work.  No sooner had I logged in and got the start-up jingle than wham!  The whole house went dark.  Not just the house, but the whole neighborhood.  I couldn’t see a light on anywhere down the street.  I groaned and complained to my wife that it figures – just when I thought I could safely depend on our electricity, the juice shuts off.  We broke out the flashlights and candles for light and broke out books and Sudoku puzzles to spend the remainder of the evening. 

When the power still wasn’t restored by the next morning, we started worrying that the food in the freezer wasn’t going to make it much longer.  A call to the utility company confirmed that we might not see power for a couple more days.  Ugh!  A quick trip to the nearest gas station with power supplied us with a few bags of ice to keep food cold (and apparently lots of other folks had the same idea – their ice chest box was nearly empty).  My wife and I were both able to work at our respective jobs that day and our son had school, but a number of businesses and schools across our area were canceled for lack of power.  That evening we borrowed a generator from my in-laws and ran it over night to keep the refrigerator going upstairs and the deep freezer and hot water heater going downstairs.  The power was restored the next afternoon and life returned to normal. 

Thinking back, I am amazed at how easily our lives are thrown off kilter when we lose electricity for more than a few minutes.  As the energy form of choice for distribution in modern society, electricity is the fundamental basis for much of our way of life.  Other forms, such as steam or mechanical rotation, are not well suited to long distance transmission nor are they efficient for conversion into other forms at the point of use.  Electricity can be transmitted over long distances with little loss and can be converted easily to heat, light, motion, and more. 

Electricity is so easy to use that we quickly acclimate to its convenience.  That convenience perhaps leads to overuse and waste, but for today I thought I would focus on our dependence on electricity.  Electricity is so ubiquitous that we rarely think about it unless a power failure reminds us how much we do that requires its presence.  Perhaps that is a good analogy to compare to God’s providential care of his creation.  He is not simply the watchmaker creator that wound up the world and then stood back and let it run.  Rather, he continues to uphold our universe.  Like the electricity that keeps our cities and homes running day and night, God the Holy Spirit keeps our universe running, from the spinning of stars around the galactic center to the spinning of electrons around the nucleus of atoms, from the inner workings of the strong and weak nuclear forces to the inner workings of genetic and environmental influences on biological growth.  But unlike electricity that occasionally goes missing, our God never leaves us.  He never sleeps nor slumbers but is always on watch.  Unlike electricity that impersonally and blindly drives our machines, our God is a loving caretaker that intimately knows every blade of grass, every pebble, and every creature in his creation.  With the lights back on at home, I am newly grateful for the current flowing in the wires behind the walls and thereby reminded of my gratefulness to our great God.

What Makes Us Human? Part 3

Friday, September 17, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

If we could endow a machine with intelligence, would the machine have any unalienable rights? If the machine were self-aware, would it have a soul?  I suppose only humans have souls, but I’m not sure I can prove it.  Could God choose to endow a self-aware machine with a soul?  Do we know for certain that God would not do so?  If a machine begged not to be turned off, would it be murder if one did shut it down? Or would it be more like killing an animal, with some ethical connotations, but much less than for a human?  Would we still call it “only a machine” if she had a human-like body?  If she could interact normally in a social setting, could write music, compose poetry, and make insightful comments about current political events?  If she could laugh and love and cry?  Would we still call her a machine? 

How big is the tent called “humanity”?  Where do we draw the line that defines “human”?  Is it a matter of biology and genetics?  It is a question of intelligence and rationality?  Is it a matter of spirit and soul?  What about humans with reduced mental capacity?  Do they still deserve respect, as creatures created by God – as humans made in the image of God?  What about an unborn human still in the womb, so early in development that she is not yet as intelligent as a dog or a dolphin?  Or even earlier, when she is just a few cells clinging to the wall of her mother’s uterus?  What about a middle-aged man in a coma after an accident, unable to move and unable to communicate?  What about an elderly woman with advanced Alzheimer’s disease who hardly remembers her own name and can barely function?  Are the embryo, coma patient, and Alzheimer’s sufferer each human even if some non-human animals and machines can out-think them?  I believe so and thus I am hesitant to define humanity only in terms of intelligence.

If intelligence is not the key discriminator, is our humanity simply a biological inheritance?  Perhaps we are human by virtue of the fact that we are born of a woman.  But are test-tube babies human?  They are still the result of a biological union of sperm and egg, even if that merging occurs in vitro.  Let’s walk a little further down that path – where do we lose our humanity?  Would a human clone still be human?  What about a genetically modified human?  How many genes can we alter before we lose our humanity?  Genetic modification is not the only alteration possible.  Could we mechanize a human so far that they become machine, not man? What about technological replacement of human parts?  It seems obvious that someone with an artificial joint, such as a hip or knee, is still human.  Even an artificial heart wouldn’t change their basic humanity.  However, what if in the not too distant future we have the medical technology to replace injured brain tissue?  If someone has part of their brain replaced with a computer after a severe accident, are they still human?  Which parts of the brain, and how much of it, could we replace before we lose our humanity?  If futurist Ray Kurzweil eventually gets his wish and downloads his entire brain into a computer (in order, in his words, “to live forever”), would the computer simulation of his brain still be human?  Should I call the computer “Ray” and use “him” as the appropriate pronoun?  What if we make multiple copies of this particular program?  Are they each human?  Are they each Ray?

I don’t see a clear way to draw a line between human and non-human.  There are too many unusual cases and counter examples that call into question any line I attempt in circumscribing the category called “humankind”.  But if I had to choose, I think I would err on the side of generosity, making the tent larger rather than drawing it up more narrowly.  I would treat embryos as human earlier rather than later.  I would treat machine-enhanced people as human even when heavily enhanced.  Even if I mistakenly grant humanity where it is not deserved, at worst I have given a little more respect to another of God’s creatures.  And respect for God’s creation in all its aspects is not such a bad thing.

What Makes Us Human? Part 2

Monday, September 06, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Does our ability to remember past events make us human?  Animals and computers can do that also.  What about our ability to pretend, to play games, or to laugh?  Is humor something intrinsically human?  Or perhaps our creativity is core to our humanity.  Our music, art, or literature (all culture making activities) might be a key part of our being.  Some would point to our ability to make and use tools.  Although a few instances of animals using simple tools have been observed, such as a tool-making crow, we are far more advanced than any other creature in this respect.  Do our emotions set us apart?  Some animals exhibit sadness and joy, though humans seem to have a much broader repertoire of emotional responses.  Is it altruism – our ability to sacrifice ourselves for the good of someone else?  Or perhaps our humanness is in our ability to sense something beyond ourselves – our ability to recognize and worship God. 

In the 1950s, Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a computer could think, i.e., whether it was artificially intelligent.  In the “Turing Test”, a human interrogator communicates with two rooms, A and B, via a computer terminal.  A human responder is in one of the rooms and a computer responder in the other, but the interrogator does not know which is which.  The interrogator can ask either room any question.  The conversation might go like this:

Question to Room A:  “What is 2 plus 3?”
Room A response:  “5.”

Question to Room B: “What is your favorite color?”
Room B response:  “I don’t have a favorite, though I tend to prefer blue shirts.”

Question to Room A: “Are you self-aware, and if so, how do you know?”.
Room A response:  “Je pense, donc je suis.  Ha ha … do you think you have Descartes in here?

On and on it goes, with as many questions as the interrogator can think to ask.  The answers come back from each room via the terminal (so that the interrogator cannot use physical appearance to decide which is the human and which is machine).  The computer passes the test if the interrogator is unable to determine which room contains the computer.  Turing claimed that passing the test was proof that the machine was artificially intelligent.

Although Turing developed his test to check the creativity and human-like behavior of the computer, I think such a test might be not so much an endorsement of the computer’s ability but rather a rebuke of the human in one of the rooms for lacking creativity – or perhaps it is a lack of creativity and cleverness on the part of the interrogator?  This is really a three-way contest between the interrogator, the human responder, and the programmers of the computer.  Can the interrogator out-smart the programmers?  Can a series of questions be constructed that the computer did not anticipate or answers in such a way that it gives away its true identity?  Can the human responder answer in such a way to prove they are the true human in this trial?

Philosopher John Searle suggested a counter-argument to Turing in his “Chinese Turing Test”.  He posited a test similar to Turing’s test, but this time it is all done in Chinese.  A Chinese interrogator writes out questions in Chinese (either by hand or with a word processor that allows typing Chinese characters) and passes them to each room.  Each room responses with answers also written or printed in Chinese. 

In Searle’s gambit, we imagine that the computer passes the test and thus according to Turing, the machine is intelligent.  Searle then suggests a second round of the test.  Before running the second test, take the computer program for the supposedly intelligent computer and write it out as a set of English commands.  Certainly the instructions would be numerous, filling many pages in a massive tome.  It would contain detailed steps for analyzing characters.  Perhaps it would be a series of checks for various slashes and dots and swirls on the page, sending the reader to a variety of other pages in a giant “choose your own adventure” book.  Eventually the instructions would have the reader start putting their own slashes and dots and swirls on the answer page.  Searle then would have the test run again, this time with a human Chinese speaker in one room (same as before) but a human English speaker along with the English instruction book in the other room (instead of the Chinese-speaking computer).  As the test proceeded, every time the English speaker got a question, she would have no idea what the question meant (since it was written in Chinese).  But she could follow the instruction book step-by-step.  Eventually the book would lead her through constructing glyphs on a page.  The symbols would mean nothing to her, but eventually she would have a whole set of them on the page and finally she would come upon an instruction that said to send it back to the interrogator.  The Chinese interrogator would have no trouble reading the response and it would make good sense as an answer to his query (since the original program worked flawlessly, so too would the English implementation, though at a much slower pace).  Searle then asks us to stop and think about this incredible turn of events.  The English speaker has just responded to the Chinese interrogator – in Chinese, even though she does not know Chinese!  We cannot possibly say that she is intelligent in Chinese.  In fact, the person who wrote the original program (and perhaps the person who translated the program into an English book of instructions) was the one that understood Chinese enough to break it down into a long list of instructions about how to interpret and respond to it.  Searle then concludes that just as the English speaker did not know Chinese, neither did the original computer.  Rather the computer programmer was the one that knew Chinese.  So the only thing that was proven by the test was that the programmer is intelligent.  But we already knew that!

If we believe that we humans ourselves are simply controlled by a set of neurons that automatically, instinctively, and deterministically respond to the environmental stimuli presented to our senses by producing programmed behavioral outputs, then Searle’s argument applies to us as well.  We are merely the biological machines that run a wetware program.  We are not actually intelligent ourselves; rather, we only serve to prove that our Creator is intelligent. 

I protest such an interpretation.  I am not an automaton that carries out orders dictated by instinct without deviation and without choice.  I have the ability to make my own decisions, to choose my own path.  I am the master of my own fate.  Life is meaningless if I cannot create my own future.  Life is a cruel joke if I cannot escape a predetermined fate. But of course this desire for self determination may be pride that was, at least in part, the original sin of humankind.  In perhaps the ultimate creative act of the drama of creation, God granted free will to the steward of his creation.  While I can envisage a computer program that makes choices based on pre-packaged rules or even randomized selections, I cannot imagine any means to give a computer actual free will.  While I apparently have it myself, I do not know how to bestow it on my machine creation.  Perhaps that is part of the imago dei .


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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest