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When Innovation Means Playing God

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." It was the first thought that went through J. Robert Oppenheimer's mind when he saw his life's work -- the atomic bomb -- tested successfully for the first time. (He claimed to have remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, but he misquoted the book.)

Still, he got the sentiment right. By becoming Death, he had, in fact, become an instrument of destruction. His innovation could take lives. As we found in World War II, it could also save them, by ending the war quickly. In effect, Oppenheimer had become God.

It is a similar fear for Elon Musk, who warned last week that the push toward artificial intelligence is among the biggest threats to the human race. "With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon," he was quoted as saying. "In all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it's like, yeah, he's sure he can control the demon. Didn't work out."

He's right. Innovation is a bit like playing God, particularly when we tinker with the work of creation. At bottom, artificial intelligence is the creation of a race, after all -- a race of living breathing tin men, or, more to the point, a creation that can later do the creation for us. We seek an intelligent design for what we shape with our hands so it can go and create as well. We can insist we can control it, but deep down, like Musk, we know we can't. These machines will self-actualize at some point. Then all bets are off.

But Musk is also wrong to worry in that there is an inevitability to this God-playing, and the die has already been cast. If indeed robots and machines self-actualize, the same can be said of our own universe writ large. We are living, breathing, thinking creatures, but we stem from the same singularity at the birth of the Big Bang. For nearly 14 billion years, our universe has evolved to create everything from suns, to rocks and, indeed, what we have come to know as life. Through design or the accident of chaos, that life here, on our particular rock, has evolved into green plants that produce oxygen, or jellyfish, or walking creatures who look up at the stars and try to figure out where they came from. When they do that, they, too, will be part of a self-actualizing universe, a result of creation that understands the moment of creation itself.

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It is important to remember this when we think of artificial intelligence, because we are playing God -- and, like the Biblical Adam before the fall, we should be unashamed. One can muse over whether God has control over what He created, an expanding, chaotic, yet perfect universe, out of control yet seemingly in harmony enough to create what we know as life here (and, in theory, elsewhere). And, if God can't control that, how can Man control what he has wrought when artificial intelligence reaches its true potential? 

Heady thoughts, yes, but not new. In fact, humans have been fretting over God-playing for centuries. Think of it: innovations are necessary for humans to harness nature for their own interest. Humans can't breathe underwater, nor swim indefinitely over oceans and vast seas, but humans do have eyes, and can see the set of the stars. They have fingers to craft cloth into sails to use the winds to their advantage. They can chop wood to create boats, fix leaks by filling seams with hot pitch to keep them seaworthy, and thus move themselves and their goods to places they couldn't otherwise dream of visiting. Theologically, you can say these early innovators conquered the constraints of God, or that they just re-arranged the tools provided for them as God intended, but they did what God did not give them the power to do at first. They played creator, and made the world smaller and vaster at the same time.

God-playing is seen more clearly in our approach to medicine. Just as we are creating an artificial race to perform our tasks, we are also trying to live forever. Alexander the Great could conquer the known world, but he couldn't conquer typhus. So we have prodded and poked our own bodies to figure out how they work. We have cleaned our drinking water, improved sanitation and, more modernly, covered our hands in Purel. Through vaccines, we have taken the very microbes that have stricken us with polio and other illnesses and turned them to our advantage. Our natural world has been trying to kill us for millennia, from the plague to Ebola, and we've found a way to live. God's design? Who knows. But the act of perpetuating a life that otherwise should have ended is indeed a role of creation, and thus the innovator is again the creator.

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Even modern religion is innovative. In his great work The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill notes that Abram, progenitor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was himself an innovator, leaving behind a religious world where multiple Gods were credited with the responsibilities of daily life to follow a God who asked him to travel far and believe. Sumerian life at the time was built as most polytheistic cultures are -- pet gods, responsible for things like the health of a harvest, the phases of the moon or fertility. In fact, according to Cahill, innovation as we know it didn't exist before Abram. "It was the gods who had given the Sumerians...all the tools and weapons and marvelous inventions that we know were the products of their own ingenuity," he wrote. "'Development' and 'evolution' -- words of such importance to us -- would have meant little in the timeless culture of Sumer, where everything that was -- their city, their fields, their herds, their plows -- had always been."

For innovators, it was, therefore, a good thing that Abram went.

Too religious? Not really, for most innovation, as a God-playing exercise, has a religious context. You can believe in a loving, infinite God, who created free will, good and evil...or not. You can believe in an accidental universe...or not. But "creation" exists, and it is the innovation of humans that has made it develop and evolve. We are, in our daily work, doing the work of evolution, or, as the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., put it best, "we are all collaborators in creation."

And so it goes with the robot army Elon Musk fears, or the Ebola vaccine, or the Large Hadron Collidor. We are collaborating in creation, we are playing God. And, as history has shown, God might not mind a bit. 

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