Watching my grandkids laugh, explore and have fun, I shake my head and wonder where this culture of ours will take them. Do we realize how fast the future is rushing to meet our posterity, and us? In the days ahead, the contours of civilization likely will radically alter, sacred and secular alike, and in ways staggering to think about.
Consider the past: In 1790, 90 percent of people worked on farms; 1870, 50 percent; today, less than 1 percent. In 1900, 90 percent of the population was rural; today 90 percent is urban. Folks worked 60 hours a week over six days with a life expectancy of 47 years. Three percent of homes had electricity, and 15 percent had flush toilets.
Only one in five households owned a horse, and an eighth-grade education was the norm with college graduates numbering a scant 7 percent. Halfway through 2017, it’s hard to fathom the scale of change we’ve undergone and harder still to grasp what’s yet to take place.
Just look at computing
In 1965, Gordon Moore, Intel’s co-founder, predicted transistors on circuits would double roughly every two years. His estimate has held true, but he couldn’t have foreseen 2017 as the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. Now we can contact anyone around the world instantly – from our pockets!
Remarkably, smart phone circuitry is 150 million times more powerful than the computer NASA used to navigate Apollo 11 safely to the moon in July 1969. At the time, NASA computers stored only a megabyte of memory each, were car-sized, and cost $3.5 million apiece.
If the trend continues
Today there’s no stopping things! Forgive the technicality, but the development of carbon-based transistors in hand with quantum/nano-biological computing will take what’s listed below and advance things to ever higher levels:
- computer processing power;
- merging all computing/communication devices;
- wearable technology;
- virtual reality/holographic entertainment;
- genetic engineering/implanted bionics for purposes of human enhancement—quite provocative; and
- job displacement by robots, the most negative.
If the trend continues, artificial intelligence (AI) could emerge exponentially, with no turning back! Processing power exceeding the human brain may suddenly slap an unsuspecting public in the face. The brightest minds in the industry are alleging that one day, hopefully soon, machines and robots will simulate human intelligence successfully, solving challenges previously reserved only for conscious thinking.
Weak and strong AI
There are three waves of weak AI. The first solves problems very fast and works very well in video games, Excel sheets, TurboTax, etc. The second is where machines seem to learn via millions of pieces of data – Siri, Cortana, Watson, AlphaGo, Microsoft’s Tay, Twitter, Chatbox and self-driving cars. But none of these can explain the “why” of things.
Whether third-wave, weak AI is achievable is an open question. Because humans can abstract things based on small amounts of data, third-wave AI tries for the same, operating on minimal information.
The stuff of sci-fi for now, strong AI is what cognitive science is really striving for – machines that function with human-like minds, crossing the threshold into self-awareness/consciousness. Eventually downloading human consciousness to a computer is part of the game plan as well.
Who’s charting our future?
Some of the smartest and wealthiest people in Silicon Valley, the venture techno-capitalists, are teaming up to invest billions to make strong AI happen. Even Google and NASA are cooperating to this end.
Sanctioning the likes of Ray Kurzweil’s think-tank, Singularity University, and Zoltan Istvan’s Transhumanist Party, futurist investors are siding, paradoxically, with an inelegant duo – a hyper-optimistic form of scientism (only science can get at truth) and a transhumanist vision striving to achieve omnipotence (as if achieving divinity).
One dissenting voice, Elon Musk, warns his colleagues’ optimism about AI isn’t justified: “If our intelligence is exceeded, it’s unlikely we’ll remain in charge of the planet.” Bill Gates himself comments about AI, “I don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”
What is lacking
Coming too fast, Christians must begin thinking soundly about the implications of futurity – ASAP! Most techno-futurists assume as true the rationale lying behind philosophical naturalism, which popularizes the universe as a closed system into which nothing god-like can intervene to impose its will.
“In the beginning,” only particles and impersonal laws of physics reigned, and human beings are just bio-chemical machines without souls. Put crassly, we’re meat machines. Christians, of course, recognize immediately how short-sighted this is.
It doesn’t mean, however, believers won’t be influenced or charmed by futurist agendas. Some will! While we know futurists lack an adequately Christian sense of reality, their impact on society may well create a sense of uneasiness about our next cultural steps as followers of Christ.
A google of questions
So, how far will God allow things to go? Theologizing about techno-futures is imperative if we’re to remain comprehensively Christian throughout. Responding to bizarre worlds in the making is paramount. The choices we’ll make individually when faced with techno-options unavailable to earlier generations will be weighty. The church must push for answers to questions raised by the techno-future, however alarming:
- hold fast to their soulish/spiritish identities as made in God’s image;
- be remade in the techno-futurist image, succumbing to the idea that knowledge and experience are nothing more than biochemical brain activity;
- play fast and loose with free will as naturalists do;
- lose their sense of morality, beauty, love, humor, creativity etc., opting for the pragmatic only;
- become further habituated, depressed and isolated by increasing tech abuse/addiction;
- deem various kinds of work as subhuman, preferring robots to take them over;
- indulge in expensive enhancement, transhumanizing themselves through proven drugs, bionic devices, and DNA manipulation, especially teens falling behind and facing peer pressure?
Answering questions related to “future shock” comes down to the worldview on the table, with profound implications about how individual lives and corporate society should conduct themselves considering the techno-futurist demands coming our way.
Too few Christians and church traditions ask the question, “Just because we can, should we?” The simple answer is no, but the issues require sophisticated reasoning. According to Scripture, what you see in the mirror is a uniquely ensouled eternal being, created in God’s image and likeness and more than sufficient for the purposes he grants us.
Hal Ostrander is online professor of religion and philosophy at Wayland Baptist University. Daryl Smith is former adjunct professor of religion at Dallas Baptist University and currently an information technology corporate manager.