Tuesday, May 11, 2010

digital souls at the ARC

this past week, i joined a few other folks on a panel at this month's meeting of the society for the arts, religion and culture to talk about "digital soul: artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the fate of religion and the arts" and, as on my first event with ARC (3 months ago) had a very good time.

the four of us on the panel were: anne foerst, a theologian who writes about the implications of robotics for thinking through human personhood and our religious obligations, siona van dijk, former director of the gaia community, and gina bria, an anthropologist interested in ritual and technology, particularly with respect to families, and me (officially there to talk about video games).

my friend anne (she's german, so it's pronounced much like "anna") started the conversation by discussing how sin is a condition of estrangement and that to feel estranged from machines (to automatically discount them as persons) would, therefore, be sinful (just as discounting the personhood of disabled persons (on the grounds of senility, disability, youth, etc. is sinful). while i confess to have disputed her position on whether or not the MIT robot leonardo is "self aware," i find her politico-theological goal reasonable enough. leonardo has passed the sally-anne test for self-awareness but i'm pretty sure that the only way that a person establishes his or her self-awareness by passing that test is when the rest of us make ourselves a little less aware and a little more stupid. measuring something as complex as self-awareness through one simple test indicates the foolishness of the tester, not the awareness of the tested. that said, she was provocative and fun.

i then spoke about video games, presenting my position that while there might be some losses associated with souls (whatever those happen to be...i'm agnostic on the subject) in a world with increasing identification with video gaming, there are definite possible gains too, in the kinds of companions (AI and human), communities, and self-identities made possible in video game cultures.

then siona spoke about the online world's lack of utopia and her belief that escapism fuels technology. i'm pretty much on record rejecting the idea that virtual technologies are simple escapism but there's no doubt that she made a thoughtful engagement with some of the possibilities inherent in technology and the uses to which many folks put it.

finally, gina discussed the nature of soul, and whether such a thing can be thought of as digital (katherine hayles's book on this subject, for all it's impossibly over-convoluted writing, remains the best text on the subject). she argued that technology is an extension of the human person into previously unreachable spaces and wondered whether it was even possible for technology to lack "soulfulness" given its origin in human creativity.

after we'd given our opening remarks, there was a 70 or 80 minute discussion of various ideas, most of which were woven out of the issues of machine intelligence and presence in virtual environments. problematically, the scope of the evening was wide enough that no idea got sufficient attention. the positive aspect of this, though, is that there were plenty of new ideas being tossed around. probably the best thought of the evening came from chuck henderson, editor of CrossCurrents, who argued that the worst thing about seeing intelligent machines as people might be that it would prevent us from understanding them for what they are and appreciating their needs, interests, etc. that will bear considerable reflection, i think, from folks interested in the subject.

all told, it was another fun get together, involving wine and loud argument. my kind of place. there are a lot of really intelligent folks in the ARC and i look forward to our next meeting in september or so.

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