As technology continues to develop and expand into every aspect of daily life, it has become difficult to imagine a future without it. But the possibilities of this future have grown to include robotic employees and companions, space habitation and other alien concepts previously known only in science fiction. Some theories even include prospective aliens themselves.
To address these trending topics, Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and author of On the Future, joins bioethicist and host of Matters of Life and Death, Dr. John Wyatt, in episode five of The Big Conversation.
While the discussion stemmed from a general outlook on science and technology, it naturally raised questions about humanity in the process: “What does it mean to be a human being?” “How do we understand our humanity in the face of ever-increasing technology?” “What kind of society do we want to build for the future?” In an honest conversation, Wyatt, who is a Christian, and Rees, who is skeptical about believing in a particular religion, attempted to address these questions in a thoughtful and open dialogue.
Considering the implications technology can have on the future, both Wyatt and Rees agreed that developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are significant. “This century is the first when one species, namely human species, can determine the entire planet’s fate,” said Rees. “Because there are more of us; we’re more empowered by technology – which is advancing fast.”
While Wyatt and Rees admitted that technology is advancing quickly, both believe there are some limitations which robots will never be able to overcome. Illustrating a robot’s capabilities, Rees said, “What they do is they understand words – how words link together, syntax, etc., and the latest ones are therefore able to produce a whole paragraph of what looks like normal English prose... It doesn’t mean that the machine has any concept of the real things behind those words; it just knows how to string together words.”
Though robots might never be able to hold an emotional or conscious thought, both experts fear that humans will eventually be deceived by the outward behaviors produced in innovative technology.
“The fascinating thing is that the very first reaching out to the world of a newborn baby is in terms of relations... It actually is looking for human faces and responding in a relational way,” said Wyatt. “We’re hardwired—to coin a phrase—to anthropomorphize; in other words, to see a human resemblance and respond to it as though it was human.”
This human instinct to “anthropomorphize” could lead to romantic relations with robots, an overreliance on AI and an idealization of the fantasy realm instead of one’s current reality. It could even redefine the human standard for love.
“Sherry Turkle, who’s a very thoughtful commentator on all this, has written, ‘The problem will not be will we come to love our robots. The question will be: what will love mean?’” said Wyatt. “In other words, it’s that redefinition of relationships, and in particular, a kind of transactional relationship.”
Throughout the episode, Wyatt and Rees engage the question whether further development and exploration should continue or come to an end. This discussion then resulted in a debate about the meaning of life. Regardless of disagreements and the potential offered in future exploration, both Wyatt and Rees think that it’s reasonable to restrict advancement.
“I think the question we’re going to have to ask is ‘are we satisfied?,’” Wyatt said.
The Big Conversation season four launched 20th May with a debate between renowned atheist Richard Dawkins and former NIH Director Francis Collins. The second episode featured former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in a discussion with author Paul Kingsnorth about the idea of spiritual conversion, which released 3rd June . Episode three launched 17th June, featuring Iain McGilchrist and Sharon Dirckx as they explored brain science and God, and the fourth episode premiered 1st July with atheist Graham Oppy and Christian convert Guillaume Bignon who examined the rationality behind religion.
Episode five is available at www.thebigconversation.show.
The Big Conversation video series from Premier Unbelievable? features world-class thinkers across the religious and atheist communities discussing faith, science and what it means to be human. Premier Unbelievable? has amassed millions of followers throughout the world, most notably in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. The series is produced by Premier Christian Radio in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation.