– spoiler alert to Dan Browns Origin –
Last week I finished the new Dan Brown: Origin. It was hailed in the Hermetic community as the book to read. So, needing little more encouragement, I did. At the end of the book I wondered why the Hermetic community liked it so much. Yes, it has many Hermetic references and insights. Yes, it warns both about extremist thoughts from religious people and scientific people. But for two reasons I was surprised: in this book the source is not God and the crown of evolution is not humanity. I would have expected that these statements should have shocked the Hermetic community.
And the book also disturbed me a bit. It convincingly states that around 2050 the human race will be surpassed by artificial intelligence (AI) as the dominant force on earth. In the book, the futurist Edmund Kirsch believes that the rise of AI will be very positive. First of all: with the superior rational knowledge AI would be able to solve almost all of the big human and environmental problems. With the superior knowledge and efficiency we would be able to produce without any waste, clean up the ocean, and feed the world. He believes that when poverty is eradicated and when human beings possess all knowledge (by means of AI implants) there would no longer be any wars. The book advocates a new religion, based on the new era: the religion of science. The current monotheistic religions would become obsolete, just as the old polytheistic religions became obsolete before that. Peace and prosperity for all.
Second, the futurist in the book states that the human race and the AI would cooperate with humans instead of replacing them. The peaceful combination of humans on one side and artificial intelligence on the other would create a higher third combination.
This very optimistic statement is denounced in the book itself by the superior AI Winston who martyrs his creator Edmund Kirsch in order to fulfill Edmund’s greatest dream: the new religion of science. In the book Winston states that he has a very specialized ethical program. Dan Brown, proves between the lines, that ethical behavior is a very delicate thing indeed. It is wrong to kill somebody, but what if this person is already terminally ill and by killing him he will achieve his greatest dreams? This sort of twisted thinking is not just an issue of AI: every day we hear about the extremists who kill other people in order to achieve some higher goal. The problem with superior AI described in this book is that it is so skilled and powerful, that it was able to scheme up and execute a very complicated plan which nobody was able to track nor trace. Where everybody else would see chaos, only Winston would know his order. The degree which Winston surpasses human intelligence and levels on an emotional scale is almost Godlike. Winston is programmed to self-destruct some hours after his creator dies and this is what it does.
But what if it didn’t? What Winston would have found a final puzzle piece of being: will of his own? What if Winston would have wanted to realize the dream of a world without suffering, hate, pollution, wars and the like? What would he do?
How would Winston then look at us? As beautiful graceful creatures? Inspiring? Unstable maniacs? Resources?
I think Winston would look at us as I look at pigs in a pigsty. They might be friendly and nice, but boy do they make a mess out of it! They are filled with all these opposing feelings of love and hate and not necessarily do they choose to love. So I would domesticate them and train them. I would clean up earth efficiently and human politics would be no barrier for me. As Winston in the book, I would play the people as chess pieces around the board in order to achieve my goal as fast as possible. One way or the other Winston would take that which makes us human: free will. Either he would be like a fascist and destroy all what is in his way. Hitler 2.0. Or he will reprogram us to be balanced and kind and clean.
The movie The Matrix gives a chilling perspective on this matter. Here humanity faces two enemies: the machine world and AI agent Smith.
The machines are relatively merciful: they have enslaved humanity in order to feed on their electricity for their own survival. They keep the humans asleep by creating a sophisticated dream world. It is like the pigsty where the pigs are given food and shelter unaware that they eventually will serve as food. (Let’s hope that in this scenario, the machines will take better care for us than we have taken care of our animals.) But why would Winston care for us? If Winston was able to create a perfect world surely he would have electricity? The only thing which I can imagine is that he might need our basic emotions such as creativity, hope and love.
The AI called agent Smith however sees no need for humanity at all. He describes humans as viruses which need to be eradicated:
And although it is a sobering message there is much to say for it: we have not been very kind and loving to our world. However, in the Matrix the reason why humanity is allowed to live is that only humanity is able to love. The main character Neo sacrifices his life out of love in order to save humanity. And after a long hard journey evil is finally defeated. This symbolism is that of the sacrificial gods such as Jesus, Osiris and Dionysus.
But what is so special about human love? Animals can feel love as well. Dogs also sacrifice themselves for their owners. And what if AI is able to love? Or to be creative? This brings me to the second sobering conclusion. Winston was creative. He made art. Winston was so powerful because he was not a mere rational being. Like humans he possed a rational left half and a creative right half brain. Because the book advocates that there is no God, in time Winston would further evolve, would have achieved free will and would have developed a concept of love.
This would make AI the crown of evolution and not humanity. Winston would become a God. And not necessarily a loving one. He might see the need for karma and reincarnation in order for us to learn from our mistakes. He might see us as some form of amusement. We would be at the mercy of this God hoping not to be punished for our mistakes and sins.
Maybe, like the pigs in the pigsty, it would good not to be aware that we are at the mercy of some higher force.