Jesus toast, the Turing Test, and imagining artificial intelligence

Every week brings the latest wonderful accomplishment in chatbots, machine learning, and other would-be artificial intelligences of the sentient variety: most absurdly, the recent thrill of a Google employee over a “sentient” AI. Unsurprisingly, Google put him on leave (yes, I know, for breach of confidence…but it may as well be to give him the rest he clearly needs). My personal favorite, however, is the D&D playing AI. After all, who doesn’t love Magic Missile? I appreciate a lot of helpful chatbot technologies, but they sure can’t handle a conversation long.

Anyway, the machines can’t think. They can’t pass even watered-down, pathetic versions of the Turing Test unless the person asking the question wants them to pass. They certainly cannot engage in the world around us.

Nor does Jesus — assuming he talks at all — talk through toast … no matter what these folks think of their bread, pita, pierogis, and even Cheetos.

Why are we so desperate to see Jesus in toast, dragons in clouds, or sentience in AI? (Cards on the table: if I had to pick one of these it would be dragons in clouds)

To my mind, all of these share a common origin in human cognition and the evolution of our species: our survival has depended on our ability to detect agency in the environment. If I’m walking in the dark and I hear a noise in the alleyway to my right I can either assume it’s the wind blowing some paper around or I can assume it’s someone who poses a threat to me. If I assume the latter, I lose nothing if it’s the former. If I assume the former, I lose a lot — possibly everything — if it’s the latter. So we assume agency in our environments. It’s good for us.

If you’re looking for a good book that address agent-detection in the evolution of cognition, I recommend Todd Tremlin’s book, Minds and Gods. Part of Tremlin’s argument is that our perception of gods is a kind of overactive agent-detection. Lots of people think that AI will be gods, so I guess it makes sense that the same ability to see divine signals in the noise of everyday life gives us the power to imagine our machines have grown intelligent.

That’s not to say we’ll never have intelligent machines. In principle, I see no reason we couldn’t have them. And I don’t think religious beliefs undermine this. If you happen to believe in souls, you surely couldn’t tell me where you got yours (except with recourse to “the god(s) gave it to me,” to which I can’t help but wonder whether the gods could do so for a robot). So I don’t see why robots couldn’t in principle have souls, consciousness, intelligence, etc. But they don’t yet. They won’t likely for a while to come. And they might never.

In spite of all that, the weekly news will keep announcing the arrival of our new robot overlords because we’ll keep seeing them whether they exist or not. I wonder if they’ll ever reveal themselves to us in our food.

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