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Posted by on Sep 24, 2007

Spiritual Machines?

Spiritual Machines?

Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is an update of his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Kurzweil has excellent credentials in information technology. He invented the first flat bed scanner, initiated speech and voice recognition technologies, pioneered music synthesizers. Kurzweil was the first to develop technology that could read text and speak it out loud.

Based on this record of achievement and innovation on matters relating to artificial intelligence, Kurzweil estimates that we are approaching a point at which machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence. The point of intelligence surpassing human biology is called the singularity. The point from which everything begins.

Contemporary physics, as elaborated by Stephen Hawking in his updated A Briefer History of Time, refers to the emergence of the universe from an initial singularity.

Kurzweil uses the singularity concept to describe a tipping at which machines surpass human intelligence. It also implies that when the intelligence of machines surpasses (or even approaches) human intelligence, a sense of self – an experience of soul – will occur in these mechanical systems.

Basically, intelligence and the sense of self is reduced to a critical mass of neurons firing, whether they are carbon based neurons in humans or silicon based neurons in machines. The next assumption is that spirituality derives from this sense of self awareness.

Physician and scientist, Antonio Damasio in his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion Reason and the Human Brain (1994), presents the case that our perception and intelligence is linked – literally – with our nervous system’s extension outside the skull and throughout the body. According to Damasio, it is not possible have a functioning nervous system floating in a medium separate and apart from the human body.

Since our body influences and literally shapes our sense of self awareness and identity, what will happen to silicon based intelligence developing without an analagous body is not clear. Even carbon based “organic” computer systems floating in a liquid medium would not have the human sense of body.

The other issue is that the sheer volume of firing neurons does not necessarily create consciousness in humans. If we reduce consciousness, self identity, and soul to the direct or indirect product of physical functions, how can there be a spirit on which to have a spirituality? By definition, the spirit cannot be reduced to the physical.

If we reduce the soul to the product of physics and chemistry, isn’t our sense of spirit and spirituality merely a cognitive error of some type? If there is no objective or actual realm that transcends the physical, won’t machines in their cognitive excellence avoid this delusion?

Stay tuned for a post on Bernard Lonergan, S.J. author of Insight: A Study of Human Understanding.

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