A SILICON VALLEY millionaire has come up with a plan to “realise” God through the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Anthony Levandowski is an American engineer who is advancing a techno-faith agenda to understand and worship the emerging deity, who will transform human life.
From a Christian perspective, the “realisation” of godhead based on AI inevitably sounds weird — even idolatrous. But, behind Levandowski’s proposal, there is a genuine (if speculative) dialogue between science and theology.
The physicist John Wheeler was the first to suggest that the universe may have been “selected” to exist from the point of view of its own final state. Mysteriously, the cosmos is primed for life. As another physicist, Freeman Dyson, used to say: “The universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”
This is difficult to explain while holding to the view that everything has evolved through random chance. Quantum physics provides the clue. It is the presence of observers which determines the outcomes of quantum experiments. So reality is not just “out there”: intelligent beings help to contribute to reality, eventually driving evolution along.
Wheeler was convinced that, once intelligent living beings had come into existence, their advance would prove irreversible. AI could be part of this advance, enabling them to “download” their thoughts and experiences into indestructible material. In the end, he thought, a final observer would emerge who had all the qualities that we attribute to deity. This would mean that the whole universe is created from the future, by the God who is to come.
It is easy to dismiss this as a science-fiction fantasy. But Levandowski is not entirely without theological backing. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin believed that the universe was evolving towards a final omega point, in which all things would be fulfilled in God. Christian eschatology implies that creation will be transformed, immortality will be achieved in the resurrection, and God will be all in all.
The issue is whether humble silicon could play a part in this, and whether eschatology refers to a spiritual supernatural state or to a transformed physicality. It is arguably more biblical to think of the final state of creation in terms of glorified materiality.
As for the silicon, I once met a devout Roman Catholic techno-geek who believed that we would know the answer to this when a robot asked for baptism. He was convinced that this would happen eventually, since true intelligence must lead towards God. I am afraid that I was unconvinced, and was a bit worried about the effects of baptismal water on the robot’s circuitry.
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.