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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Calling Cyc!

"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." A classic quote from Kubrick's "2001 - a Space Odyssey" sets in motion the disastrous train events on board an interplanetary probe when an AI (Artificial Intelligence) computer takes over from its human pilots. The computer, HAL, judges the mission to have been compromised by its human astronauts. Such is the stuff of SF "bad machine" scenarios over decades of inspired writing ... but soon we may regard it as prophecy and not just scarey fantasy. Enter Cyc.

Cyc (pronounced "psych") is a computer knowledge base with a startling difference. It learns by interactive aggregation and common sense ... just, some would say, like a human mind. Pre-loaded with over 3 million assertions that help it explore creatively and accurately, it can actually learn more easily as it becomes more proficient. In other words, it is an evolving system. When it goes online later this year and gets plugged into the Internet, it is expected to accelerate away from us in the fast lane. (Full article here in the New Scientist).

Will Cyc ever reach the supposed "singularity" state where smarter than human intelligence takes a machine beyond the reach of its human creators? Could it ever achieve consciousness, mind? Would pulling the plug be equivalent to murder ... putting the plug back in equivalent to resurrection? Would it take steps to defend itself? A little while ago such questions might have seemed fit only for such entertaining SF films as Kubrick's masterpiece. Now, with Cyc, the scenario seems so much closer. Should we be worried?

Well, yes, I think we should be concerned. The very idea that we should create something we cannot control is a very old theme in human literature but now, in this century, we have the power to create something that might one day destroy us completely rather than merely irritate us. My guess is that we should watch Cyc and Cyc's children very, very closely.


David Darling said...

Yes, the idea of some alien intelligence evolving on the Internet really is quite unnerving. The problem seems to be that once it came into being it might evolve with lightning speed - possibly reaching superhuman level within days or weeks - as millions of people continuously "educate" it day and night. By the time we'd made our minds up what to do about, it might be too late. Like all life-forms it would presumably have a strong survival instinct so that it would seek ways to make it difficult for us simply to pull the plug on it. (How do you pull the plug on the Internet?) Its next step might be to try to eliminate us altogether as a potential threat. You'll notice that humans don't (presently) have any close intellectual competitors on this planet. I suspect it might be us or Cyc!

Zac said...

Forgive me if this is an old post, Father. Doesn't this piece (and your previous commenter here) assume that Cyc somehow has a concept of self-hood? Why? Isn't that sort of the nature of the soul (even animal souls)-- that they are somehow aware of themselves in a way that non-ensouled life isn't? How can any amount of information or "learning" create a self?

And more than that, aren't we accepting a very secular (and limited) notion about what "mind" is, if we think that somehow it is the ability to collect information or systematize it? All this seems woefully short of what the Fathers teach about humanity as "image-bearing"-- that this image includes rationality and free-will, which makes us special in the visible created order.

Father Gregory said...

Dear Zac

You raise excellent questions. I notice that you do not necessarily suppose that ONLY humans have souls ... I note your reference to other animals for example, without of course assuming any answer to that question.

It seems to me that your crucial point is about "mind" as that which sustains a sense of "self."

One model of mind I think we must rule out as Orthodox Christians is that which invokes a non-material entity existing alongside and within the wetware of our neurons.

ALL seemingly immaterial concepts .... mind, personality, spirit ... are in truth manifestations of a physical system or matrix. As Orthodox Christians we insist on the resurrection of the BODY and the necessity of regenerative grace for the immortality of the soul. This immortal soul is separated from the body at death. As an entity divested of its physical embodiment it is OF ITSELF a shadow of human life. Only the resurrection imparts renewed vitality to the human person. All this of course is derived from the insistence in the Old Testament of both the goodness and the necessity of the created physical order for human existence. There can be absolutely no body-soul dualism here.

I have emphasised this in order to explain my firm adherence to the materialist conception of mind. We are special of course but that specialness does not demand exclusive uniqueness of the human. There is nothing to suggest that mind could not be found elsewhere. Not only would it be impossible now to deny the view that other higher animals possess mind it is increasingly difficult to exclude the possibility that mind might emerge in a machine.

What seems to be the issue of mind and consciousness here is the matter of complexity of neural connections and organising principles across the whole network. An abacus is obviously non-sentient. It is a mere tool ... no more than a hammer perhaps. Computers that can learn interactively with the environment are no more alive than viruses ... but a virus is a level of complexity and organisation far more developed than an abacus. Who knows where the next level will take us.

I am not concerned that this might be possible ... rather I am worried about unleashing something that is outside our control. A virus cannot think and does not have a mind ... but look what it can do!

Zac said...

Truly, the Lord's work is magnificent and all is for His glory. First, yes, animals have souls: "nephesh" is used throughout the Hebrew Genesis narrative to describe animals, and St. Basil in his excellent Hexaemeron also describes ensouled animals with things like wills, memory, emotions, affections, appetites, etc. However, he says that animal ensouled life is different from human ensouled life. Animal souls are entirely from the earth, and (at least according to St. Basil) they perish with the animals' bodily life. But our soul (by virtue of the "God breath" breathed into Adam) is living-- that is, immortal by grace and sentient on a level far about the other animal life of this planet.

Now getting to your other point-- I ask your forgiveness for being deeply troubled by this idea that you have where you denial the supra-materiality of the mind. I find this nowhere justified in the fathers, and I'm certain in various and sundry places I have seen it flatly contradicted. All the fathers of the Philokalia speak of moving the mind, extending it from its habitation in the brain down into the spiritual heart, in order to achieve a state of pure prayer-- just to cite but one of many examples. Also, it seems to me that the overwhelming patristic consensus is that man is the intersection of the embodied physical existence of animals and the bodiless noetic existence of angels-- such that while we ARE our bodies, that is not all we are. In the words of the Philokalic fathers, the soul inhabits the body like fire inhabits hot iron.

Maybe I'm just misunderstanding you, but I would highly recommend a new book out concerning all of this: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul

So yes, I think that image-bearing human souls survive the death of the body not because of any sort of "dualism" but because the body is not the sum total of our constitution as persons. Have you run these thoughts of yours by your bishop? If so, what does he think?

Thanks for your thoughts.

- isaac

Father Gregory said...

Dear Zac

With respect you are misunderstanding and over-reacting.

Of course I believe in the soul. All I said was that human life as being constituted ONLY by the soul is a shadow life. The reason why we have the resurrection of the body is because on dying, sin induced death has separated the soul from the body, and the healing of our whole humanity ... BODY and soul is required for an authentic human life ... for theosis itself.

Next, the heart. Of course I believe that in prayer the mind descends into the heart. But, what do you mean by the "heart?" Metaphorically the actual heart (as in blood pump) can be spoken of because it traditionally has fulfilled the role of representing both the whole and centre of our human embodied personhood ... but the descending is a prayerful process of the nous which is active inside the cranium. The spiritual heart is there also. We don't have to get into Cartesian dualism and the pineal gland simply to recognise a biological and meta-biological fact.

Any form of dualism always smells to me of gnosticism ... if ever so slightly. That doesn't mean that I don't make a distinction between body and soul, I do ... but division, no? Death does that. This dividing is not natural but rather a result of sin which scatters and corrupts through the transmission of death. God makes whole and raises up so that we might sin no more and be glorified. Christ is Risen!

Zac said...

Truly He is Risen, Father, just as He foretold. Thank you for clarifying what you mean for me. Just so I know I'm getting this straight, you do believe our noetic and even logical faculties are distinct from the neurons that happen to be manifesting the thoughts, words, feelings, and perceptions... right? I mean, at the end of the day, we are more than our brains-- right? And this "more" is not set up in a dualistic/platonic sort of way, because the mind and the brain intersect, complement, and fulfill one another in normal human existence. Is that a fair understanding of what you're saying?

thanks again,

Father Gregory said...

Thia "more than" relates to the idea of the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts. We inherit a reductionist culture in the west that tends toward the analytical and atomistic. This culture finds it difficult to grasp synergistic integrated systems.

There is indeed a synergy across the human person (the whole body but centred in the central nervous system - which includes the spinal cord and from thence to the Big Toe). This synergy of neural connections and interfaces with God and the World produces something genuinely new and incapable of being sustained by any one part ... consciousness, mind, heart, self, soul.

It is credible that this "new thing" can exist on the dissolution of the body on death but only in that matrix to which it is connected in life ... God. I am saying nothing novel here. Without God we cease to be .... and that includes the soul.

Does that mean that I believe in the annihilation of the damned? On the contrary. In fact (rather than theoretically) the love of God is always sustaining his creatures. We have no grounds for believing that He "disengages" .... from anyone and that includes the damned. It's just that the pains of the damned are how the unloving experience the Love of God. They are incapable of being released from this state beyond death. What happens at the end of time God only knows, (literally).

You will note that I am following to the letter the patristic teaching on hell and salavtion ... as indeed recently expounded by Alexander Kalomiros in his "The River of Fire."

Father Gregory said...

first word typo "this"

Father Gregory said...

I have ordered Beauregard's book.

Zac said...


Thank you again for clarifying. I agree with you completely regarding hell and salvation-- the patristic teaching is precisely as you describe, and Kalomiros' writing on it is a really good summation of that.

It's my understanding that the soul exists distinct from, but complimentary to, the body, and that it is only immortal by this "in-breathing" participation in God, just as you said. The great neptic fathers seem to have developed an anatomy of the soul, which has different parts/functions in the same way that the body does: the nous is the highest part-- the "eye" of the soul, and the organ by which man can perceive God; the logos or dianoia, which is the rational logical ability of the soul; the affectionate and appetitive aspects which govern our feelings and desires; etc.

I hope that you'll give a review of The Spiritual Brain in your blog for us, Father. Thanks for your comments.

Father Gregory said...

Yes, we are in complete agreement Zac! The book has just arrived. I have to finish some other reading first so I will post the review back here in a few weeks time.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am new to this blog so forgive for intruding on an old post.
I would like to post a link to a thought piece by David Bentley Hart on this very topic from youtube.

Michael sean

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