Artificial Intelligence: problems and prospects

30 March 2023

Review of an article by Fr. Nicholas Loudovikos

Speaking to a newspaper on 28 March, 2023, the Secretary for Science and Technology in the British Government said among other things: ‘People should trust that computers which think and learn won’t be used to undermine their safety, their privacy, their rights or their health…We will keep the public safe and the reins firmly in human hands’. Fatuous as these comments are, they are no worse than others which are made on a daily basis by ‘experts’, ‘commentators’ and even ‘personalities’. More often than not, they are designed to generate more heat than light.

It is therefore particularly valuable when someone addresses the problem in a realistic and responsible manner, as is the case with Fr. Nicholas Loudovikos in an article entitled: ‘Dialectical (Bio)Technology? The  Problem of (Bio)Technology as Definitive and Post-Lapsarian Utopia: From Marx and Heidegger to Bostrom, Stuart Russell and the Dark Star of Desire’. It is a wide-ranging, thought-provoking piece, soon to be published in the journal Analogia, and provides a historical and intellectual framework within which the issue of Artificial Intelligence and its future applications can be properly examined.

Fr. Nicholas begins with a historical observation: that the Enlightenment was unable to conceal the finitude and fragility of human nature even while promoting it. ‘Bacon’s “kingdom of man”, in which, according to Descartes, the human person is the “lord and master of nature”, leads to the Kantian “possession of the world” and the Enlightenment’s dogma of absolute progress, without ancestral sin, grace or ecclesiastical “salvation”’. If this innate imperfection was to be corrected and transcended, what was required, on the political level, was Absolutism (Nazism, Fascism, Soviet Communism). In the absence of God, when Technology and Bio-Technology made their appearance, they aimed at the creation of Homo Deus, a techno-biological being which would execute, for itself and the world, the function of a god.

For the author, there is no significant distinction between Technology and Bio-Technology, since all Technology transforms the human psycho-biological persona. This is because Technology has now entered into the very essence of human beings and their world, even religion and art, by the imposition of the human characteristic of control over things, which also involves regarding other beings as exploitable objects. This means that everything other than human is a ‘standing reserve’, waiting for us to find a use for it. We fail, to see, however, that there will come a day when we ourselves will be part of this ‘standing reserve’.

In this view of the world, there is no recognition of any wisdom in nature. Marx, for example, regarded nature solely as the object of human action. He also seems not to have understood the relationship between the spiritual and the material and, indeed, almost completely abandons the former. Marx wanted humankind to overcome its alienation by taking over the world through a Technique absolutely liberated from any supposed concealed, innate wisdom in nature.

This attitude, combined with the will to power, which Fr. Nicholas sees as ‘the inner logic of Western metaphysics’, offers a way of  understanding modern transhumanism. The era of Bio-Technology is the paradise of post-Enlightenment ‘subjects’ whose freedom to be themselves has now become the freedom to reconstruct themselves. This reconstruction would take place, of course, purely on the natural level, since the transcendental would be excluded, and would offer a huge extension of human life, knowledge and pleasure.

There are thinkers who regard this prospect with equanimity. They claim that we have been ‘enhancing’ ourselves throughout history, with writing, agricultural tools, spectacles and so on. Father Nicholas, however, is concerned that control over such enhancement will be accompanied by blunders, or by deliberate malpractices And this can hardly be otherwise. We are not imperfect because we make mistakes; we make mistakes because we are imperfect. At one point in the play Antigone by Sophocles, the chorus says: ‘πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει’, which is a play on words and may legitimately be translated as ‘There are many awesome things and the most awful is humankind’. Fr. Nicholas says much the same here, pointing out that the application of ‘awesome’ technologies will lead to ‘awful’ consequences, including the destruction of the way we look at ourselves and our psychobiological reality. We will no longer regard ourselves as sapiens sapiens. Moreover, according to the author, it is also possible that technologies will ‘underpin the explosion of the most terrible and ruthless form of absolutism the world has ever seen’.

At this point, Fr. Nicholas refers to the work of Hans Freyer, the German sociologist. Freyer noted, in 1955, that, alongside the movement towards the construction of machines, there also came the birth of ideology. Ideologies had their origins in unhealthy forms of religious zealotry which became secularized and they retain a pseudo-religious aspect. However, ideologies reduce people to their primitive urges and instincts and ignore any more profound connotations. Fr. Nicholas points out that ‘we are dealing with the immediate, impending prospect of the danger that the technical means for domination of the masses will have been shaped and that society will have been homogenized’. This would clearly involve a tendency towards Absolutism.

In order to be effective, ideologies distort history, ‘extracting from it whatever is in their interest and reinterpreting it to serve them as they deem best’. Essentially the aim is the transformation of history from a locus of the revelation of God into one of the revelation of Man. Secular millennialism thus envisages felicitous progress which will bring history to a successful conclusion, having achieved whatever arbitrary aim it set itself. Fr. Nicholas notes, however, that there has been scant progress and that in many regards, including human freedom, the situation of the planet has actually degenerated.

This poses the danger of the extinction of the human race or its reduction to a reservoir for the extraction of natural resources by a future generation of super-intelligent machines. Technology, having served as an instrument of the will to power is now in a position of becoming independent of us and itself being able to practise the will to power.

Marshall MacLuhan (The Medium is the Message) is quoted as saying that new technology, any new extension of ourselves, introduces a new scale into our affairs which forces us to adjust accordingly. MacLuhan points out, quoting a psalm, that we make ‘idols’ of technologies and enter into a relationship of servitude with them: we facilitate their reproduction and they reward us with material benefits.

The danger today is the likelihood of a quasi self-direction on the part of Technique, as has already occurred in the case of the internet. Fr. Nicholas quotes the Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom, and his concept of ‘existential risk’, which involves a plot against intelligent beings by superintelligent machines which are self-defining and self-protecting. These machines could, potentially, bring about a ‘technological singularity’ which might accidentally or deliberately destroy the human race. Having been programmed by people, these superintelligent machines will recognize the imperfection of human beings and try to manipulate us in order to carry out the task which they have been told to perform. Since they would not have the general intelligence of human beings, which allows us to appreciate a multitude of aspects of reality, the machines might annihilate people in order to remain intact themselves.

Other thinkers, such as Joseph Sifakis, believe that machines will never attain the level of human general intelligence, because this is ‘a combination of perception/interpretation of the senses, rational processing of them and the taking of decisions which lead to actions’. The risk to us therefore, is not existential, but rather contingent: unemployment, invasion of privacy, excessive dependence on computers and the assignment of decision-making to them. In the view of Fr. Nicholas, these effects  are not the whole story. He considers that computer systems, with their lack of a spiritual dimension, may one day attempt the one-dimensional, emotionally dead and spiritually arbitrary quasi-captivity of the human race.

Even when dangers are recognized, the solutions offered are frequently naïve and simplistic. Fr. Nicholas quotes Stuart Russell, a widely influential expert, as believing that some kind of general intelligence could be acquired by machines and this would limit their destructive tendencies. Any inadvertent damage, claim many scholars, could be rectified by transferring technology into human hands, which are safe. But, as Fr. Nicholas repeatedly remarks throughout the article, this post-Enlightenment belief in the innocence of human intentions is flimsy and inconsistent. All that will happen is that we will cure a (likely) evil with another (usually worse) one. And, moreover, who decides how to deal with the growing power of machines? Who defines the goal? If the God of the Bible and the Ancient Greek Reason of the cosmos are rejected as myths, all that remains is the will to power.

Fr. Nicholas continues by discussing two modern films, Interstellar and Midnight Sky. The first deals with the attempted colonization of other planets because of an ecological disaster on earth, the idea being to settle human embryos in a suitable environment. But the pilot of the spaceship wants to return to earth to save his children and the woman on the mission wants to go on to another planet to try and find her lover. The significant point in this film is the revelation that love is the only raison d’être for life. According to the character Dr. Brand in the film, this love ‘seems to come from another dimension’; it is ‘information from elsewhere’.

The second film deals with the illusory nature of modern Technology and its collapse in real conditions. A spaceship is returning to earth from a mission to discover a hospitable planet and the people on board are unaware that, in the meantime, a catastrophe has occurred on earth. Once they learn, some of them choose to return to be with their loved ones, while one couple decides to go back to the newly-discovered planet and continue human life there. Once again, love plays the decisive role. The irony here is that Technology has, at least, contributed to the destruction of the earth and now offers a (partial) escape route to a new planet. But Technology will rapidly be rendered useless by the lack of sources of energy, so the people there will rapidly return to primitive conditions. The audience is left with the impression that Technology will again gradually emerge and that, in the distant future, this new earth will go the way of the old.

There is no point in demonizing Technology. It is what it is and is here to stay. The only imaginable future without technology would be one following an ecological or military catastrophe, and even then people would still hanker after the past. The real problem posed by Technology is anthropological and theological: where and how does love exist? In its anthropological stage, Technology is, in theological terms, pure ecstatic personalism, which possesses, governs and ‘freely’ transforms the nature of being, without the divine voice within nature being able to be heard. But this voice demands the consubstantial unification with a sacrificial and suffering love, following the example of Christ.

A non-ecstatic Technology would begin from the opposite position, by trying to listen to uncreated words of God, as calls to a synergetic dialogue with God. This technology would heed the divine wisdom concealed in the depths of beings as their creator which/who also sustains and provides. Of course, this would concern only the human handlers of Technology, since General Artificial Intelligence cannot possess (primarily theological) virtues such as love, discernment, referentiality/relatability, gratitude, loving kindness, existential communion and, in the end, freedom. Nor can it experience prayer, that is, the sense of grace. But how many human engineers possess these qualities?

Fr. Nicholas foresees the collapse, in the decades to come, of all ‘rational’ methods of controlling Strong Artificial Intelligence. What will remain is metaphysics, in particular, theology, which will propose a deeper destination for human existence: the suffering, sacrificial love of Christ, rather than existence as a mere cyborg. The only chance that the genuine nature of the human person can survive is through its godlikeness. This godlikeness does not fear nor need Strong Artificial Intelligence because it is already wise from God. This is beyond the understanding of those living today’s life-style, who continue to insist that the truth and the solutions to all problems lie within humankind. But when there is no participation by the uncreated all that remains is super-human ‘supernatural’ enhancement of the created.

Fr. Nicholas concludes by naming a theologically-inspired perspective for Technology, the fundamental characteristics of which would be what he calls the dialectical composition of created nature; the reversal of the homogenization of people; and the will to consubstantiality rather than the will to power. It would be a dialectical process, constantly reviewing the words, actions and purposes of God among his creations. Wise, moderating and beneficial, with a sense of boundaries ever present, it would be recognition that the history of the world is a work of collaboration common to humankind and God.

The three main points which emerge from Fr. Nicholas’s article are, first, the mistaken view of the Enlightenment regarding human nature and history. On the one hand,  in Enlightenment terms, we are privileged in having total freedom to exploit the creation; and, on the other, we are less than perfect. But through technology, we can ‘enhance’ ourselves and thus history will progress to its final, worthy goal, whatever the cost in terms of human freedom and diversity. Secondly, the recognition that, if we require Technology to improve us genetically, psychologically and so on, this means that we understand that we need improving. But how can we achieve perfection through imperfection? We are certain to make a mess of things, because that is what we do. And who is to decide how to proceed? On what criteria, given that the consequences will be dire? And thirdly, that we need to acknowledge the presence of the uncreated, of love, in nature. Instead of simply exploiting it, we have to listen to the voice which was implanted in it by our common Creator. If we do so, there is a prospect that we can enjoy the benefits of technology while keeping it in check through our relationship with God.

The article is not an easy read, but then, it is not meant to be. Fr. Nicholas is always challenging and it requires an effort on the part of readers to meet his challenges. But it is an effort which is worth making and he deserves our gratitude for his profound analysis of an issue which is too often treated in a naïve and superficial manner.

Fr. Nicholas studied Psychology and Education at the University of Athens, Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Philosophy at Paris IV, Philosophy and Roman Catholic Theology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, Philosophy and Protestant Theology at the University of Cambridge. He received a Ph.D. from the Theological Faculty of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Today he is professor of Dogmatics and Philosophy at the University Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki, visiting professor at the University Balamand (Lebanon), the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Cambridge), and Research Fellow at the University of Winchester in the United Kingdom. He is Senior Editor of the Analogia Journal – The Pemptousia Journal of Theological Studies.