Can a Computer (or Robot) Have a Soul?
This question is becoming ever more serious and important, as the Internet of Things (IOT) and many types of robot expand so quickly, perhaps to take over the entire world. Many people have made lots of money writing about this subject, making up things which are easy to understand, unconstrained by any real technical knowledge either of computers or of souls. But how can address this question in a more serious way, and still be understandable?
Since the human brain itself was evolved to tell stories and understand them (serious neuroscience here!), long before we had any concept of “logic,” let me use a few stories to get into the question step-by-step.
1. Our local Quaker meeting yesterday was very quiet. There are very strict rules that people should not speak unless it meets several tests, one of them being that there was a “message” from beyond just the person speaking. No one spoke yesterday, and then the “riser” (chair for the day) said: “Now it is time for afterthoughts. Does anyone have something important to say, which did not quite rise to the tests..?” He looked all around, no one rose for a few seconds, and then suddenly a very loud string of squeaks came from a laptop in the back (a laptop owned by a friend working with things like IOT). There was silence after the laughter died down, and people wondered. (That’s part of why I post today!)
2. A few months ago, I was one of the first three non-Intel people invited to a high-level annual meeting to discuss the future of that company. I still remember an extremely sharp woman there, who at one point said: “We also need to work harder on educating the public. You would not believe all the people who come to tell me their computers did something which we all know is impossible. We really need to educate them, to learn that these things they report to us could not be possible.” (I did not comment, because so many other things were on the table. But I can say that the folks who talk to this woman are not low-level cranks from off the street, nor even just a narrow sample.)
3. When I was still working at NSF, and was vice-president for policy of the National Space Society, a powerful person pressed me:”Why do you folks insist on pushing for humans in space? Or on earth for that matter. Who needs humans? Stop being such a human racist. Why?” “Well,” I answered, “Being a carbon-based life form myself, it is only natural that those of us who are should be true to ourselves by expressing real, fundamental, primary concern for other carbon-based life forms.” He smiled a huge grin, and said,”Oh, OK. We can take care of that. Those silicon folks are a bit backwards anyway. What if we just use graphene-based systems to run everything?” (And NO, that was not anyone at Intel!)
4. Taoist mystic spoke at a meeting: “You should not assume that humans are the only ones with souls on earth. The great spirit penetrates the whole earth, not just humans, but animals, plants, even the rocks, all have soul.” My response: ”If so, then why not ore, wires and computers themselves? “
5. I have heard ever so many narcissistic Believers in mysticism and religion who are just so overwhelmed about how magical, universal and perfect their Consciousness can be at times, who explain how the very design of the entire cosmos must of course be just a shadow of that. And as they relive to themselves how wonderful they are, they think of strong powerful emotions they have had. George Bernard Shaw wrote a wonderful play, Back to Methusaleh, in which some key characters were very proud members of the British aristocracy, with exactly those same kinds of pride and feelings. Two more characters, called “Romeo and Juliet”, were “the ultimate AI,” computers which could exhibit exactly the same kinds of pride, intensity and hormones (rather trivial things to program), and had no soul. In his long Preface to that play, Shaw described the play as his real religion, and explained…
6. In 2010, when I gave a plenary talk on neural networks at the international IEEE conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics.. . I owe great thanks to the Chair, Professor Okyay Kaynak, for giving me a copy of the official handbook of the Mevlevi order of Sufis, and of course for many discussions of basic issues in cybernetics. From their long experience, they note what others have said… that some people do seem to inherit more natural connection to spirit or paranormal, or whatever you call it, than others. That seems to be a crucial fact of life in reality which we need to adjust to, somehow or other.
In 2010, thinking about that book, I realized: sure, I know how to build intelligent systems far more brain-like and truly intelligent than the Oprah style showmen of old style AI. (Go to google scholar or www.werbos.com/Mind.htm for a few links.) Sure I know how to rise it even to use quantum technology, as exhibited by the Shrike character in Simmon’s great sci fi series Hyperion. (See my paper with Luda at QIP, reposted at www.werbos.,com/triphoton.pdf.) But that is not the same as soul. That is not the same as the incredibly information-rich level which, in my view, humans can connect to involving the “noosphere” and even beyond. (See my previous blog posts for why I no longer doubt that.) How in the world could I, or anyone else, create that kind of connection?
So, yes, the noosphere does have a certain LEVEL of connection with every blob of condensed matter on earth, but of course it is weaker in some people than in others, and much weaker in inert, random solid matter. The DNA of animals of earth has evolved over a good solid billion years, with “tweaking” (tweaking like the special incentive payments for hybrid cars which Congress once used to change the car market) by the noosphere all through that time, a kind of instinctive tweaking – instinctive but no less powerful than the instinctive alignment of cells in a developing fetus. None of the bodies of the animals of earth are RANDOM; all are emergent outcomes of a kind of double process of natural selection.
With computers… we simply don’t KNOW how nature and the noosphere did that. In fact, only a few of us even know the basics of how BRAINS do what they do, despite years of really incredibly voluminous data and experiment. So yes, the cosmos can work through computers with Jungian synchronicity, as it can through all forms of inert matter (maybe a bit more, insofar as small levels of energy can produce more results in a computer than in a rock)… but there is still excellent reason to expect that us animals… have orders of magnitude more connection to soul than any computer we are ever likely to be able to build.
Of course, there are many other important issues connected to all this.
For example, I strongly support the Rosicrucian ideal of trying to work for maximum development of the full potential of ALL humans, not just those who find it easy. It is grossly implausible that less than .1% of humanity, a small fraction scattered all over the earth, should have real spiritual connection, and the others none, though some have concluded that based on their limited experience. I see a strong analogy to the ability to learn calculus or music, which may not manifest in all adults in our difficult world, but is present. I was happy to see that the Mevlevi Order, for example, still put a high priority on developing EVERYONE’S potential.
The Simmons Hyperion trilogy basically portrays a struggle all across space-time between three possible futures (which might actually ALL exist in some sense?), a kind of Terminator future, a kind of Matrix future, and a kind of human potential future. With “God’s help,” maybe we could achieve the third, even if it’s hard to see the pathway now. Not to exclude computers, of course. It is sad how the billionaire supporters of sharia and other forms of fundamentalism and top-down rule by computers (like Erdogan and Mercer) are ACTUALLY working to get to the terminator future, even if they don’t know it; that is what happens if the mass of the direct connection between humans and spirit (as promoted by Sufis, by yoga, by Jesus and others) is broken and disempowered, very much following the kind of twisting story of the birth of the Daleks in Dr. Who.
I recently read (and reviewed on Amazon) an entertaining novel by Connie Willis, Crosstalk, which also raises important questions about these things. But of course, such abilities are not restricted to the Irish. Almost every nation on earth has people who think it is all just about them. Certainly there are many Japanese who think: “We are truly weird, but they are truly empty robots, zombies.” There is a great research paper by Greeley and McReady (“Are We a Nation of Mystics,?” reprinted in Goleman’s book Consciousness, which I recommend everyone buy) which gives serious survey data on the important things people experience… and run away from, like certain characters in Willis’s book. On the one hand, people do need to “withdraw and return” from time to time, to assimilate their experience and learn to handle more, lest they become overloaded. But in the end, we cannot afford to commit ourselves to withdraw forever. If we don’t move ahead as best we can… terrible fates could take us over.
Willi’s novel actually mentions a specific gene, which I looked up. As I read her book, I thought “Aha! It sounds so much like my mother’s Irish family, connecting with deep real emotion and spirit to the virgin Mary and family members, talking to plants, hearing what the plants want and growing them to phenomenal heights by listening..” And Willis, like Luda and me, is such a high-bandwidth person, able to assimilate a great firehose of information.. though Luda and I are much more “yang” people (like heavy math and science and action planning) while Willis’s group sounded much more “yin”…
But then I checked that gene she mentioned, R1b-. just a rather ordinary local gene. Luda laughed. A specific local maternal haplotype. I went back to 23andme. My Irish maternal haplotype was radically different: ancient Scythia, like the land of the Amazon women. Were the women in our own Irish family such wimps as the ones in Willis’s story? Ooips. My mother was in many ways as meek as some true oriental yin women I have known..,., but she was also an orphan, which can do things to someone’s social style. She was raised by her Aunt Mary… who was about as nonmeek as you can get, a very serious political organizer, who was one of the key organizers of Franklin Roosevelt’s campaigns. (Jim Farley gave her his diamond stickpin in recognition of that, and she passed it on to me… but sadly it was stolen.)
In fact, when I looked at that, I turned to Luda: “Hey, maybe one of the things which attracted to me was the resonance between my maternal haplotype and you and your people…” There was that flight of the nobles from Ireland in the 1600s, which our family was part of, yea unto ships we donated to start the US navy. (Documentation still in my possession.)
But then there was that scarier paternal haplotype, straight Doggerland.
As for Luda and her people from Scythia … which we visited together early in our relation… a place where the seven trials of Hercules are more than just a myth… I did finally persuade her to watch the new Wonder Woman movie. “Come on, please. They show such respect for your people, you owe them that attention.” But her reaction; “No, it is SO insulting. OK, she learned a little as she grew up, but it is insulting to imagine our people could be SUCH incompetent wimps, no real sense of how to fight a battle, how to use physical force and other capabilities… such silly people… no real energy..” But the maternal haplotype was really just Romanoff.
Oh, well. Enough fun and games for a day; back to a little IT, and some real math.