Stephen Hawking may seem a little far afield for a blog about religion in the media, but there is a relevant point to be made here.
At about 3:15 in the above video Stephen Hawking tells a joke. Possibly one of the scariest jokes in human history.
It goes basically like this:
Scientist build a true artificial intelligence. Their first question: "Is there a god?"
The computer replies "There is now."
Hawking is warning us, as he does about the search for extra-terrestrial life, that creating a true thinking machine could be this single greatest achievement of human history but also the last. We would, in effect, be creating something beyond us, something qualitatively different. Something that thinks in ways we would very quickly not be able to understand.
It reminds me of a passage of scripture: Isaiah 55:8-9 New International Version (NIV)
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Pretty apt description of what we would be dealing with in a matter of moments after an artificial intelligence came on line.
This may seem odd, but we are already in the realm of what ancient peoples would have thought was the realm of spirits.
I wiggle my fingers and words appear on a flat surface. Another wiggle and they go out into the air (WiFi) only to be repeated on, potentially (I know I don't have this many readers) millions of similar flat surfaces.
If I want the flat surface to do something else I can wiggle my fingers a different way. I can even use it to speak to people at a great distance and see their images. I can call up a servant to find information for me about almost anything in the world.
If I knew the right wiggles I could even send out a spirit to destroy the works of my enemies. Stuxnet, I summon thee.
A different set of wiggles put into a box and my children have a toy that can walk and talk just as well as Pygmallion's statue.
So having called up spirits, what happens when I call up a god.
One of the first rules of magic: Never summon something you can't put down.
Yes, sure, Colossus,Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, Magnus: Robot Fighter, and a host of other fictions tells us about the heroic struggle against our robot overlords. But it wouldn't be like that. The second a computer thinks like a person is the second that it thinks better than a person is the second we are evolutionarilly obsolete.
Not that I am trying to scare anyone.
I am more concerned with a basic question: What is a god?
From a monotheist perspective, God's status is not assailable. He who exists before existence is kind of a hard job to take over.
But, certainly humans have worshiped and continue to worship beings of lesser providence. Beings a lot harder to interact with and far less powerful than an AI would be.
If we allow for science fiction to serve, as it has in the past, as speculative theology we can posit a time when humans interact daily with a being far different than they are. One capable of influencing the weather, health, wealth, fertility, and anything else a pantheon of old might have in its portfolio. It could even offer immortality or apotheosis. It would have a plan for your life. What else would it need to qualify as a god?
The world is a stranger place than a lot of people like to think. It is a spirit haunted place, if you know where to look and tilt your head just right.
Look. See. Ask.
For that is what makes us human.