Book review: 2084 - Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity

The latest issue of Affinity's Social Issues Bulletin is out now. It is free to download, as are all previous editions. One of the articles is a book review by Tim Dieppe. The book, by disinguished Oxford professor John Lennox,, looks at the current and future possibilities for artificial intelligence and transhumanism:

2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity
John C Lennox, Zondervan Reflective, 240pp, 2020, £11.50 Hardback (Amazon)

Professor John Lennox of Oxford University has become a leading Christian apologist, particularly on issues of a scientific nature. I have benefitted from several of his books and was looking forward to this latest one. I have long been interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and my first degree was in computing. Early in my career I developed an algorithm for a computer to invest in the stock market. The theory was that computers and algorithms are not hindered by emotional attachments or prejudices towards companies which all human fund managers will inevitably have. Computers will just invest by the numbers, and they should therefore outperform over time. There is a lot of truth in this, of course, but it is not as simple as all that, and there are also other consequences to consider.

There are many benefits of AI. I have sat in the driving seat of a Tesla with my arms folded while it neatly parked itself in a tight spot. One day most cars will be able to do that. Smartphones can recognise vocal instructions’satnavs can tell us the fastest route and guide us out of traffic jams. Use of AI in medical diagnostics is now widespread and can outperform the best human doctors. Lennox points out that the NHS plans to be a world leader in AI in five years’ time which will help meet its target of making up to 30 million outpatient appointments unnecessary, saving over £1bn (57). This also serves to illustrate a possible downside: something is lost when we substitute a robot for a human when it comes to medical appointments.

As the title suggests, Lennox is taking his cue from George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, which presents a dystopian vision of society’s use of AI. Lennox also has Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in mind. Lennox quotes Neil Postman:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. (12)

Lennox also interacts throughout the book with three prominent recent bestsellers. The first two are by Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The third book is Origin by Dan Brown. These books all speculate on the future direction and impact of AI. At its most basic level, AI is the use of algorithms in computers to achieve something like the examples above. All that the computer is doing is following a set of instructions. If the computer fails to achieve the task accurately then it is the algorithm that is at fault, not the computer, and the algorithm was provided by human intelligence. In this sense, as Lennox notes, ‘the “artificial” in artificial intelligence is real’ (26).

AI is very broadly discussed and often misunderstood, however. Lennox, following others, likes to differentiate the vision of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) which expects that we will one day be able to construct a super-intelligent machine which can simulate equal or greater intelligence to a human being. This is highly controversial, to say the least, and there are prominent intellectuals who fear computers developing minds of their own, and others who poor scorn on the whole idea as pure fantasy. I am in firmly in the latter camp, but that does not mean that there are not real concerns with the potential of AI.

One issue raised by AI, as already indicated, is the replacement of humans with machines. This is not always bad. There are areas where machines can clearly outperform humans with less risk and no safety issues, such as in manufacturing. The use of computers for job interviews raises more questions. Some people think that nearly all jobs will be automated in the next 125 years! Will robots really compose top 40 songs or write bestsellers? (65) Personally, I think pastors are safe, but robots have been used to say prayers![1] 

Robots have also been used for caring jobs, but most people think they will never match humans in these areas. Nevertheless, there are serious issues raised by the automation of many millions of jobs.

Even more concerning in the near term, is AI surveillance. As Lennox points out, 2.5 billion of us voluntarily wear a sophisticated personal tracker in the form of a smartphone, and almost the same number volunteer information on social media networks. As Lennox says, ‘To welcome an ill-regulated, corporate eavesdropper into your house is a dumb, reckless bit of self-bugging. Yet millions, maybe soon billions of us do it!’ (68). Personally, I turn off voice recognition systems.

China already uses AI in truly Orwellian ways. They are rolling out a social credit system to monitor the trustworthiness of citizens. People get points for interacting with trustworthy people, keeping fit, or reporting on someone else. ‘Anti-social’ behaviour, such as associating with ‘unsafe’ people will lose you points, or get you flagged as ‘unsafe’ yourself (69). Some Chinese companies are even fitting employees with headgear that conceals technology which can read the users brainwaves to detect emotions (70). Nine million people in China have been blocked from buying air tickets because of low scores on these systems! (70) The possibilities of such surveillance create a dreamworld for dictatorships. Here in the UK 1.2 million CCTV cameras have been purchased from China (72). We are living in something very like Orwell’s Big Brother world. One can imagine this progressing into compulsory wearing of a tracking device like an Apple watch which monitors your position and conversations. Attempts to remove the device could result in a lethal injection (107).

Another issue raised is transhumanism – the idea that humanity can be enhanced by technology. Some already exists to enable paralysed people to type with their minds (104). Then there is germline genetic engineering with very serious ethical consequences. Harari actually believes that physical death is now merely a technical problem awaiting a medical solution (85). Lennox rightly explains that death is an inevitable consequence of the fall (159), but Harari’s view is undoubtedly becoming more influential in our society.

The last several chapters of Lennox’s book attempt to provide a biblical perspective on all this. Lennox rightly argues that humans are distinguished from machines in multiple ways. Humans are firstly conscious; machines can never be such. Humans are also spiritual beings, not merely material. Humans have free will, no matter how much contemporary philosophers or scientists may debate this. Computers merely follow instructions. Humans can indeed be upgraded or enhanced – by the work of the Holy Spirit in redemption:

What God offers is a real, indeed a spectacular, upgrade, and it is credible, since by contrast with hoped-for AI upgrades, it does not concentrate merely on technological improvements, but on the moral and spiritual side of human character (170).

In the final chapters, Lennox looks at how AI and AGI may link in with eschatology. It seems likely that the Beast of Revelation 13 will use AI surveillance in a manner similar to China’s use of it today. Purchasing will only be allowed if you worship the Beast. Non-conformity will result in execution – perhaps by lethal injection. Some aspect of surveillance technology could be the mark of the Beast. Lennox even speculates that the Beast is some partial realisation of AGI (201). Revelation also envisages world government and it is clear that the financial crisis, climate change and, more recently, Covid-19, serve to encourage moves in this direction.

Lennox concludes that ‘Fear of AGI should not prevent believers from making a contribution to the positive aspects of narrow AI to the benefit of all’ (224). There are many uniquely human skills and abilities that no machine will ever match. Lennox notes: ‘Man thinks he can become God. But infinitely greater that that is the fact that God thought of becoming human’ (225). ‘Whereas the “artificial” in artificial intelligence is real, the divine upgrades are real and not artificial’ (228).

A lot is covered in this relatively short book. I am surprised to find myself more sceptical of AGI than Lennox, but otherwise there is little if anything else I would disagree with here. It is a very useful overview of the issues raised by AI and presentation of a biblical perspective on them. Recommended.

Tim Dieppe

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for November 2020. The whole edition can be found at www.affinity.org.uk)


[1] https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/9/9/20851753/ai-religion-robot-priest-mindar-buddhism-christianity


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