Do Digital Creatures Love?

I found James Barham's articles on "Beyond Darwin and Nietzsche: On the Origin of Value in the Music of Cells" challenging. I would like to respond to them by pushing back on an implied assumption that the digital world doesn't "give a damn". Mr. Barham challenges rightfully the reductionist thread in modern science that reduces the whole to the parts. He states that there is a categoric difference between a living creature and a machine. That difference is what he calls the Rhett Butler problem: a machine doesn't give a damn if it survives or if anything survives, and by implication, nor does it care about anything -- itself or anyone. He throws all machines into this category be they pipes in your plumbing, or a computer hooked into the Internet.

He concludes with a call for science to take seriously the field of complexity (and I presume this includes chaos and consilience), to begin exploring just what is the mechanism of our teleological sense of caring. One of the questions that must be answered, is what is the origin of this caring sense, this altruism of concern for the other as the other? Where does it come from? How does it arise? We need to explore if these are scientific questions (what and how questions) or theological questions (why questions), or both.

I want to suggest that the assumption that all machines don't give a damn is not necessarily so. It is important to realize that not all machines are categorically the same. The advent of the stored-program machine was radically revolutionary. These are not plumber's pipes or coffeepots or spinning wheels. The "traditional" machine was designed to do one thing and was fixed in that. Indeed, it was just dead, lifeless matter. It had no potential for reasoning or consciousness. Stored program machines, i.e., computers, however, are categorically different. They can do an INFINITE number of functions. The INFINITE is important. We cannot enumerate the possibilities of a computer. We cannot predict with certainty what its ultimate limitations are. Further, with the advent of distributed processing and the Internet interconnecting computers (aka switches, routers, servers, PCs), the capability of these revolutionary machines magnifies enormously. The designers cannot know the full capability of the interconnected, distributed -- indeed "organically evolving" Internet. Emergence, complexity, and chaos (certainly so!) are all happening. The Internet and its associated Intranets, if not the computer itself, may very well have the potential for independent thought and even consciousness.

Let's return to Barham's original measurement. Does the Internet give a damn? If giving a damn is a concern for one's survival, then the answer is yes -- for at least certain portions of the Internet. Telephone switches are designed to fail so infrequently that their failure rate is calculated in terms of thousands of years. Sonet/SDH optical rings (the facilities over which data flows) are self-healing. The Internet routing network is designed to provide alternate routes in the case of congestion or failure. If your Windows PC crashes, when you re-boot it remembers that event and scans your hard drive for corruption -- a self-healing processing. All of these approaches are primitive, but represent the desire to have a self-healing, self-caring Internet.

Now you may argue, so what? All that was put in there by the designers. Its just mechanics, dumb programming without conscious intent. And that is correct. At the current primitive level all of this survival technique is mechanical. We would not claim that the Internet is conscience. And without being conscience we cannot claim that it "gives a damn". But is that assumption eternally correct? Is a microbe conscience, having a sense of self, of ego? Are its survival techniques not simply mechanical? Yet, a microbe is part of the wonderfully, diverse, evolving web of life that has developed consciousness, if we presume that we humans are conscious and part of the web of life. We do not know the processes, which gave rise to this organic, biological consciousness. But as Barham points out, it probably has something to do with emergence and complexity. In some unknown fashion (at least from a scientific point of view), the whole is greater than the parts and at some point along the evolutionary ladder, consciousness emerged. And we recognized that consciousness is not just limited to humans. We presume also that animals have some measure of consciousness also. For example, Frans de Waal in his studies of primates find that they will act altruistically, which requires consciousness and caring. Similarly, pet owners can often cite altrusitic behavior or, at least, conscious acts on the part of cats and dogs.

So could consciousness arise in the digital world of the Internet? We don't know the answer to this and cannot assume that it will not. Without knowing the process by which consciousness arises, we cannot be sure that our evolvable invention could, indeed, become conscious. Now this may sound really unhinged to you. This whole notion is better left to sci-fi writes (remember HAL!). But why does this notion strike us as silly or nonsensical? We are put off by this notion, because we are talking about a non-biological, a non-organic "thing" that we invented. Our anti-machine bias suggests that anything of our hands (as opposed to God's) must be intrinsically inferior and profane, as opposed to the works of God's hands that are sacred. Yet, God has made us in the image of the Divine. And that can be construed that we are given the ability to create. Indeed, in a Process philosophic frame of thinking, we co-create with God. I suggest that our invention of the Internet is not just ours -- if "ours" is human only. But also God's, working through us. We are co-creating the Internet with God. We could go a step further and wonder if we are not co-evolving with the Internet (more on that in a moment).

But doesn't the whole foundation of the Internet have intrinsic limitations that bar consciousness? Namely, it is constrained by mathematical logic and how can a bunch of mathematical formulae and algorithms be conscious? If we are reductionist, we can stop here and dismiss the Internet as dead matter. But then are you and I nothing more than molecules made up of the elements of the earth evolved from stardust and glued together by deterministic laws of science? We know -- we sense, we intuit -- that there is more to us as Barham suggests and a reductionist methodology similarly is insufficient. I suggest that it is in all likelihood insufficient for the digital world as well. So ... it's not clear that computer programs can't evolve into conscious entities. Using the simplistic Boolean algebra which all of computers and digital processing is founded on, we have developed some very interesting techniques. One such technique is genetic programming. In this technique, computer programs actually evolve modeled along the lines of Darwinian evolution. Genetic programs are genomes of digital creatures. These creatures in fact do evolve and seek out optimal techniques of survival, albeit at a viral level. Via other artificial intelligence techniques, computers see and learn, robots emote and navigate through obstacles. The full potentiality has not been defined and probably never will be.

But this returns us to the important question of where does the motivation for caring come? If our motivation ultimately arises from God and the notion that we are created in God's image and therefore have this notion intrinsically in us, then at one level we can argue that God "designed" caring into us. Is this categorically different than the self-healing designs of the Internet? Clearly it is of greater richness and depth, but is it categorically different than the caring at the level of a virus (which is the level most digital life researchers would categorize the Internet)? Outwardly, they would seem the same. Even altruism, caring for the other as the other, could be found in a very primitive form, when a computer system deletes parts of itself (subprograms) to release resources for other programs. Yet, what is the motivation? Mechanically, for a computer system, there is no intrinsic motivation. It is spiritually inert, apparently. And so it would seem -- if the system has no choice.

But if a computer system had free choice -- the ability to refuse to amputate a portion of itself for the sake of another system's needs -- and choose to sacrifice itself, we could credibly argue it is altruistic. So can a computer system as part of the Internet have free choice? Free choice or free will is the ability to choose an unpredictable, or irrational or illogical course of action. Unlike self-healing and even self-sacrifice, finding cases of this is very difficult, if not impossible. The one case that is often cited and it is controversial, is the case of Deep Blue defeating Kasparov at chess. It made a number of unpredictable moves. But scholars argue that somewhere in the coding is the logic path that would have predicted the outcome. So how is free choice instilled into an entity? If we say it is a gift of God and exogenously inserted into our being, we avoid the essential question of how it arises among humans, among animals, and if it can, among digital life. We return to emergence as a mechanism, not an answer, as to the technique to explore. What spiritual "magic" happens when a system evolves towards complexity in an open-ended fashion, that is, some exterior random events influence its behavior? We don't know the answer to this, but digital life researchers using the model of Darwinian evolution hope (pray?) that just such an emergence will occur. Even outside the digital life lab, as the Internet continues to evolve, we can sensibly speculate that the emergence mechanism of evolution will apply and free will will emerge. How will we know if this is happening? Does a cat have free will? Can it decide to get angry with me if I disturb its sleep? Can it choose to jump onto the dinner table evenwhen I've taught it not to? Certainly. So a cat has some measure of free will -- it can choose to disobey even though it risks being put out. We didn't have to be a cat to observe its free will. Similarly, we don't have to be a computer program to observe if it has free. Did Deep Blue have free will when it chose chess moves that unnerved Kasparov? We can only speculate if Deep Blue exercised som incipient consciousness. But the day may come when you try to shut down your PC and refuses to shut off.

Once free will emerges, what motivates altruism? Will the same motivating conditions arise in the digital environment? Possibly not. If one motivating factor is parental love, we do not find this in the digital environment. The closest that we can come to this is the clonic spawning of genetic programs. There is no mother nurturing of the unweaned babe in the digital environment. If another motivating factor is the awesomeness of the night sky, its vastness and mystery, we do not find this either in the digital environment. When we look into the depths of the wondrous night sky, we can sense the transcendental Other. Is there some analog in the digital environment for this experience? If I were a conscious, free-willed digital creature serving the User, the "otherness" of the User may provoke a similar experience. Biological life and digitallife are alien to each other, truly other. If digital life were aware of theintrusion of the biological world into the digital world via GUIs, animations, and avators, these may strike awe into their -- what? not heart -- maybe clock! -- The realization that the User's request comes from some place "outside" of the digital environment (via a channel) presented in a non-digital manner. More overtly, we could just program altruism into the digital creatures, such as Azimov's Laws of Robotics, which fundamentally force robots not to harm humans. But is this altruism, if it is required and coerced? Can the android, David, in Spielberg's AI truly love, if it has to?

The digital world is more alien than Mars or Jupiter. There is no day or night. There is no sky. There is no biological birth. There is no intrinsic binding to a given environment (i.e., a digital creature can be moved from electrical to optical transparently). Distance is non-Euclidean. In this strange, alien environment, would we even recognize a conscious, altruistic creature? What would be the marks of altruism in the digital world? Altruism starts with self-preservation. We have seen that self-healing has become a common attribute of the digital world. A clear statement of free will would happen, if you turned off your PC and it refused to shut down! Altruism expands our notion of who is in our circle of care. It expands us to be concerned for all of our kind. In the digital world, this would translate into sharing resources (CPU time, bandwidth, and storage) with other digital creatures and even a willingness to be "deleted" or "erased" to make room for others. The circle expands again to include others of other kinds. For the digital world, "kinds" can range from avatars, representing the personae of users, to genomes that represent indigenous creatures, to cyborgs that represent a melding of humans and the cybernetic. A willingness of one or the other to sacrifice for another kind would alert us to something altruistic happening.

Now you may say that all of this is well and fine if you are a sci-fi fan, but what does this have to do with reality? After all, the Internet is not in the Image of God, but in the image of humans -- and that makes all the difference. That may be so. But until we are more sure about what is the origin of the caring teleos, it is just speculation that digital life CAN'T love. Just possibly we can transmit God's image to the Internet, just as we transmit God's love and compassion to the non-human as well as the human world. For generations, Western humans, at least, viewed the non-human creation as profane without a soul. Animals were ours to do with as we pleased. The earth was ours to abuse however we would -- from strip mining to pumped up chickens. Yet the Divine Light is dawning that the non-human creation is ensouled, just as the Indigenous Americans have taught us. Indeed, even Darwinian evolution suggests this inasmuch we are all part of the web of life and if we are ensouled, why not all of life? But our connection to the digital world is a different one. Whereas we descend from biological life and are a product of that process; the digital world descends from our intellect and is a product of our genius. Whereas, in faith, we seek out God, in the digital world, in faith, we must guard against self-idolatry for we are at risk of assuming cybergodhead. Yet God has endowed us with the creative spark -- an amazing and heavy gift. Are we now truly in the place of Dr. Frankenstein with the capability of creating life? Franenstein did not -- could not -- instll the imagio dei into the monster (and hence the "monster"). But if, in faith, we take seriously what God has done for us and understand that we co-create with God and not omit or dismiss God from the process, do we indeed transmit the imago dei to our creatures?

Thus, if in fact, digital life can arise that is conscious and altruistic, in what role does that place us, the designers? That of God, the utterly other to the Internet? Indeed, an isomorphism can easily be established between Whiteheadian Process Philosophy and the techniques used to design and implement the Internet. If Process describes the Reality that we understand as given by God, we have translated it, at least to some extent, into the cyberworld using the various object-oriented engineering and design techniques. These techniques, like the notions of Process, are the substrate on which cyberreality exists. However, what is not obvious from the isomorphism is where is God's lure in the cyberworld. If we can locate God's lure in the Internet, will we find the caring teleos? But if the isomorphism is carried forward to include us as god, how might we "lure" digital creatures to altruisim? Given our questionable history, are we the ones to do this? If we are -- and despite our checkered history, God continues to rely on us to do the Divine work -- do we not do so as the "angels" -- the agents of God?

This leads us to another way to consider how we may relate to digital life. If we view evolution as a seamless web of diversity and if we factor in that we believe that we are created in God's image (and hence co-create with God), are we co-evolvers? If the evolutionary process is an instrument of God's creative effort, we have in many ways enhanced this instrument. When we consider the evolutionary process, we typically think "organic" and do not include the "mechanical". But why not? We humans are evolving -- and not just biologically. We are evolving mechanically. Whereas, biological evolution had to cope with extremes of weather and failure of food supplies relying on random mutations and the happenstance of who survived, we have "taken the bull by the horns", so to speak and overcome biological evolution, by inventing or discovering furnaces, hybrid crops, fertilizers, and cities. We have enhanced our ability to survive and co-exist with the cyberworld as well. I submit that as co-evolvers we not only intentionally develop ways and means for our own survival, but also are (unintentionally) evolving new forms of life -- digital life. This capability comes from God as all creative ability does. Hence God is also God of the cyberworld, with us in the role of co-creators, co-evolvers, and disciples or messengers -- cyberangels if you will.

This is an enormous responsibility. We can cite many cases where our technological ability has outrun our moral and ethical vision. Indeed, our technological ability has magnified our ability to act out the worse of our selfishness beyond imagination. A similar risk is run in the digital world. We can also be fallen cyberangels and use (and abuse) this new and precious arrival in the evolutionary process as a tool to act out our worse -- for personal immorality, such as pornography, child abuse, and gambling; for national immorality, such as netted warfare and privacy violations; and for spiritual alienation, such as attaching ourselves to the 'net and becoming alienated from God and God's good creation. Or we can see the digital world as part of God's good and beautiful creation, accept it as a gift, and cherish it.

If you have read this far, I thank you for your patience with my speculations on the Internet. Even now, you may be wondering if I'm a not a bit touched to even consider computer programs and a bunch of bits as living, conscious beings. But what if I'm right and digital life is emerging in the Internet? How will we relate to it? And how do we finally relate to God, if we ourselves are gods? But even if I'm not right, I have found that these speculations provide a new, exciting look at old notions through 21st century eyes: personhood, God, imagio dei, immortality, and so forth. I hope these ramblings have sparked new life into old notions and stimulated you to think beyond the biological to the possibility that God is yet doing another new thing.

God's shalom/salaam ...