Mar 20, 2021
Engineering Illusions Part I: Religion and Technology
An Insider’s Take on the Tech Industry
Note: Introduction to the Engineering Illusions running series is here.
On June 9, 2000, the Heritage Foundation released a report titled The Technology Revolution: Road to Freedom or Road to Serfdom? Written by James Glassman, founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, the report began by celebrating the then phenomenal growth in the stock market:
“Something profound has been happening in the stock market. Yet, during all this time, during this amazing rise in the market — a 20-fold increase in 18 years — what have we heard from academics, from Wall Street analysts, from media pundits? We’ve heard that stocks were over-valued, that we’re in a bubble, that we’re about to crash. We hear it today. We heard it five years ago when the Dow was one-third its current level. We heard it five years ago when the NASDAQ was at one-fifth its current level. We heard it 10 years ago when the Dow was at 2300. We’ve heard it during this entire robust bull market.”
Emphasizing his central thesis of the primacy of technology and its role in such growth, Glassman noted, “The Commerce Department reports that the communications, computer, and software industry accounted for an average of more than one-third of the growth in the economy over the past four years.” Given such spectacular growth, he stressed that technology must be allowed to operate without hindrances to generate the wonders of which it is capable. “Indeed, it is the largely unregulated nature of high technology that has produced the boom that we see today.”
Glassman then lamented that this unmitigated magic of technology is being stifled and “stocks are falling because the risks to real innovators are rising.” Precisely because of the glorious promises of technology, any perceived threats to it must be vanquished. He admonished various institutional anchors that ostensibly weigh down the spontaneous birth and free rein of technology. “The Road to Freedom” shall be paved by technology and it will rescue us from “serfdom” if released to do what it will.
NASDAQ collapsed approximately 70% in the next eighteen months during the Dot-Com crash.
Kneel Before the Angel of Technology
Exaltation of technology is hardly an honor reserved for financial analysts and policy planners. It permeates all corners of modern society. Consumers, politicians, investors and technology developers themselves subscribe to the notion of inevitable triumph of this self-guiding entity. From minor inventions and gadgets, to large-scale industrial techniques, technology will shower upon humanity its wonderful gifts, a necessary condition to reaching our destination. Not sure where we are going? No matter. Technology tells history where it needs to go, the belief goes, and constructs and illuminates our path to get there.
No application of technology is too trivial, no elaborate speculation of the future under the aegis of technology is too unsubstantiated to merit consideration. From current technologies to futuristic technical betterment, the celebration of the wonders of technology and its blessings is reflex. This is best exemplified by Silicon Valley, incompletely understood to be in the Bay Area in Northern California. Silicon Valley exists in New York, London, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Bangalore, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and elsewhere. It extends as a nexus of state institutions, capital, workers, universities, and consumers who supply data for the development of various products and techniques. In short, it is everywhere, and it encapsulates a social system. An entire constellation of state agencies, financial companies, technology corporations, start-ups, universities, stores and other infrastructure form the totality of this ecosystem. Technology operates in this biosphere of bytes, delivering to us its potent faculties so we may continue our journey to nirvana.
One such totem of this ecosystem is Singularity University, a postgraduate institute founded by Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, and Peter Diamandis, a technology entrepreneur, educated at MIT and Harvard. Singularity University is nestled in NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley. Funded by tech companies like Google, Cisco and Genentech, the University teaches a small class of students the ways of “exponential technologies” every summer. In a 2014 Vanity Fair interview with Diamandis, class was in session.
“I think we are going to start to interconnect as a human species in a fashion that is intimate and magical,” Diamandis envisioned. “What I would imagine in the future is a meta-intelligence where we are all connected by the Internet, achieve a new level of sentience…Your readers need to understand: It’s not stoppable. It doesn’t matter what they want. It doesn’t matter how they feel.”
One definition of the singularity is the predicted point in the development of a civilization at which technological progress, enabled by artificial intelligence, accelerates beyond the ability of present-day humans to fully comprehend. Indeed, such an acceleration seems necessary if Kurzweil’s prediction in his The Age of Spiritual Machines is to come true — that by 2029, super-intelligence combined with advancements in biotechnology and nanotechnology will eliminate most poverty and disease, producing “20,000 years of progress” during the first 30 years of the 21st century. How did we get so lucky?
In Abundance, Diamandis provides his answer. Summarizing the vision of the Singularitarians, he explains how “exponential price-performance curves” will soon provide bountiful food, drinkable water and energy for all. Cheaper technologies, a precursor to its rapid global spread, shall trigger these fixes. If such an outcome seems beyond belief, it is simply because of our “human inability to understand exponentials.” Diamandis is sure he comprehends such incomprehensible technologies. He is certain that his cognitive faculties have access to supposedly inconceivable super-intelligence. This much is clear when he asks, “if robots and A.I come together to form the Terminator robot, do you really think they’d give a shit and enslave humanity? [If] we are problematic to them, they’ll find it “easier to move off-planet and go someplace else than to exterminate us.”
Indeed, these technologies will be so advanced and mystifying that we can casually ascertain ‘their intentions’ precisely, or even attribute intentions to ‘them’ at all. However, we need not turn to elaborate speculations about futuristic technologies to understand the depth of technology immutability and preponderance. Far humbler gadgets will do. When Google Glass, a wearable tech, was around the corner, then CEO Eric Schmidt addressed a group at Harvard University in 2013:
“The proposals that we’ve seen of applications are fantastic, so let’s just see. Give us a little bit of time. Let’s not pre-judge a product which is just this week getting to developers. Let’s give it a little bit of time to see what human ingenuity around the globe can do. Our goal is to make the world better. We’ll take the criticism along the way, but criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it.”
Society will adapt to it. States will adhere to it. Users will conform to it. Students will learn for it. Investors will follow it. Such are the mandates of technology. Submission to Prophet Technology and His grand capacity to carve human history, intricately influence our lives and enrich our otherwise forlorn existence will only better the world. These doctrines have hardly borne out of the recent work of technology such as app-based ride sharing, social media or smartwatches. In the final analysis, these products are laughably trivial advocates for technological enlightenment and ultimate salvation, which goes back more than a thousand years.
A 2018–2019 Pew Research Center study showed that US religiosity is on a decline. Those who identified as Christian, the majority religion, declined 12% over the decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated, who described their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” increased to 26% from 17% in 2009. This decline in religiosity has been mirrored by the rapid rise in technological fundamentalism. However, simply reconciling the two trends as distinct, opposing forces diverging naturally ignores the very birth of the technological enterprise in the womb of religion. Today’s secular religion of technology that speaks of its capacities to elevate mankind from its flawed state to impending utopia, and deliver to us the perfection we seek, may sound familiar.
In The Religion of Technology, historian David Noble traced the history of scientific inquiry and technology to show that “modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.” His work substantiated an observation that shouldn’t take a historian to make: this inextricable bond between religion and technology is of industrial-grade strength in the United States, “where an unrivaled popular enchantment with technological advance is matched by an equally popular expectation of Jesus Christ’s return.” While today’s scientific and technical enterprise has largely shed explicit religiosity under the conditions of modernity, it retains within it its primeval mythos.
A repeating pattern of coordinated and cumulative advance in the useful technical arts first emerged during the European Middle Ages. The strong current led to a shift in conventional Christian opinion about various technical activities, that had generally held the useful arts as contemptible because of “their association with manual labor, servitude, women, or worldliness,” and instead “came to be dignified and deemed worthy of elite attention and devotion.” This elevation of the technical arts led to a definitive cultural and intellectual shift. Overtime, technology was associated with transcendence and heavenly ascension, “implicated as never before in the Christian idea of redemption. “The worldly means of survival” came to be “directed toward the other-worldly end of salvation.”
Thus, the growth of the technical arts and the religion of technology that promised apotheosis and divinity were inextricably linked. For followers of the religion, our earthly efforts to either construct through technical means the divine Providence on Earth, or escape to it in the heavens, became the same as reclaiming our lost Adamic perfection. A corollary was that such techniques were only necessary for mankind in its fallen state, one that was rife with imperfections. As Jacques Ellul, theologian and philosopher of technology maintained, in its state before falling from the grace of God, flawless mankind had no need for such arts. Hence, in his fallen state, technology offered to man the possibility of recovering his rightful divinity. The continuous development of the arts became a pious pursuit, one that would deliver to the believer promised salvation.
Celestial Cognition: The Quest for God’s Mind
Theology catalyzed scientific inquiry and technical development, and natural philosophy laced with religious doctrine animated the technical arts. This historical epistemic force greatly influenced the driving beliefs behind technological development. Artificial intelligence is but one example of a modern endeavor, whose tree of philosophy and research grows from the religious soil. Early attempts, influencing later thought, began obsessed with rectifying flawed humanity in body and mind to achieve god-like, ethereal intelligence. In the early 1600s, philosopher, scientist and Enlightenment figure Descartes perceived the mind as mankind’s “heavenly endowment and, in its essence, distinct from the body, the burden of mortality.” In a letter, Descartes proclaimed that “man is a being or substance which is not at all corporeal, whose nature is solely to think.” Such an intellectual endowment of the mind was a gift, “doubtless received from God.” Imbued within this gift was not simply a mortal capacity to think, but a shared Godly essence.¹
The body was a disappointment, however. Lamenting its “epistemological fallenness,” Descartes argued, “the body is always a hindrance to the mind in its thinking.” With helio-centrism on the rise due to the works of Copernicus and Galileo, Descartes astutely observed that simple reliance on our paltry bodily senses did not yield an accurate understanding of natural phenomena, and even produced falsehoods. There must be a distinct essence that allowed for the understanding of obscure phenomena, he hypothesized. Descartes’ mind-body duality had far-reaching consequences. His “peculiar obsession became the principal philosophical preoccupation for three centuries, as diverse thinkers sought to comprehend the mechanisms of human understanding, the categories of reason, the phenomenology of mind,” Noble noted.
A belief in the purity of mind, and the search for its God-like mental operations led Descartes to view geometry and arithmetic, capacities of the “measuring mind,” as the tools with which thought could be modeled. Only these precision tools could “deal with an object so pure and uncomplicated, that they need make no assumptions at all which experience renders uncertain, but wholly consist in the rational deduction of consequences.”² Later, this mathematical notion of thought led the mathematician George Boole, also pious, to consider thought not simply to be modeled but to be fully described in all its processes. According to Boole’s biographer, “It is impossible to separate Boole’s religious beliefs from his mathematics.” The creation of a new algebra, which utilizes 1 to symbolize Truth, “quite possibly reflected his Unitarian belief in the unity of God and the oneness of the universe,” Noble noted. Boole developed this algebra to describe human thought with mathematical operations. Boolean algebra would later provide the logical principles for digital computers.
These developments then triggered in the philosophical fields a feverish search for mathematical models to emulate human thought; in other words, artificial intelligence. Initially, efforts to design thinking machines started ‘humbly.’ To simply replicate the mind was sufficient. However, very quickly did the standard rise to leave human thought in the dust by creating a super-intelligence. Such a super-intelligence would far exceed the capabilities of our species. Free. Ethereal. God-like. Finally, the “epistemological fallenness” of the body would not be a barrier to perfection, and the artificial intelligence would release us from our corporeal shackles.
“Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity” — McDermott
Veneration of such a super-intelligence is but one outcome of the religion of technology. Another one is fearing it. At the 2014 MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered a short sermon when asked about artificial intelligence. He urged, “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.” He continued, “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence, we’re summoning the demon. You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and he’s like — Yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.”
Continuing this line of thought at the 2018 SXSW, now one of many annual technology congregations, Musk declared that A.I is more dangerous than nuclear weapons (side note: a technology itself rooted in convictions of the Armageddon, the Day of Judgement, and salvation). He differentiated between two forms of A.I. As CNBC reported:
In his analysis of the dangers of AI, Musk differentiated between case-specific applications of machine intelligence like self-driving cars, and general machine intelligence, which he has described previously as having “an open-ended utility function” and having a “million times more compute power” than case-specific AI.
“I am not really all that worried about the short-term stuff. Narrow AI is not a species-level risk. It will result in dislocation, in lost jobs, and better weaponry and that kind of thing, but it is not a fundamental species level risk, whereas digital super-intelligence is,” explained Musk.
Let us keep things simple. Ignoring unnecessary terms intended to bedazzle, such as “open-ended utility functions” and “million times more compute power,” Musk pointed out that his concerns do not lie with narrow A.I. Such applications are limited in scope — an algorithm that churns many data points about a user like age, location and shopping history, and spits out advertisement recommendations, a chess program, a self-driving car, a diagnostic tool that monitors and controls a factory operation. All narrow A.I.
Musk is instead concerned about general A.I, which he described as “digital super-intelligence.” Such a theoretical construct of some sentient software that is capable of assimilating improvements unto itself based on learning in a generalized space without constraints is ignoring how rudimentary A.I is and will be for the foreseeable future. Responding to Musk’s comments, Toby Walsh, Professor of A.I at the University of New South Wales said in 2017, “Elon Musk’s remarks are alarmist. I recently surveyed 300 leading AI researchers and the majority of them think it will take at least 50 more years to get to machines as smart as humans. So, this is not a problem that needs immediate attention.”
Indeed, this is assuming that the problems of intelligence and sentience are even solvable in the first place. Outside the technical theocracy, we may be able to ponder over such questions. It may even be useful to actually utilize our wonderful cognitive capacities, our “measuring mind” that is a gift “doubtless received from God.” As Noam Chomsky, philosopher and father of modern linguistics discusses in What Kind of Creatures Are We?, the philosophical position of New Mysterianism contends that consciousness may never be completely explained. ‘New Mysterianism’ was coined by Owen Flanagan, neuroscientist and professor of philosophy at Duke University, who defined it as a “postmodern position designed to drive a railroad spike through the heart of scientism” seeking to explore the intrinsic limitations of human understanding. While the concept grapples with consciousness, the term can be, and has been extended to “broader questions about the scope and nature of explanations accessible to human intelligence,” as Chomsky explains.
To temper religious expectations of Godlike intelligence is to acknowledge some elementary truths — a rare indulgence in our fanatic technical enterprise. In essence, there is a distinction between problems on one hand, and mysteries on the other. Those challenges that fall within our species’ cognitive capacities are considered problems. Those that lie beyond it are mysteries. “The human mind is a biological system that provides it with a limited array of admissible hypotheses that are the foundations of human scientific inquiry — and by that same reasoning, of cognitive attainments generally. As a matter of simple logic, the system must exclude other hypotheses and ideas as inaccessible to us altogether, or too remote in some accessibility hierarchy to be accessible in fact, though they might be so for a differently structured mind.”
In other words, consider a chimp. With repeated training episodes of a simple counting exercise with beans, the chimp can eventually learn basic counting tasks, including elementary addition. This task is within the scope of its intelligence, and hence is classified as a problem. If instead of simple counting, the creature was made to perform linear algebra, then no amount of training will give it the intelligence to solve this challenge. It is simple beyond its biological limits, and hence, it is classified as a mystery. Similarly, the human, having its own biological scope and limits of intelligence, may find that many questions related to its intelligence and consciousness are quite simply, mysteries. It is precisely our biological scope that defines our “heavenly endowment,” as Descartes put it. The scope in turn defines our biological limits. Can we fully understand our cognitive capacities? If humans cannot approach an understanding of consciousness and human intelligence, can we create an artificial version of it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It remains to be seen. What is certain is the blasphemy of such humbling questions in our technical theocracy.
A common refrain to such questions is an inductive argument that points to the incessant wonders humanity has discovered or created. History is evidence of the perpetual expansion of our cognitive achievements, the argument goes, and hence, every challenge will be eventually overcome. This is a common undercurrent seen in works such as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, or any Gates Foundation brochure. Indeed, our capabilities do seem to be infinite. However, infinite is not the same as universal. The set of all integers is infinite, but it does not contain all real numbers. One can construct infinite concepts with English, but it excludes Hindi or Japanese. Hence, referencing the infinite expansion of our discoveries and inventions does not address the dichotomy of problems and mysteries, of scope and limits.
What has no limits is the strength of our specious beliefs, it seems. As Elon Musk claimed in an interview, “At our current rate of technological growth, humanity is on a path to be godlike in its capabilities.”
- D. Noble, Religion of Technology
- Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, Matina Horner, pg 255