Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I, Robot…

Today’s letter is my attempt to come to terms with something crazy. Something wild and totally fascinating, and fundamentally challenging to our faith.

Here’s the basic issue: In the future, we might be robots. Not made entirely of gadgetry like Rosie in The Jetsons, obviously. Probably (hopefully!) not battling manically destructive liquid mercury fake-people, a la Terminator 2. But the prospect of biologically normal humans becoming significantly integrated with electronic and robotic systems- for purposes like regulating organ function, enhancing mental efficiency, supplementing muscle performance (Lance Armstrong will be jealous) - that kind of science fiction future isn’t just a possibility, it’s nearly upon us. And researchers have a name for the moment when the human species overcomes biological limits through robotic technology. It’s called The Singularity. They predict it’ll happen within my lifetime.

I first encountered serious discussion on this topic a few years back, in a book by a Stanford University professor. His is a good school, I surmised, so maybe this Singularity business is more than weird fantasy. Since then, I’ve had several further occasions to learn more, most recently in a great book written by Peter Diamandis (creator of the X Prize) called Abundance. The book is mostly a discussion of amazing technologies currently in development, plus the author’s argument that these breakthroughs- if coupled with sufficient foresight, courage, and compassion- may just make the future more equitable, verdant and incredible than most present day pessimists allow.

And a key component in this, to me, quite compelling argument is that various fields of research may not only change how food is grown (in mid-air, nutrients delivered via mist, row crops stacked vertical inside downtown skyscrapers), minerals mined (on near-earth asteroids, utilizing zero gravity 3-D printers for spare parts, then commencing extra-terrestrial manufacturing), or clean water delivered (mass distribution in developing countries of nano-technology water filtration systems and/or industrial scale salt water desalination). They could also change the very definition of what it means to be human. Forget verse three of ‘America the Beautiful’? Imagine a Google-search implant in your brain, wirelessly connected to the web. Worried about finding cancerous cells forming before it’s too late? Imagine an early warning system that identifies pre-cancerous growths in real time, then alerts your doctor directly. People are working on this stuff. Production time-lines exist, for better or worse. For Christians, then, whose believe fundamentally in the reality of a Creator, and who then profess the blessed claim to be created in that image, what’s the consequence of technology not just unlocking mobile computing or air travel, but fiddling with the building blocks of God’s most spectacular designs?

I, for one, find the notion (mostly) exhilarating. Jesus claimed in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s Jesus’ ultimate hope: abundant life for all life. With these potential breakthroughs, this author suggests, that hope is realistic for the first time in human history. Food, water, health care, education- globally available and affordable. He wisely notes that abundant life for all life isn’t the same as luxurious living all around. It’s one thing to have enough and another to rock a Rolex! Still, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty is falling most everywhere. It’s possible that trend accelerates as technology changes exponentially. Which it is.

Further, I think the basic claim of Genesis 1- that we’re created in the Creator’s image- not only permits us to be constantly inventive, it’s God’s way of pushing us along. We’re intended to be co-creators with God, taking what is already and seeking improvements. If that leads us to use robotics to make aging easier, surgeries safer, brains faster, we’re not eliminating God’s designs. We’re fulfilling God’s promises, right? There are potential downsides and abuses, no doubt, so let’s pray we’re wise! But should it come to pass soon that technology becomes as important to biology as genetics, then let’s also pray we step into that brave new world not with fear, but Hallelujahs. Thanking God for creating us with creative capacity, with brains that dream the impossible, and with spirits who still rejoice in the limitless abundance of God’s grace.

Grace and Peace,
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