The Imago Dei Meets Superhuman Potential

Our theology offers a humble counterbalance to the high-tech push for progress.
The Imago Dei Meets Superhuman Potential
Image: mshipp / Flickr

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been in the news quite a bit recently—and not just because of developments related to his global social network. In December he announced, through an open letter to his newborn daughter, that he and wife Priscilla Chan were dedicating 99 percent of their Facebook stock to philanthropic causes that would, among other things, advance human potential.

“Advancing human potential is about pushing the boundaries on how great a human life can be,” the letter read. “Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today? Can our generation cure disease so you live much longer and healthier lives?”

Zuckerberg’s new year’s resolution was to build an artificial intelligence system in his home, complete with voice and facial recognition, to do everything from adjusting temperature and lighting to automatically reordering supplies and monitoring his baby.

Then, in late February, he introduced journalists at the Mobile World Congress in Spain to his virtual reality technology. An image of a satisfied Zuckerberg walking by hundreds of plugged-in, unaware humans caused some to comment that he looked like an all-powerful overlord in a dystopian tech future.

These may seem like no more than the fanciful hobbies of the eighth-richest person on the planet. But Zuckerberg’s gadgets reflect a worldview that has captivated many of our scientific and technological elites: humans will become the best versions of ourselves through the augmentation of technology.

Stronger, healthier, smarter

Such faith in technology to vastly expand the capabilities of humans is referred to as transhumanism. Along with Zuckerberg, other wealthy and influential adherents to transhumanism include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. These Silicon Valley titans have already revolutionized the way we access information and build relationships. Their next goal is to create technologies that will remake Homo sapiens into a stronger, healthier, and smarter species than our physical bodies alone could allow.

They are dedicating billions of dollars and the greatest minds in science and engineering to develop a range of human-enhancing innovations. Virtual reality promises to transport us anywhere. Wearable devices put us closer to connecting the human brain to the digital cloud. Genome editing allows us to design our babies and cure any disease or disability, up to and including death itself.

Such ideas may seem distant, over our heads, or irrelevant. But many of the devices we cling to, and the new technologies we await, come out of a culture that’s increasingly shaped by this philosophy.

Transhumanists would argue that we already demand and depend upon technology to increase our capabilities: Excel spreadsheets do our math; the Internet widely expands our knowledge base; gene therapy treats cancer and other diseases. For them, the vision of human existence becoming fully integrated with machines is just the next iteration of our current reality.

We will increasingly become non-biological,” predicts renowned inventor and leading transhumanist Ray Kurzweil. “Our thinking will be a hybrid of our biological brains and the cloud.” Kurzweil expects humans’ minds to be “fully backed up” and our bodies essentially immortal by as soon as 2045. (Kurzweil, age 67, takes 150 supplements a day in hopes of living long enough to benefit from life-extending technologies. If he dies, he plans to be cryogenically frozen so he can be reanimated in the future.)

For transhumanists, this pursuit of technological solutions as the savior of humanity has become its own religion of sorts, filling that most human of needs to seek something greater, higher, and more eternal. But their actions, fueled by essentially limitless resources and an unquenchable zeal, will affect us all. The coming innovations will force us to confront what it means to be human when infallibility and mortality no longer seem so certain. How will such abilities influence the way we see ourselves? How will they affect our relationships with one another, the rest of creation, and God?

Other complex ethical questions will surely confront us as well. Who will have access to these life- and mind-enhancing technologies, and who will not? What physical and psychological traits would be selected in designer humans, and which would not? Could our planet support people living much longer and using up more resources than they currently do?

Optimistic transhumanists tend to believe people are fundamentally good and constantly progressing forward; for them, these questions pose less of a concern. Without a framework to recognize our inherent selfishness and pride, or the need to honor traits like humility and weakness, the preference for becoming smarter, stronger, and longer-living will consistently prevail.

But for Christians, well-aware of the evil resulting from unchecked pride and greed, such dilemmas weigh heavily. As technologies march forward, it is essential that we bring a clear-eyed consideration of whether such innovations move us closer to God and his kingdom—or if we are digitally constructing a modern-day Tower of Babel. Are our technologies enabling us to live into the intelligence, dignity, and beauty God has given us, or are we reaching for more power than we have the capacity to control or understand?

Outpaced by technology?

A growing number of technologists and scientists believe that the heavy investment in human-surpassing artificial intelligence being made today could tip us in that very direction, through what is called a technological singularity. Some experts see this as the apex of technological progress, one that will save humanity. Others worry it could bring about an apocalyptic end to our species.

In mathematics and theoretical physics, a singularity is the point at which a function takes an infinite value, or a value so colossal and ever expanding that it is essentially limitless. The most concrete example of this phenomenon in our universe is a black hole, posited by physicists to hold a gigantic, growing amount of mass in the tiniest of spaces.

A technological singularity, then, would occur when our technology, in the form of advanced artificial intelligence, is able to perpetually improve upon itself, such that the rate of technological change approaches infinite. Once this intelligence masters machine learning, whereby its lightning-fast, expansive digital networks mimic the ability of the human brain to learn, act, and create without specific programming, we humans would no longer be the smartest ones. We’d find ourselves outpaced, and perhaps overruled, by the superintelligence we created.

On the surface, it sounds like a tired plot turn from many a science fiction novel or film: artificial intelligence becomes smarter than humans and takes over the world. But highly regarded scientists across different fields—including biologists, psychologists, and computer scientists—are hotly debating the prospect of such a singularity. Leading neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis claims that the brain is far too complex to be reverse-engineered; cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues that economic, biological, and social roadblocks will stop a singularity from ever occurring; Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen acknowledges it’s conceivable but only in the very distant future. Some, like theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, claim a technological singularity is very possible and could arrive in the next few decades.

If it did occur, humanity would no longer simply be playing god by manipulating our bodies and minds. We would, in essence, have created god in the form of an omniscient and omnipotent digital entity. Kurzweil, who believes firmly in a post-singularity utopian future full of healthy, long-living humans, says in a documentary about him, “So, does God exist? Well, I would say, ‘Not yet.’” Tellingly, the singularity is sometimes referred to as the “rapture of the nerds.”

A number of scientists, intellectuals, and leaders are wary that the singularity could create a hostile superintelligence. In 2015, a group of them went so far as to publish a signed statement urging us to slow down our development of artificial intelligence and commit more resources to understanding the ramifications of advanced artificial intelligence and how to protect ourselves against it.

Hawking, who has personally benefitted from some of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence available, has spoken in strong terms against the evil that the singularity might bring upon our species. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” the renowned physicist said in a 2014 interview with the BBC. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, considers artificial intelligence our greatest existential threat, so much so that he has dedicated $1 billion of his personal fortune toward researching how “to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole.”

Some Christians take a similar view, predicting that the singularity will bring about Armageddon and the end times. Others believe that the basis for advanced artificial intelligence research is already flawed, as it threatens human beings’ status as unique bearers of imago Dei. And still others call themselves Christian transhumanists and see the coming singularity as the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem humankind and transform us into immortal beings.

Regardless of whether the singularity is imminent, we can’t deny that humanity is barreling toward a season of extraordinary change, in which ever-smarter machines will both enhance us and replace us. In the lauded book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, entrepreneur and engineer Martin Ford writes that we have long assumed that machines are tools to help us become more productive. The great shift happening now is that “machines themselves are turning into workers, and the line between the capability of labor and capital is blurring as never before.”

Self-driving vehicles, due on the market in as little as five to ten years, could make 9 million trucking industry jobs obsolete. More broadly, machines will likely take over 80 million American jobs in the next two decades, forcing about half of the workforce to find new livelihoods. Automation could even mostly replace high-skilled professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and architects. Despite the many positive intentions behind them, these new technologies could end up destroying more than they contribute.

Christians’ role

The future could involve hostile superintelligence or technology-driven discrimination and inequality; or it could be characterized by innovations applied moderately and wisely in pursuit of healing, compassion, justice, and human dignity. It is humans—not machines—who will determine which way the pendulum swings. Those of us fortunate to live now are on the precipice of these changes, and the choices we make, the conversations we engage in, and the perspectives we challenge and affirm could very well shape that future.

“Christians should never be anti-science or anti-progress,” wrote the late Chuck Colson. But science, he explained, “tells us what can be done, not what ought to be done. This is the province of moral and ethical judgment… and Christians must be prepared to bring this particular dimension to the debate.” Theologian Celia Deane-Drummond exhorts, “Technology needs to remain our servant, not our master or our goal. In other words, we need not totally reject such technology, but appreciate its proper limits according to particular goals that express the common good.”

Christians could and should play a vital role in shaping the research and policy that determine what technologies are pursued and how they are applied. Our theology provides a necessary counterbalance to the assumption that unabated technology alone can create the best versions of humanity and our planet.

The future will likely be unrecognizable to early 21st-century humans such as ourselves. But Christian voice and Christian action are imperative in ensuring that the future is still one that honors God and the remarkable humans he created us to be.

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun writes for Her.meneutics. You can find her online at chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct.

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The Imago Dei Meets Superhuman Potential