Man v/s Machine

Atul Jalan’s Where Will Man Take Us tackles nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing and genetics – seamlessly weaving the future of technology with the changing dynamics of human civilisation. Excerpts:

Update: 2019-03-23 15:37 GMT

Gods Are Expiring. But Maybe We Still Need Them

This is an argument I hear often, that religion and gods have no place in this techno-world. Every single time I hear that, I am reminded of the Samkhya school of Hinduism which believes that God is a necessary metaphysical assumption demanded by circumstances.

This god could be the Norse Odin or Mr World, the god of globalization, as circumstance demands. But we, as humans, need our gods – for more than gaps in our comprehension.

We require their presence to address some age-old human needs – the need to believe that there is an external source for our sorrows and our joys, that fate can indeed deliver happiness, that our souls transcend this life and much, much else.

For all the damage that it has done, religion has also provided meaning. For many, it is the only consolation – to resolve the challenges of their lives and identity crises. In general, we all just want something to believe in, to make our lives easier and purposeful.

We need our gods as much as they need us. We need them to exist in the heavens we create for them.

We are not bound by the ignorance or fears of the hunter gatherer and we might not need to appease lightning any more. But that is not to say that the twenty-first century, and the ones that follow, can do without its gods.

Religion is essential to our human self, so if old religions and old gods fail to answer our questions, we will demand new religions and new gods. Our constant need for meaning and the need to fill gaps will lead to the creation of new beliefs. In short, we will always seek a new source for legitimacy.

How should religion reinvent itself then, in an era where technology is integrating with our biology to create a smarter man – to invent a new Adam? What new god can bring us significance and meaning?

What Role Can Religion Play Today?

Yuval Noah Harari attempts to define this new source in Homo Deus. According to him, religious mythologies once legitimized divine authority. After that came humanist ideologies that legitimized human authority. Today, in Silicon Valleys across the world, tech gurus are creating the new creed – one that legitimizes the authority of algorithms and AI. Harari calls this 'dataism'.

Coined by the New York Times writer, David Brooks, dataism refers to a data-driven ideology – an obsession with data that assumes it is the best overall measure of any given scenario and that it always produces the most valuable result.

Dataism derives from the confluence of two scientific tidal waves. The first is Charles Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, when the life sciences came to see organisms as biochemical algorithms. The second is Alan Turing's idea of the Turing machine, following which computer scientists have learned to engineer increasingly sophisticated electronic algorithms. Dataism puts the two together. Dataists believe that the entire universe is a flow of data, that organisms are algorithms and that humanity's cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing dataprocessing system – and then, merge into it. At a slightly more practical level, they believe that given enough biometric data andcomputing power, this all-encompassing system will understand us humans much better than we understand ourselves.

Dataism asserts that the same mathematical laws apply to both biochemical and electronic algorithms. It collapses the barrier between animals and machines and believes that electronic algorithms will eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.

This 'all-encompassing system' does understand us well, already. Harari quotes this book buyer's example to show us how well it does. How does the humanist choose a book? He wanders into a store and browses until he finds something that attracts his attention and matches his tastes. And the dataist? He just goes to Amazon, which does all of this for him.

In Homo Deus, Harari writes:

We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands. But no one needs to understand. All you need to do, is answer your emails faster.

And speaking of emails, Gmail is doing exactly that. I have been watching Gmail's smart replies with great interest. If you notice, all your mails now have an automated, quick response that you can choose. I have waited, in vain, to see the system come up with a wrong response. Or even one that is not relevant. It hasn't, yet. Those quick responses Gmail provides are exactly what I would have chosen to respond with. The system understands all.

Science is already giving us what we need, without us having to understand it. Sounds a little like religion? There's more, then.

Look at what dataism promises us. Happiness, peace, prosperity, even eternal life – but here on Earth with the help of data-processing technology, rather than after death with the help of bearded men and plump cherubs. (Sounds ambitious? But remember that all religions spread by making promises, not by keeping them.)

Much as socialism took over by promising salvation through social justice and electricity, so, in the coming decades, new techno-religions will take over – promising salvation through algorithms and genetics. We will go on to create more mysteries and more unknowns that will require more gods.

We already see the rumblings around us. Elon Musk's argument that we are living in a simulation (and he is not alone). Enrico Fermi's contention that a few billion galaxies necessarily means there is other life out there. We will build these new gods until science shows us otherwise.

But these new gods do have an advantage. Unlike the old ones who existed just in our imagination, these new guys will be part of us with their access to biotechnology and algorithm. These are not gods that rest in the scriptures and the skies like Odin. These are gods like Mr World in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, who are part and parcel of our lives – like social media, like sensors within and without us, like IoT, like nanotechnology in my veins, like brain-computer interfaces. They will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds and create entire virtual worlds, complete with its hells and heavens.

Where dataism also has an advantage is in its ability to fill many of the gaps that religions of the past have not been able to. Dataism can take a very algorithmic look at happiness as opposed to the many metaphysical explanations we have been given all along. Algorithms in combination with genetics might be able to eventually eliminate pain and disease from our lives. I also believe that dataism, with its new ability to churn numbers in limitless proportions, will bring us a deeper understanding of the cosmos.

As we take AI to new frontiers, we are also forced to ask a whole lot of questions about ourselves – who we are, what consciousness is, what self-awareness is. These were all questions that we had conveniently left to religion and philosophy as we didn't have concrete answers. But now, we can approach these questions from a scientific, algorithmic, quantitative perspective.

All of which means that dataism is able to fill many of our biggest gaps; by definition then, a new God. All dataism now needs is a St Paul. And we already have him in Yuval Noah Harari.

(Excerpted with permission from Where Will Man Take Us; written by Atul Jalan; published by Penguin. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Data Religion: Is Data the Next God?'.)

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