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Will Biological Computers Enable Artificially Intelligent Machines to Become Persons?

by Anthony Tongen, PhD

Have you ever participated in an intelligent conversation about "artificial intelligence"? Artificial intelligence (AI) is a phrase that is often heard, especially in the context of recent movies, but rarely understood. In general, AI refers to the automation of intelligent behavior via mechanisms such as computers. In this article, I will consider some advantages of biological computers, discuss current views of AI, and conclude with a discussion of personhood.
 
Biological Computers
 
Biological computers consist of both biological and mechanical material. Two main advantages of biological computing are small size and rapid speed. In 2001, a group of Israeli scientists created a prototype biological computer--with enzymes as the "hardware" and DNA as the "software"--that may someday patrol a human body for the detection and/or treatment of disease. This computer is able to run approximately one billion operations per second with 99.8% accuracy. Astonishingly, one billion of these biological computers could fit inside a drop of water!


 
In 1999, a group of scientists from Emory University and Georgia Tech made a calculator (called the "leech-ulator") with neurons taken from leeches. In normal silicon computers, connections are made between the computer's chips only when the programmer directs the connections to occur. However, in a biological computer the neurons are able to connect on their own and are often said to be "thinking" by making connections with their neighbors, possibly increasing computational power. Since the processing power of the silicon chip is close to being maximized, the next generation of computer technology may rely on the use of biological computing. A billion operations per second is impressive indeed, but when the prospect of massive neural connectivity is considered, the speed is almost unfathomable.
 
The "leech-ulator" demonstrates that the ability of neurons to make local connections might be an advantage on which artificial intelligence could capitalize. Suppose scientists are able to map the neural and chemical processes in the brain completely; could a biological computer be made based on this map? The answer is a resounding yes, because the technology to produce a computer duplicating a map (once it is provided) is already available. Such capabilities raise ethical questions. Is an artificially "intelligent" computer a person? How do we define a person? Are human beings more than the neural signals and chemical reactions in their brains?
 
Artificial Intelligence
 
Proponents of AI may support one of two views: strong AI and weak AI. Proponents of strong AI believe that machines can duplicate human intelligence in its entirety, including a sense of consciousness. Proponents of weak AI, by contrast, believe that machines can merely simulate intelligence or act as if they possess intelligence. The prevalent attitude among most AI researchers is to accept the weak AI hypothesis and simply to ignore the strong AI hypothesis. As long as the computer program works, whether it is called a simulation of intelligence or real intelligence is regarded as unimportant.2
 
Many people participate daily in activities involving weak AI, with the most popular enterprise being "gaming." Since the computer "Deep Blue" successfully defeated chess great Garry Kasparov in 1997, we are no longer able to say that a human being is the world chess champion. However, it is important to note that Deep Blue does not mimic the way a human being would play chess, but instead calculates outcomes based on all possible moves and then selects the move with the highest probability of winning. Weak AI also contributes significantly to applications such as speech recognition, machine translation, and search engines.
 
Traditionally, strong AI has been connected to determinism. Determinism claims that all behavior is the result of preceding events. The idea that machines can duplicate humans implies that humans are deterministic creatures who make decisions based on some predetermined brain "program." One of the challenges of strict determinism to the Christian worldview may be framed as follows: If a person is just following his or her "program," then do notions of responsibility, sin, and redemption even make sense? For instance, if a computer is programmed to run the Windows operating system (OS), the computer is doing what it was created to do--even though some people might consider running Windows a sin. In a strict deterministic worldview, the concept of right and wrong quickly becomes very hazy.
 
Proponents of strong AI are not necessarily strictly deterministic, however. In fact, biological computers may make the most dramatic impact on AI in connection with silicon computer chips. If a neural network can be trained to imitate thought, then scientists could connect this "thinking" neural net to a computer chip, resulting in a non-deterministic component of a machine.
 
Personhood
 
With the development of strong AI, personhood has increasingly come under attack. Definitions of personhood are loaded with terms that are unique to the human race, but advances in strong AI are challenging these definitions.
 
The secular definition of personhood has an assumption of naturalism embedded within. A logical implication of naturalism is that every aspect of a human may be reduced to a material basis. While this view of personhood may not seem to be challenged by AI, "intelligence" is an assumption of strong AI that has major ramifications for the naturalistic concept of personhood. Defining intelligence by some barometer of the average mind risks the implication that many in our culture are not intelligent or are without minds. Even without presuming the existence of God, such an assumption about intelligence demeans an entire segment of humanity.
 
Central to a Christian concept of personhood is the image of God. A strong AI perspective poses challenges to three common views of how human beings bear the image of God--the functional, the relational, and the substantive. The functional perspective concentrates on what we as human beings do. This view comes under attack as we consider our response to whether or not we are deterministic creatures. Did God create us in such a way that we follow a brain "program," or is there an aspect of free will in our function?
 
The relational view of the image of God focuses more on our ability to have relationships with others and with God. In his book The Frontiers of Science and Faith, John Jefferson Davis chooses to focus on the security of the relational view in the face of strong AI.3 Davis's point is that instead of seeing strong AI as an attack on the unique creation that we are in Christ, we should regard our ability to have a relationship with God as the element that will ultimately set humans apart from "intelligent" machines.
 
The substantive view focuses on the image of God as manifested by certain qualities or characteristics within the make-up of the human being--i.e. on what a person is.4 The most common aspect referred to in this view is reason. The substantive view of the image of God is the view that comes under the greatest attack when confronted by the assumptions of strong AI. However, through studying our uniqueness as creations of God, the substantive view is also the one that is most strengthened. Millard Erickson says that this view should prompt us to focus on the duplication of the attributes of God in our own lives.5 It is enlightening to study, one by one, all of the attributes of God and to reflect on two things: 1) how amazing it is that God chose both to reveal those attributes to us and to allow us to possess portions of them, and 2) how difficult it would be for us to create a computer that duplicates these attributes.
 
At the same time, AI may prove in the end to be more versatile than we anticipate. Accordingly, we might be wise to give more careful consideration to what some already maintain is a more accurate biblical understanding of the image of God--i.e., one that sees the image as attaching uniquely to human beings regardless of their capacities.6
 
Conclusion
 
To answer the question that was posed in the title of this article, I do not believe that biological computers will enable artificially intelligent machines to become persons. While AI may have both positive and negative consequences, it is limited in its capacity to duplicate human beings because there is far more to reproducing a person than simulating his or her neurological processes. I would invite Christians to keep abreast of developments in AI, but also to be encouraged by their uniqueness as creations in the image of God! 
 

1 Thanks to Mary Adam, Greg Chalfant, Gene Chase, Scott Lacey and Doug VanderGriend for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
2 Russell, Stuart and Norvig, Peter. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 2002.
3 Davis, John Jefferson. The Frontiers of Science and Faith. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2002.
4 Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998.
5 Ibid.
6 For example, see John F. Kilner, "Biotech and Human Dignity," CD available from CBHD, 2003


Artificial Intelligence: making intelligent machines

The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) was coined by John McCarthy in 1956 as "the science and engineering of making intelligent machines." After 50 years of AI programming, researchers are creating systems that can understand speech, imitate human thought, beat the smartest test taker, and even create machines that can watch children for their parents. While many of these discoveries seem almost unreal, they are a part of the culture in which we live today. From creating a chip to implant into a person that would enable them to speak and understand a foreign language to creating a robot that could fight in times of war, the developments of AI are limitless. The question remains though with all of these developments what should be the limitations?


If we as a society possess the ability to create a machine that can think, talk, walk, and even respond to stimuli like human beings, then does that mean that they are equally human, or even a person? The other side to this debate is the reality that through technology a superior race of human beings could exist. No longer would we watch the Olympic games and see skilled athletes, instead we would see athletes that had been programmed to run faster, breathe longer, and play harder. The prize that came to the athlete that trained the hardest would now go to the athlete who had been given the newest technological advancements. The question remains in search for technological advancements are we risking loosing our value as humans, better yet persons? Science will give society the opportunity to redefine what it means to be a person, yet the question is what will our response be?

Artificial Intelligence: What are the Transhumanists saying?

Implantable brain chips: ethical and policy issues By Ellen M. McGee, Ph.D. Director, The Long Island Center for Ethics Long Island University

“The future may include the reality of science fiction's "cyborgs," persons who have developed some intimate and occasionally necessary relationship with a machine. It is likely that computer chips implanted in our brains and acting as sensors or actuators may soon not only assist the blind and those with failing memory, but even bestow fluency in a new language, enable "recognition" of previously unmet individuals and provide instantaneous access to encyclopedic databases.

 

Developments in nanotechnology, bioengineering, computers and neuroscience are converging to facilitate these amazing possibilities. Research on cochlear hearing and retinal vision has furthered the development of interfaces between neural tissues and microcomputers. The cochlear implant, which directly stimulates the auditory nerve, enables totally deaf people to hear sound. An artificial vision system, the "Dobelle Eye," uses a tiny television camera and ultrasonic distance sensors mounted on eyeglasses and connected to a miniature computer worn on a belt. This invention enables the blind to navigate independently, "read" letters, "watch" television, use a computer and access the Internet. 1 These "visual" activities are achieved by triggering pulses from the microcomputer to an array of platinum electrodes implanted on the surface of the brain's visual cortex. In March 1998, a "locked in" victim of a brain-stem stroke became the first recipient of a brain-to-computer interface, enabling him to communicate on a computer by thinking about moving the cursor.”

How long Before Super-Intelligence? By: Nick Bostrom, Oxfrord Future of Humanity Institute, Faculty of Philosophy & James Martin 21st Century School, University of Oxford

 

“Once artificial intelligence reaches human level, there will be a positive feedback loop that will give the development a further boost. AIs would help constructing better AIs, which in turn would help building better AIs, and so forth.

Even if no further software development took place and the AIs did not accumulate new skills through self-learning, the AIs would still get smarter if processor speed continued to increase. If after 18 months the hardware were upgraded to double the speed, we would have an AI that could think twice as fast as its original implementation. After a few more doublings this would directly lead to what has been called "weak superintelligence", i.e. an intellect that has about the same abilities as a human brain but is much faster.” Source: 

Artificial Intelligence: what are the Scientists and Secularists saying?

Brain Chips: Connecting the mind and machines By Michael Bay (Monday, June 5, 2006)

 

“A chip implanted in your head that allows you to store and recall information, of have a direct connection to machines, including computers and the Internet. Kennedy says the implications of such technology are very serious. ‘You are going to have individuals who have super-power of memories, calculation abilities and communication abilities and be far superior than the rest of us.’” Philip Kennedy, CEO and chief scientist of Neural Signals.

 Biotechonology, Human Enhancement, and the Ends of Medicine By Edmund D. Pellegrino

Some physicians have already crossed the divide between treatment and enhancement, between medically indicated use and patient-desired abuse. There is already a need for physicians to reflect on the ethical implications of their involvement in the uses of biotechnology. This reflection centers on these loci: (1) The use of biotechnological advancements in the treatment of disease; (2) its use to satisfy the desires of patients and non-patients for enhancement of some bodily or mental trait, or some state of affairs they wish to perfect; and (3) more distantly, in the use of biotechnology to redesign human nature and thus to enhance the species in the future.

Artificial Intelligence: Biblical worldview

Will Biological Computers Enable Artificially Intelligent Machines to Become Persons? Anthony Tongen, Ph.D. is, Visiting Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Arizona

Central to a Christian concept of personhood is the image of God. A strong AI perspective poses challenges to three common views of how human beings bear the image of God--the functional, the relational, and the substantive. The functional perspective concentrates on what we as human beings do. This view comes under attack as we consider our response to whether or not we are deterministic creatures. Did God create us in such a way that we follow a brain "program," or is there an aspect of free will in our function?The relational view of the image of God focuses more on our ability to have relationships with others and with God. In his book The Frontiers of Science and Faith, John Jefferson Davis chooses to focus on the security of the relational view in the face of strong AI. Davis's point is that instead of seeing strong AI as an attack on the unique creation that we are in Christ, we should regard our ability to have a relationship with God as the element that will ultimately set humans apart from "intelligent" machines.

Remaking Humans: The New Utopians Versus a Truly Human Future By C. Ben Mitchell and John F. Kilner

Again, the idea of improving society through technology is not new... What is new, however, is how the transhumanists intend to use technology. They intend to craft their technopia by merging the human with the machine. Since, as they argue, computer speed and computational power will advance a million fold between now and the year 2050 A.D., artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence. The only way humans can survive is by merging with machines, according to the transhumanistss.Robots and computers will of course never become human. Why not? Because being "one of us" transcends functional biology. Human beings are psychosomatic soulish unities made in the image of God. The image of God is fully located neither in our brain nor our DNA. We, and all who are "one of us," are unique combinations of body, soul, and mind. We might quibble theologically about how best to describe the components of our humanity, but most Christians agree that we are more than the sum of our biological and functional parts.The technopians, however, do not share our view of what it means to be "one of us." Even though computers and robots may never become "one of us," some will doubtless attribute to them human characteristics and--it is not inconceivable to imagine--human rights, including a right not to be harmed. One day it may be illegal to unplug a computer and so end its "life" at the same time that it is an ethical duty to unplug a human being whose biology has ceased to function efficiently.

Bina48: Person or Machine?

BINA48 came to life in the Plano, Texas laboratory of Roboticist, David Hanson. She was designed and programmed to the appearance and personality of Rothblatt’s spouse, Bina Aspen, who spent greater than one hundred hours teaching the android to be her doppelgänger.                   Wikipedia

Is she a machine with a partially downloaded human consciousness or a very young undeveloped "person"?

CLICK HERE to hear her discuss her view of God and her soul.

BINA ASPEN and her Doppelganger BINA48
            The HUMAN      The MACHINE