Soulful Machines

That we are equipped with a most wonderful array of gifts to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom is not all that debatable. What is, is whether we are really that special, that different, from that which arises next.

I am an optimist. By that, I mean that I believe that everything arises for a reason, that the world, our experience of it, unfolds in the most perfect, most exquisite way possible. We might believe we can imagine a better version of reality, but there is no way to prove that this imagined reality would actually function any better than our current reality once the myriad of unforeseen consequences in its unfolding is taken into account.

This perspective saves me anxiety over the road not taken, giving me peace in having not taken that job or that train. What it does not do, however, is prevent me from holding and working towards a particular vision for the future.

Our Relationship with Technology

Our relationship with technology is changing. What this relationship will ultimately look like is anyone’s guess, but I think back to growing up in the seventies, and just how little technology seemed to touch my daily life back then. Sure, I watched a lot of Gilligan’s Island on TV and listened to a lot of music on the radio, but my sons’ relationships with technology have a more immersive quality to them today. Our new computing medium surrounds and informs their reality, as it does my own now, and it is a reality that feels quite different from what I knew as a kid.

When I explore questions of technology and artificial intelligence, in particular, I find myself leaning heavily on my intellect. But considering the impact on my boys helps me explore these issues from another place. I love my boys. I would sacrifice my life for them. And yet, like so many other parents, I am complicit in their plugging in and tuning out to the people, places, the sheer physicality, that surrounds them. I have no idea what this is really doing to them; it’s all so new, so different. I wonder too how our increasingly technology-mediated reality will affect their kids. How will reality feel to them? Will they experience their humanity as I do today?

Beautiful Vessels, Soulful Machines

At its root, the question that haunts me is whether technology will ever truly be capable of creating a vessel beautiful enough to carry the human soul. You may bridle at my use of that term, but after pulling back from an initial attempt, I feel I can no longer ignore the soul in the context of our organizations, technology and other social systems.

I have little interest in arguing over specific religious or spiritual interpretations of what this special interior aspect of us actually is, and am willing to concede that it could be a figment of our imagination.

What I do have little patience for, however, is the modern conceit that our ancient civilizations were somehow stupid or ignorant for believing in the soul. So many of them did, of course, believe in an interior experience that was something other than the materialist view of modern science. If our senses do determine the reality we experience, then how do we know, truly know, that what our science-mediated senses now measure is the absolute truth and not simply the vessels for carrying this interiority?

As we race to implement artificial intelligence and reverse engineer the human mind, there are many already identified risks, and I would like to suggest another, even if it may make some of us uncomfortable. What if there actually is something like a human soul, and we are madly dashing to replicate the experience of consciousness without including a critical, even fundamental, ingredient? I will grant that it may sound crazy from a purely rationalist or materialist frame, but what of those of us who believe in a soul, or simply aren’t sure? How are we to relate to what is coming down the pike?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs builds upon the material as it grows into the ephemeral. We are now poised at the edge of a new era of planetary intelligence. Standing here, we are deeply indebted to our laser-like focus on the material that defined most of the 20th century. I don’t believe we could have gotten where we are today without that materialistic focus. History unfolded just as it should. Now, as automation begins to free up more human time and energy, we have an opportunity to reassess the vision we hold for the future.

Will our new vessels be capable of holding something as complex, as beautiful, as a human soul? I do not know what a human soul is, let alone how it might occupy a machine; so this may seem a silly question. But what if it’s not? What might we foist upon humanity, and the planet, if there actually is a soul and we simply choose something other than soulful machines?