What makes us human?

There has been a storm surrounding AlphaGo’s victory over Lee Sedol at the ancient board game Go, and that question lies at the heart of it. An artificial intelligence conquering Go is such a milestone simply because the game cannot be cracked through sheer calculating power. Unlike chess, where the number of possible moves is manageable for a machine to calculate in a short space of time, Go has hundreds of potential moves at any given time; the decision trees are far more complicated.

This has led people to come to the conclusion that, in order to beat Sedol, AlphaGo had to use intuition. In other words, the computer had to feel what the correct next move was based on experience of playing the game. This has people scared, because intuition has long been thought to be something unique to humans. Is the line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence finally becoming blurred?

According to computer scientist and physicist Alex Wissner-Gross (whose talk on the subject you can see here), there is one equation underlying intelligence that essentially defines it as the ability to keep options open for the future. This is the principle that guided AlphaGo to victory against Sedol, and it’s a principle that I believe we can learn from – I wrote on that subject last week.

But whilst Wissner-Gross may well be correct in identifying a universal equation of intelligence, it would be a mistake to say that that is all there is to it. To boil humanity down to an equation of intelligence is reductionism, plain and simple.

As a Christian, I have a particular view of what it means to be human. I believe, simply, that we were all made in the image of God. That belief shapes the way I see the humans around me, and it shapes the way I think about humanity in general.

A human, made in God’s image, is a complicated being. We are able to act both physically and spiritually. We are made for relationships – and this really is at the heart of our humanity. The ideal that God made us for is relationship with him, and through that relationship with him we can maintain healthy relationships with others. The importance of relationships can also be seen negatively. I would argue that some of the greatest damage is caused to people through the breaking down or the abuse of relationships.

Christianity teaches that humans were made to be in relationship with each other and with God, and that it is only God that can sustain and perfect this relationship. This is what I believe is the core of humanity.

Another part of being made in the image of God is that we have inherited his creativity. The intelligence that we have is part of this – we are constantly creating things to improve our lives and the world around us, and, hopefully, to secure our future.

It is no surprise to me that there are many people in the world striving to perfect artificial intelligence – striving to make machines in our image. AI seems to me to be a natural part of the trajectory that we have been on for centuries now, another step towards creating more and more impressive things.

The fact of the matter is that, as a Christian, I don’t believe that AI will ever be ‘human’. It may emulate us in some ways, and probably far exceed us in others, but it will never have been created in the image of God. It will not have the place at the Creator’s side that we were made for, and Jesus will not have died for it.

Also, I personally don’t think we should be afraid. Maybe there will come a point in the future when that opinion will change, but right now I think the advances in AI tech should be embraced as the feats of human achievement that they are; the steps that have now been made represent to me, human creativity at its best.

As Christians, I think we should celebrate these remarkable breakthroughs, give due praise to God who created us with this incredible creativity, and pray that those responsible for this technology will use it well. For now, I eagerly await the next instalments in what is undoubtedly one of the stories of the millennium.

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