The great disruptor mocks perfection and introduces disorder into creation.
When I swung open the back door to let the dogs out late at night, cold rushed in around my ankles. Bright stars glittered through the cottonwoods. The quarter-moon was up, dancing its way across the sky. It wasn’t just a flat sliver of a disk. In the clear night, I could see the startling roundness of the moon, make out the dark craters on the shadow side, and picture the sun just below the horizon hitting it. And the stars were raining down in the firmament, the bright ones closer, the faint ones further away, giving me a glimpse of the vastness of the universe.
As I climbed back into the warmth of my bed, I began wondering if we know what we’re giving up as we turn more and more of our lives over to computers and artificial intelligence. I know that on days when I’ve spent too much time staring at screens, reality has a certain flatness. I forget that the moon is a sphere and that it has a dark side, hidden from view.
As each generation goes by, that connection to the natural world becomes less and less. Why does that matter? It’s important to ask. A computer won’t know to ask that, to ask what is missing from our lives.
All cultures tell stories about the origin of creation, and their cosmologies are fundamentally different. Artificial intelligence may contain the text of this information in a computer, but does it understand, or comprehend the implications of, these differences?
In the Jewish spiritual tradition, in the beginning there was nothing, the void, and then there was creation, when cyclical time came into being. The Hebrew calendar is divided into lunar months, and the holidays coincide with agricultural seasons. This past week, Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew New Year, ushered in the New Year 5784.
Hindus think in terms of cycles of creation and parallel universes, and this universe is not the first or the last. Native Americans, generally speaking, have beginning and emergence. Buddhists have flux and multiple universes, with no beginning nor end. Still, in all traditions, there is potential for something. A sense of hopefulness permeates life.
Being able to ask the question, “What’s next, what’s missing from this picture?” seems to be an essential, fundamental, creative act. It is something that computers and artificial intelligence — aside from pattern-recognition software we might supply them with — will not be asking.
Can artificial intelligence come up with new questions? Isn’t that the truly intelligent human act, to ask good questions? If you don’t even ask new questions, you won’t get the answers you need either. AI has a lack of true reasoning capacity.
AI also cannot understand the world through the senses. It can’t be nostalgic for the smell of things, of decaying leaves turning to rich black topsoil. Likewise, if a person’s childhood is only spent indoors playing computer games, something fundamental will be missing. I think I was fortunate to have been born a few years before television became ubiquitous. My childhood memories of playing outside, climbing trees, digging in the dirt, give me a deep, strong reality to draw on now, later in life, a shield for the psyche and immunity from the sharp, fast infectious busyness of modern culture.
On Star Trek, Captain Kirk always ribbed Mr. Spock for being too logical. Spock would reply, “What is the purpose of something illogical?”
Indeed. Navajo people, whose ceremonies work to restore balance, also have a great appreciation for Coyote, the Holy Person who is always disrupting things. He introduced disorder into creation when he mocked at a perfect calendar of stars being arranged on a blanket by a gathering of the Holy People, and he impatiently grabbed the blanket and tossed the stars skyward, where they landed in a pleasingly natural randomness.
This is a wise and important story, because asymmetry is necessary to existence. Things that are too perfect are lifeless. While predictable fractal geometric patterns are found even in the untamed branching of stream flows and the chaotic distribution of galaxies, Coyote will be relieved to hear, the patterns peter out at the distance of super-clusters.
But our profit-driven culture wants to sell us on a deathless, perfectly ordered existence, a conformity of desire to be filled only by mass-produced electronics instead of something human-made.
If I am missing faith, I can at least sense its absence and hope to find it. If I know that some magical quality has gone missing from my life, I can at least hope to feel it again. When I saw the dark of the moon it was like waking up from a dream. Now I need to wake up from the artificial simulacrums, the false representations on the screens, seducing me away from the natural world.
Perhaps we all need to wake up — especially to help our children and grandchildren do the same. We know that Microsoft technocrat Bill Gates strictly limited screen time for his children, and Apple’s Steve Jobs didn’t allow his children to use iPads at all, saying he thought they were too dangerous. We can hardly expect government to regulate the use of AI, or corporations to tell us to stop binging on what they are so fervently selling us. We must remember that artificial intelligence cannot care for us or ground us or heal the soul.