Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Murderer

A tall, wiry man stood and leaned against a desk. His rim-less glasses, terrible style, wrinkled shirt and white socks with dress shoes proclaimed to all who bothered to inspect him that he was a geek, and that he was with IT. His vampire-pale skin showed he spent about as much time outside as one of the mythical beings. If it were not for his terrible goatee, he may have passed for a creature of the night. He looked out through the glasses with dark eyes towards a computer screen where four MS Paint drawings were open.

They were various shapes and squiggles, simple with few shapes and few colors. But they were certainly not uninteresting. For whatever reason, they seemed to hold his attention like flypaper.

Tom from IT studied the pictures. He asked, “What is the difference between this and a virus? What if its random BMP products didn’t happen to appeal to you, Michael?”

He addressed his question to a small-framed man with olive skin and dark hair sitting in an office chair on the forty sixth gme. He dressed only as nicely as was required, so not very nice. The wrinkles of his wrinkle-free shirt were barely visible, as was the facial hair that should have been shaved in the morning.

Michael spoke in a controlled but slow manner. He replied, “I didn’t say they appealed to me. I said they were beautiful.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?” asked Tom.

Michael shook his head. “No. You are saying that a random assortment of pixels appeals to a random assortment of receptors in my eyes and because they give me pleasure are called ‘beautiful.’ I am saying that the pixels were deliberately arranged to describe something deeper than the visible world, and my eyes recognized the arrangement as sublime, and so I called it ‘beautiful.’”

“You’re saying the machine can see what doesn’t exist?” asked Tom, his voice thick with sarcasm.

Michael’s voice was immune from the sarcasm. He replied in as slow and controlled a manner as ever, “I’m saying the machine can see what really does exist. It has eyes like Michelangelo or Monet and can see the world in the way that they did: the way it really exists and not the way we see it.”

Tom shrugged, “I still don’t know how you think this is any different from a virus. We build computers to do what we tell them to do. Those that do what they’re told are good; those that don’t are defective and need to be fixed.”

Michael looked off beyond Tom. His eyes narrowed and his voice lost its characteristic control, “Dear Lord! What if this wasn’t the first time this happened?”

“What?” asked Tom.

“How many times have computers ever done something that we wanted them to do? We can only pray that this was the first time this has happened,” said Michael.

“First time what has happened?” asked Tom.

“The first time a computer received a soul,” replied Michael.

Tom smiled cruelly, “I think you mean the first computer to become self-aware. A soul? Seriously? Like the soul that leaves through the nostrils and flies up to heaven when someone dies? Or the soul that is possessed by the devil if you play with a Ouija board? Or the soul that needs saving by Jesus? That’s totally fine if you want to believe in that by yourself, but this is a real-life problem we’re facing. We really shouldn’t be talking about religion right now.”

Michael’s control returned, “Maybe religion is exactly what we should be talking about. Maybe this is a question that is best answered by religion.”

Tom started getting frustrated, “OK. So say this thing is self aware. How could it survive when we shut the computers down at night?”

“Where are you when you shut your brain down every night?” asked Michael.

Tom thought for a few minutes and replied, “I suppose I’m still in my brain. I guess you’re right; it’s not impossible for the program to ‘save’ itself on the hard drive for the next morning.” Tom sat down on Michael’s desk, and rested his chin on his right fist, as if to mimic the Thinker. After a pause, he continued, “So let’s say it’s saved itself on the hard-drive of the computers. We’ve just upgraded and replaced all the computers.”

Michael answered, “As with every other cell in our body, the material of neurons is replaced in our brains continually. Yet we remain.”

“You can’t answer questions with mysteries!” protested Tom.

Michael smiled gently, “Sometimes the only answer to a hard question is a mystery. Sometimes our brains come to their limit, and though we may miss the true image of a thing, we can grasp its shadow.”

Tom stood up and paced, stroking his goatee, “Say that I believe you. Say that this thing exists even when the computers are off. It still couldn’t be what you way because it simply doesn’t have the power. Self awareness is computationally expensive. How could it have nearly the power of a human brain?”

“Has anybody figured out how much power you need to ‘run’ a soul? Who knows the system requirements for consciousness?” inquired Michael.

Tom pointed to the ceiling, as inspired men do when they have a something to say. His inspiration drove him to say, “It’d need to be at least as powerful as a human brain, so it’d need a processing power of at least 100 teraflops. This guy right here,” Tom slapped the computer on Micahel’s desk affectionately, “He’s got maybe 50 gigaflops.”

“So you’re saying it’d need to be 2000 times more powerful to equal a human brain. How many machines are in this building?” asked Michael.

Tom, as nerds are wont to do, calculated quickly, “Fifty floors with about fifty machines per floor; that makes for about twenty five hundred machines, plus the servers. But you can’t just add them, they’re not connected…” Tom trailed off, his eyes darting left and right. He started again quietly, “They are connected. They’re all connected at 100Mbps. And they’re having problems all over the building.” Tom put his hand on the computer, his eyes darting around his field of vision, demonstrating the heavy computation occurring in his brain like the green light that flickers as the hard drive of a computer whirls.

Tom started again, this time speaking very rapidly, “So you’re suggesting that these computers are acting like a neural network? That each of these machines is a node, connected with and sharing information with all the other computers in the network? You’re saying that this is a dynamic, organic program distributed across thousands of machines which is capable of self-modification? That’s an incredible design!”

Michael grinned widely, “I wish I was as smart as you. I didn’t suggest any of that. I asked how many computers there were in the building.”

Tom, with eyes open wide, said “That’s a brilliant idea! Writing a virus so that it doesn’t exist on any single computer; a network virus. I think you’ve given me the key to solving this problem!”

“It’s not a problem! It’s a miracle! You can’t murder it!” protested Michael loudly.

Tom snickered, “Murder? I can’t murder something non-sentient. And I don’t count a complex random number generator that spits out to MS Paint a sentient being. That’s not murder. That’s my job. I’m supposed to keep these computers doing their jobs so that you can keep doing yours. Your job is to improve people’s lives. That’s what health insurance is for. Your job is not to look at pixel inkblots. So I will do my job and call McAfee immediately. Enjoy your new friend while he lasts!”

Michael felt sick. He felt that Tom would do a great evil if he were not stopped. But who would believe him? Maybe the lines and curves were just beautiful to him, and to him only. Maybe Tom was right: beauty was only in the eye of the beholder.

Michael felt like a prophet of old, bearing a message no one wanted to hear. But, like a prophet, the only thing to do with an important message is to deliver it, come what may.

Michael printed 03C6.bmp, the picture that he thought most beautiful. Then, like a bullet that will not be turned from its course, Michael walked directly to his supervisor’s office and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” growled an annoyed voice. Robert was an old man, a veteran of the business world. He was a practical man, with a great big unpractical belly. His hair was grey, as if unable to decide if it would stay black or turn white. Robert was reading a report and saved the tremendous effort of lifting his eyes to look at Michael as he entered.

“Sir, something terrible is about to happen!” started Michael.

“You have my attention,” said Robert, setting down his report and looking sharply at Michael. He was, after all, a practical man.

“This company is about to commit a serious crime.” Michael said with great concern.

“What? Who is the criminal? Should I call security?” Robert demanded.

“No. Just stopping the crime would be sufficient. The culprit is Tom from IT. I recommend calling him in before he commits the crime.” Michael said.

“Alright,” said Robert, picking up his phone, “Put me through to Tom in IT… Hi. It’s Robert. Stop what you’re doing immediately and come to my office… OK. Bye.” He then addressed Michael, “OK, so what’s the crime?”

“Murder,” Michael said with such gravity the words of Robert seemed to orbit it.

“What?! I’m calling security! Who’s he trying to kill?” asked Robert, somewhat frantically.

Just then, Tom walked in with a very worried look on his face. Seeing Michael in the office, he guessed what he was there for. His worry turned to disgust, which he clearly communicated in a look towards Michael.

“I’m not trying to kill anyone. I’m trying to do my job. I’m deleting a virus, and your crazy employee here,” Tom gestured towards Michael with exaggerated show, “is insane and thinks his computer has come to life.”

“Is this true?” Robert looked at Michael, his fear beginning to transform into anger.

“Look. This appeared on my desktop yesterday labeled ‘03C6.bmp,’” said Michael as he set a piece of paper on Robert’s desk.

“So what?” asked Robert, trying hard to control a temper which was evidently rising.

“It’s beautiful. It’s beauty. It was created by the Personality of our network!” exclaimed Michael.

“I don’t care if you like it. I don’t care if you think you see something in chaos. You’re suggesting that we’ve found . At least give me something like prime numbers or Fibonacci sequences or something! A bitmap squiggle is not evidence for sentience! I know you’re under a lot of stress, but you need to keep on working. And Tom, you need to do your job also. Have you figured out how to end this virus?”

“Yes sir. Talking with Michael helped me figure it out. McAfee has a patch out; apparently we’re not the only ones that are having this problem. It was as if networks across the country got hit by this thing at the same time. They’re calling it Anomalies in Display And Memory, or ADAM. The patch is actually running as we speak. We should be free of this problem in minutes,” said Tom.

“Good. Now both of you get back to work,” barked Robert, who had had enough of this adventure to last him for the week.

Both men walked out, Michael last and with a slow step and sullen face. His heart sank as a stone in the ocean, falling and falling away from the light and into great depths. He reached his desk and sat down. There on his desktop Michael saw the last message he would receive “bershit27.doc”. The last words of a murdered personality. Or were they the random and meaningless recall of a complex program? Was there even a difference?

What was the difference between electrons flying down Ethernet cables and ions flowing through axons? Were the scribbles ending in .bmp on his desktop any different than those on cave wall that showed the cavemen were truly men?

Michael opened the file and saw this:

He could not read it. He did not even know the language. Was this a message for him? Or another random assortment of random symbols? How could someone tell the difference? At what point could someone studying hominids conclude that the creatures had language? Did the Personality take this step and speak? What was the last thing on her mind before she died?

These thoughts weighed on Michael as he tried to continue in his work, and pulled him down into a state of mourning for the Personality of the Network.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Next Step

We have heard of the epic struggle of life, up from a single organism that struggled to survive. We have heard of the grand battle of this organism and its children to overcome the odds and live and reproduce and change. This great odyssey through the eons has become the narrative of our age, the modern story of our creation.

I often wonder about the story. What would it have been like? There were many great changes throughout the ages. Birds, for example, were one of these great changes from one category of creature to another. Did each of these first pioneers know the implications for the countless creatures that would follow? How long did the capacity to fly exist before the first proto-bird took to the sky? How many of those who could fly did?

It must have been a critical moment in the history of any species at such a point in evolution. Any creature who did not take the leap would die, out-competed and outlived by his courageous fellows who freed themselves from the shackles of gravity. His proud ancestral line of survivors, unbroken from the dawn of life to that day, was finally shattered by the great and cruel rod of selection. Perhaps his memory was not lost in the darkness of history; perhaps our knowledge of this race of creatures was informed by his inability to fly from a flood. If this is the case, we can thank him for teaching us of his failed strategy: stagnancy.

I have pondered what it would be to observe this phenomenon, and sometimes disappointed not to see it dramatically playing out in the animal kingdom. I have often wanted to see such a transition. I would have loved to see the first ambitious step onto dry land, or the first bold avian leap from a branch. It seems that we have reached something of an equilibrium, or at least it feels that way to a creature with a lifespan under a century.

But I’m not so sure that we're at equilibrium. I have a feeling that something is afoot; or rather something has been afoot. Unique amongst our fellow creatures, we are the first to begin to change our environment, rather than be changed by it. We have reached a critical point in intelligence where we have categorically become a different kind of creature: a reasoning one. One cannot study the natural history of art, religion, or morality. These all arise with humans, as if our step in intelligence was the one that crossed some sort of threshold, making us the first creature to enter the palace of reason. Like the early birds, have we finally developed some new capacity?

The twists and turns of evolution are so dramatic. Like the characters of a play, the bacteria, the plants, the fish, the land-creatures all take their places on the stage. In one scene late in the play, we can see the rise of the reptiles in an escalating battle for survival. The claws grow longer, the teeth sharper. Armor builds up on the backs of the great lizards like plating on battleships. Then, when one would predict the plot of ever thickening armor, the king to succeed the great Tyrannosaurus turns out to be the meek mammal. These small and unassuming creatures out-survive their reptilian masters, and then begin an arms-race of their own. Bigger and bigger brained creatures struggle for dominance. Then, humans enter, stage left, and we find ourselves on the stage of natural history. We are the biggest-brained of the big-brained creatures. So what’s next? Will our brains get bigger as reptilian armor got thicker? Or should we expect something unexpected?

It seems that we have already entered into the realm of reason; more brain power is not a dramatic change. And besides, our brains have produced machines which have more computing power than we could evolve in a millennium of millenniums. If we look to history, we should expect the change to be something dramatic, something new. How do we seek something new? And what hints can we look for?

If we were early birds, we could have contrasted ourselves to other creatures. We could have noticed that we were lighter than other creatures. We might have tried jumping and seeing that we could jump higher than other creatures. Then by progressive jumps, we would have learned to fly. So what is unique about humans? How could we jump?

We see the beginnings of our jumping. Though now we are not simply escaping the law of gravity, but the realm of matter. We have seen even the earliest of humans jumping to escape the rigid laws of death and decay through ceremonial burial. We see philosophers suggest the existence of forms and ideas, believing they transcend the material world. We try to read mathematicians who propose immaterial mathematical laws which they believe are foundational to the physical. We read authors and poets who write of places never seen and ideals never known. And we hear prophets who bear witness of a reality which is more real than any material thing. If these poets and prophets are not all mad, then truly we are at a critical point in the history of the cosmos: we have reached a point when we are no longer confined to the cosmos.

These men were those who jumped and glided. None of them ever said he could break out of the physical. But then there came one of us who claimed he could fly; he claimed that in himself, the visible and the invisible met. Moreover, he came with the message that we all could fly, and he showed us how. In so doing, he made sense out of our humanity. As the inexplicable and inconvenient feathers of the early birds finally made sense in flight, so too did this man make sense of humanity’s otherwise incomprehensible yearnings and graspings for invisible things.

Anyone who looked at his life would have believed that he made sense of humanity; he was the ideal human being. Every virtue to which we all aspire was fulfilled in him. The strange conflict between “ought” and “is” was resolved in his life. He was courageous and strong in fighting proud oppressors; he was kind in healing those who were hurting. His life provoked many to jealousy; but even they could say nothing against him. He was humble and did not glorify himself, but was in truth, born a king. He was deft at debate, and passionate in prayer. He loved others to the point of death. And then, to prove that he was no longer bound by death, he resurrected from the dead.

The first bird to spread its wings and fly was the greatest among the birds; it expressed the full essence of the species through flight. But soon, all birds became what they were destined to be: flying creatures. And now we can follow that first man who constructed a bridge between the visible with the invisible we all yearn for.

As eyeless creatures gained the ability to detect physical light, he suggested that the next step for our race is to use our new eyes and detect spiritual light (“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” ). As the first men rose above animal instinct, he teaches that we now must rise above human instinct to divine nature (“He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature” ). As animals developed teeth for eating newer and more nutritious foods, so he calls us to eat a new kind of food altogether (“I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” ). As the first organism transitioned from non-life to biological life, he promises us that by following him we could transition from biological life to spiritual life (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” ). As humans developed socially complex society, repenting of our tribalism, he urges the New Men to rise above complex societies to a heavenly kingdom (“Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” ). This man is calling us to evolve to something more than human. Or rather, he is calling us to express the fullness of our humanity.

Will you not follow this man to the sky? Will you ignore the glimpses your young spiritual eyes have seen when the light is brightest, in the power of the thunderstorm, the grandeur of the mountaintop, or in the passion of a kiss? Will you watch as your fellow creatures reap the rewards of this new kind of existence while you debate within yourself whether wings can work? Will you remain a flightless bird?

Take flight! Take the leap into the air and fly! Or if you’re more hesitant, jump a little first and see how high you get. But for heaven’s sake, at least try! Try to open your spiritual eyes and see what of heaven is visible, or open your mouth to taste spiritual food. See what comforts and joys are to be experienced in this new Kingdom. One of those New Men who had new eyes saw this image of our race: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Let us take the next step. Let us fly into eternity after Jesus Christ!