Does Elon Musk Know What He’s Talking About? The Human-Machine Future

WHAT ARE WE HUMANS BECOMING?

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning will create computers so sophisticated and godlike that humans will need to implant “neural laces” in their brains to keep up, [Elon] Musk said at a tech conference last year.”[1]

Transhumanism is illustrated in a small part through the quote by Elon Musk above. The question at hand is what is being accomplished through the marriage of technology and humanity, creating a new definition that is encompassed by the word, “Transhuman?” The current sophistication of technology, the ever-shrinking nature of machines and sensors, and the human nature of discovery and desire are all leading to significant changes in the way that humans interact with technology, with one another, and ultimately the divine. This is having a profound effect upon people in our pews in ways that are as yet still unknown and, thus, potentially need to have further discussion about the ethical concerns of such advancement and inclusion without concern into the human condition. Elon Musk is but one example of this drive.

“Soon we would reach the “Singularity”, the point at which we would be transformed into what Kurzweil called “Spiritual Machines”. We would transfer or “resurrect” our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to live forever. Our bodies would become incorruptible, immune to disease and decay, and we would acquire knowledge by uploading it to our brains. Nanotechnology would allow us to remake Earth into a terrestrial paradise, and then we would migrate to space, terraforming other planets. Our powers, in short, would be limitless.”[2]

The positive nature of the expectations of the future as transhumans is obvious in these two references. It cannot be overstated that this is just the very tip of the ever-enlarging iceberg of technology and it’s interaction with humanity. There is a replacement beginning to happen in our culture.

In looking back at the ideas of tools in the Bible as means to an end, they each represent ways for the human to change how relationality to the world at large is experienced. Whether it is for convenience or efficiency, or whether it is for destruction and wounding, or even for beauty and expression, tools in the Bible find their way into the fabric of humanity. Is the drive for transhumanism any different? Meghan O’Gieblyn, in her article, includes the following observation, ““The greatest threat to humanity’s continuing evolution,” writes the transhumanist Simon Young, “is theistic opposition to Superbiology in the name of a belief system based on blind faith in the absence of evidence.””[3] From this one quote, it is easy to immediately sense the hostility toward faith that can be expressed as some seek to find answers in technology rather than faith. However, the very idea of being ‘transhuman’ may be found first in the works of Dante’s Paradiso when referring to the change brought about by the Christian idea of resurrection. As translated by Henry Francis Carey in 1814, “Dante has completed his journey through paradise and is ascending into the spheres of heaven when his human flesh is suddenly transformed. He is vague about the nature of his new body. “Words may not tell of that transhuman change,” he writes.”[4] So, there is an eschatological nature to transhumanism.

I think that this is seen in Musk’s desire for the transcendent reality of immortality through translation of the human mind to a digital expression. It is also seen in Kurzweil as indicated by O’Gieblyn in that optimistic view of what is possible through technology and the interaction with which we become ‘transhuman’ in our existence. And, there is a Christian understanding of the image of God as being somehow also eschatological in nature. That we are somehow fully human and fully in the image of God only when expressed in the fullness of God revealed in the end of all things. We leave our former, broken, humanity behind and in congruence with Dante, words can’t fully grasp the transhuman nature of our new expression. Only in Christ, in Hebrews 1:3, is the exact representation of God, the fullness of the image of God, found.

CHRISTIAN HOPE AND TRANSHUMANISM

Can we find ground for hope between Christian eschatological reality and the seeming hope in the current drive of transhumanism? Perhaps. In the drive of technology to create ever more inroads into the human experience, we find positive impacts in health, social concerns, and even in relationships. The spread of Christianity may be attributed to increased technological advancements.

“During the rise of the Christian church, the vast majority of Jewish and pagan texts continued to be written on papyrus scrolls. But for reasons that are still being chewed over, Christians embraced the codex – basically that same bound and covered lead books that became Amazon’s bread and butter…Most scholars believe that Christians welcomed the new storage device for practical reasons. The codex book was economical, easy to lug around from town to town, and it allowed for random access – a handy feature when you are citing scripture to prove a point in the timeworn manner of biblical exegetes.”[5]

The spread of Christianity as a result of technology is not often acknowledged as such but is insightful to us to help navigate the nuances of either accepting technology as a potential help or feared hindrance. For the hearers of the New Testament, technology was obviously a help. The tool invented years before, the codex, becomes a helpful addition to the experience of humanity in light of Christian faith. In fact, it could also be a help to understanding further the image of God since, without the spread of the hope of Christ, the teaching about the image of God would have been further truncated. So, the tool is helpful to enhance the reality of humanity in light of the Gospel.

But as time has progressed since the New Testament, has the drive of technology become somehow too much? Has the reality of the transhuman eclipsed the ability of the Christian faith to embrace the image of God alongside the advancement of new iterations and expansions of technology? With the ability to choose the genetic makeup of children in utero comes tremendous ethical concerns. Increasing reliance upon technologies to extend quality of life is creating challenges in the ever-increasing drive of humanity to seek immortality on terms that deny spiritual realities. Effected now is our very ability to use our minds in the way that we are accustomed to using them. “Research has found that when we know a digital device or tool will remember a piece of information for us, we’re less likely to remember it ourselves. A recent Scientific American article likened the Internet to the brain’s “external hard drive,” explaining that the social aspect of remembering has been replaced by new digital tools.”[6]

CAN THE IMAGE OF GOD BE REDUCED?

The significant issue for Christianity in its interaction with the Transhuman movement is in the discovery of where the image of God ‘resides’ as such. For the transhumanist, the central concern is the intellect or reason being the focal point. “Transhumanism is the contemporary movement that advocates the use of technologies – biotechnology or information technology – to transcend what it means to be human.”[7] This centers on the view that the whole of the human can be summed up in the mind, the intellect, rationality, reason. For the transhumanist, this drive to better the human is through the ability to quantify the mind and thus open the door to the ‘beyond’ human existence. “First, what makes us human is our intelligence. Second, intelligence consists of information processing. Third, the transfer of the pattern for information processing from our brain to a machine is feasible.”[8]

For the Christian, we cannot reduce the image of God to the intellect. This leads to many horrifying potentialities. For us, the image of God encompasses intellect but is not limited to it. There are four general categories to help us understand the image of God: the substantial view (something of ‘substance’ in humanity that can be pointed to), the functional view (it is in the ‘function’ or ‘role’ of humanity that defines the image of God), the relational view (the image of God is found in the relationality of humanity), and the eschatological view (it is the ‘telos’ of humanity, the final purpose, that defines the image of God in humanity). Without all of these aspects working together, we become less than human. And this becomes the difficulty in navigating the troubled waters of the push for a transhumanism that functions salvifically for people. The push to improve is something that we all long for. The drive within us as Christians is commendable, we want to become more like Christ, better situated in our physical world to bring the good news of hope. But we also recognize the fallen nature of our ‘selves’. This ‘fallenness’ is not taken into account in most transhumanist thought. The sole focus is on an eternity of existence where the intellect alone is ‘saved’ through technology. For the Christian, the eschatological reality is far greater, far more hopeful, thoroughly restorative. As pointed out by McKenny, there is an ultimate reality of inadequacy in the transhumanist to address the larger concerns of God’s grace in the enhancement of humanity and the ultimate fulfillment of hope. “[I]t is a mistake to suppose that technological enhancement can bring anyone closer to this good [grace] by enhancing the natural capacities the share in it or by transforming them into something else.”[9] More of the unredeemed human will only lead to more of that same. It is the external grace of God that truly transforms humanity into the ultimate eschatological reality of the fullness of Christ.

The drive for improvement is to be embraced. As Christians, we have an opportunity to bring hope to the world through the social gospel, the message of the Cross, salvation through the sacrifice of Christ, and the hope of a restoration of the way things should be. Transhumanism attempts to sidestep the larger issues and focuses only on the intellect for salvation. The drive for eternal life is truncated in this attempt, becoming less than human in the process. Will we one day be able to download the entirety of our human experience into digital or quantum matrixes? Perhaps. But in doing so, we become less because this is not the totality of the image of God within us as human. It is only in Christ that we find this truth to be sufficient.

For more info, these two YouTube links may be helpful:

https://youtu.be/f_wV-nP3F44

. https://youtu.be/y6rqNLDnO94

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Abinaya Vijayaraghavan, “Elon Musk on Mission to Link Human Brains with Computers in Four Years: Report,” http://www.reuters.com/article/us-musk-neuralink-idUSKBN17N0CU (accessed May 19, 2017).  He goes on to even greater depth in the article – “”There are a bunch of concepts in your head that then your brain has to try to compress into this incredibly low data rate called speech or typing,” Musk said in the latest interview. “If you have two brain interfaces, you could actually do an uncompressed direct conceptual communication with another person.””

[2] Meghan O’Gieblyn, “God in the Machine: My Strange Journey into Transhumanism,” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/18/god-in-the-machine-my-strange-journey-into-transhumanism (accessed May 19, 2017).

[3] Meghan O’Gieblyn, “God in the Machine: My Strange Journey into Transhumanism,” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/18/god-in-the-machine-my-strange-journey-into-transhumanism (accessed May 19, 2017).

[4] ibid.

[5] Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015), 24-25.

[6] Gregoire, Carolyn. “How Technology is Warping Your Memory.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/11/technology-changes-memory_n_4414778.html (accessed May 19, 2017).

[7] Ronald Cole-Turner. Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, (Palo Alto, Calif; Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 19.

[8] Ted Peters. “The Soul of Trans-Humanism.” (Dialog 44, no. 4 2005), 384-385.

[9] Ronald Cole-Turner. Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, (Palo Alto, Calif; Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 185.

 

FURTHER READING

Cole-Turner, Ronald. Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement. Palo Alto, Calif; Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011.

Davis, Erik. TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, & Mysticism in the Age of Information. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015.

Gregoire, Carolyn. “How Technology is Warping Your Memory.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/11/technology-changes-memory_n_4414778.html (accessed May 19, 2017).

O’Gieblyn, Meghan. “God in the Machine: My Strange Journey into Transhumanism.” TheGuardian.com., last modified April 18, accessed May 19, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/18/god-in-the-machine-my-strange-journey-into-transhumanism.

Peters, Ted. “The Soul of Trans-Humanism.” Dialog 44, no. 4 (2005): 381-95.

Vijayaraghavan, Abinaya. “Elon Musk on Mission to Link Human Brains with Computers in Four Years: Report.” Reuters., last modified Fri Apr 21 04:49:45 UTC, accessed May 19, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-musk-neuralink-idUSKBN17N0CU.

 

I am hungry for the conversation of theology to enter the 'church' in a dynamic way. As a pastor of a healthy, conservative congregation, the tendency is to accept the assumptions that have always been evident in the life of the local church - but there is so much more to recover that has been lost! I am also married, have 4 children (1 married daughter, 1 daughter in College in Colorado, 1 son who loves video games, and 1 daughter who is our surprise!).

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