Integrating Humans and Computers – Is There a Spiritual Dimension?

Monday Feb 21st 2011 by Don Tennant

What does the development of IBM's Watson mean in the big scheme of things?


Talk about great timing. On the final day of the match between IBM's Watson and the "Jeopardy!" champs last week, I interviewed Michael Chorost, author of the book, “World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet.” What better person to discuss what the development of Watson means in the big scheme of things?

I mentioned to Chorost that I had recently interviewed Stephen Baker, author of the book, “Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything,” who told me, “I think the development of Watson is sort of the next step in computers becoming an external lobe of our own shared human brain.” I told Chorost that my hunch was he'd say pretty much the same thing. He agreed: 

Yes, I'd say very much the same thing. In fact, I'd take it a little bit further. Let me first say what I don't think. I don't think that this is a step toward computers becoming intelligent and conscious the way we are. I think a lot of people have interpreted it that way: “Oh, this is just the next step toward computers waking up and becoming these super-intelligent creatures.” I just don't think that makes sense, because in order to get creatures to have consciousness – creatures that can want things and feel things and strive for things – you really have to have an ecosystem. What I mean by that is an environment where creatures need things to survive. They need to be able to avoid predators; they need to be able to find food, to find sustenance; they need to be able to reproduce versions of themselves than can potentially be better. In order to have consciousness, you need that kind of environment. But Watson doesn't have anything like that. All its needs are met – it has all the electricity it needs. It's got no predators. It doesn't have to evolve any strategies; indeed it can't evolve, because it can't change itself. So I think it's important to say that no matter how smart computers like Watson may appear to be, it really doesn't move us any closer to a human level of intelligence, at least in and of itself. In other words, I don't think we're on a path to 10 years from now having a computer like Watson that would be able to say, “I don't want to play Jeopardy. Teach me how to play chess instead.”
The point I do want to make is a lot like Steve Baker's point – that the combination of humans and computers changes everything. Because companies like IBM do have predators; they do have wants and needs; they have to be able to innovate in order to survive. So I think what we are seeing, and what I try to articulate in the book, is that the real unit of analysis is not the computer. The real unit of analysis is humanity plus the computer it has created. Together, that might evolve a creature that has its own form of needs, desire, in a completely new way. I think we are beginning to see the seeds of that.
It occurred to me that what was missing from Chorost's response – and from his book, for that matter – was any mention of the spiritual dimension of humanity's future integration with machines and the Internet. So I asked him if he would share is own religious views as far as how God and spirituality play into all of this. “For example,” I asked, “do we have souls, and if so, are they part of this integration?”

Chorost was clearly taken aback by the question, but he said it was a legitimate one, and he gave it a very thoughtful response: 

I think the book actually is a very spiritual book, in the sense that I try to talk about technology as an almost spiritual endeavor; that it's not a way of assembling information, or adding up bits and bytes more rapidly, or asking questions as fast as possible, which is what Watson is all about. Rather, it's a medium for connecting more richly with each other. And that that medium would lead to, indeed, a new form of intelligence that doesn't exist now. So I think I'm responding to a very deep, creative impulse that I think is very visible in evolution. We see this incredible progress from single-cellular organisms to multi-cellular ones that have led to the profusion of the ecosystem that we see now.
That “deep, creative impulse” notwithstanding, Chorost went on to explain that he was approaching the question as an atheist: 
I don't want to fall into the trap of a na�ve teleology, saying that evolution is inherently creative – there certainly is a strong degree of randomness. So if you ask me what my spirituality is, I would not place it in some sort of external, omniscient deity that created the universe and runs it, in that very conventional kind of God. To me that just doesn't make any sense. There's just no evidence for it. I certainly don't believe in a God in a conventional theistic sense. So in that sense I would call myself an atheist, because I don't think there's a personal God out there who listens to my desires and tries to meet them. But I do think it's possible to see the universe as this gorgeously unfolding entity, and that it is appropriate to be impressed and awed by that. I think I try to convey some of that awe in the book, and to say that this merging of humans and technology could make us not just better communicators and information gatherers, but actually lead to a whole new level of evolution that has not existed before. And I think there is something very profoundly spiritual about saying that.


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