This post is a patchwork of tattered reflections on a slew of topics ranging from humans behaving like robots to robots behaving like humans, mind-reading technologies, maybe cyborgs and so forth. There is no grand thesis tucked away in a prose that finds low triviality and high seriousness equally endearing. The hope here is that the reader, if any, would walk away feeling enough esprit to want to grab somebody gently and engage in debate until the Holy Spirit returns our souls to the still waters. “Be Still and know that I am God,” as the Psalmist writes, is a better consolation for our times where the relationship between work and worth is truly turbulent.
So let us fasten our reluctant bungee cords and free fall over the falls and the cascade into the hazy mist over flipped palisades and feel the frightening vista of our noses kissing the foam and still realize that there is hope beyond the dip, the cliff and nosedive, for the rebound will takes us back to higher ground. Five, four, three, two, one . . . jump!
Once we get past the cringe factor, the queasiness and impious murmurs of the belly, the notion of a Robot as academic administrator is going to bat far fewer human eyelids than a Robot as teacher. Since statistical spreadsheets and mind-numbing diction are the voices and oracles of our time, all the pious pabulum spewing from the literature on inspirational leadership sounds doubly hollow as technocrats enact their fantasies and nostrums on rostrums prized a mile higher than men. Courage and spirit are vanquished with the vapor and wind. Not all men and women, to borrow a sentiment from C. S. Lewis are withered “without chests.” Like hapless projectiles approaching the event horizon in a shimmering black hole of bureaucratic gravity and gravitas, their numbers are shrinking faster than the sheared follicles from a bald man’s lustrous pate. Once in a while, the residue from the remnant and the bumbling, maladjusted few offer principled resistance and are thus recompensed with brevity of span and reproached as irredeemable spam in the carousel and annals of institutional memory. Recalcitrance against this sole bleeding, soul searing conditioning and contest as elite hurdlers over the blades and barricades of red tape or against comporting the extended trot like an Andalusian horse in the exact art of exquisite dressage is a fancy that the system and sprocket wheel cannot brook.
Once workers were the chamberlains of craftsmanship; now they are less than simpering solders in the circuit board of careerism. Medieval craftsmen at times deliberately infused their works with a subtle asymmetry as a way of recognizing their imperfection in the face of a perfect God. A better version of this sentiment can be found in John Ruskin’s magisterial essay ‘The Nature of the Gothic.’ This ‘asymmetry’ allows for extraordinary variance in creative expression. If humor can be found in homonyms, a careerist learns the rules of the guild for gild and then leaves the guild with repressed guilt once the falling foliage of time has spoken. What the Bard writes about King John’s second coronation and the utter superfluity of it all, might equally apply to the ‘enskyed’ and ‘sainted’ gatekeepers of higher education who burden our souls with their prose and purses.
Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp, To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess (King John)
Underneath the canopy of euphemism and eudaemonia, careerism is often confused with a fallen virtue that candidates claim as a martyr’s badge of honor, during job interviews, when called upon to adumbrate their weaknesses. A workaholic is simply a person who cannot balance the ratios between time and tasks whereas a careerist treats every task as a time to advance. A workaholic displays a weakness of the will whereas a careerist is willful over the ‘weak.’ There is nothing sinister about ambition, however once the kaleidoscopic colors and ambit turns into a gambit of monochrome where ‘lesser’ mortals are charred at the altar of a daring demigod’s flaming dreams, we should feel emboldened to call careerism a crass ‘sin’ and file it in the open cabinet of Hades’ curiosities. The soul decaying seeds of careerism can surely stifle the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.
In its current dispensation, the culture of academic governance does not generally evince much care towards Christ’s pithy and carefree chiasmus “the Sabbath was made for man; and not man for Sabbath.” The genius of this aphorism resides in its protean manifestations; whereby the style and substance remains unassailably true even while the context varies over time and place. If we substitute the term “Sabbath” with “institutions,” “technology,” “procedures,” the incandescent logic of Christ still comes shining through. A consequence of a reversal of Christ’s aphorism into “man made for Sabbath” is the not so surprising obliteration of individuality.
Individuality is not to be confounded with individualism; the first embraces uniqueness in trim and tatters while the second preens with Persimmon as the elder sibling of Narcissus. Devoid of dulcet dreams, divine nourishing and human flourishing (as opposed to mere advancement), an administrator makes a bureaucrat, a mirage and microcosm for a system whose rules and responsibilities are codified into an adjudicating algorithm of yes or no decisions. A plethora of tasks do not detract from the overall presumption that administration is very easily about a sequence of steps that can be routinized. Hence, imagination is not a term that we readily ascribe to bureaucrats, and for very good reasons. Perhaps, in an alternate universe, this deficiency of imagination has been addressed and the language of inspiration will spout like a geyser flooding academic memos, minutes and meetings with sonnets and serenades from the Muses. If I am overstating the case by sauntering into the zone of hyperbole and hubris, may the spirit of Kafka chide me and be your better guide.
‘Child is the Father of Man’ wrote Wordsworth in lyrical irony. At times, the content of our reveries from childhood does become the lineament and liniment of our character into the fading and fraying blossoms of adulthood. And is there not an aesthetic to a profession whose cadence can be apprized even as a child? Kids do grow up dreaming of becoming astronauts, athletes, rock stars, surgeons, artists, scientists, presidents and/or prime ministers, and in the rarest of instances, a teacher. An advanced toddler who dreams of becoming a Dean or a Provost, a College President or Chairperson of the Board of Trustees should certainly be advanced to the care and counsel of a psychiatrist, just to make sure that there are no portentous abnormalities in any part of the brain. Professors on the other hand, need no artifice and are by nature expected to be an inspiration as this value is implicit in the very job description itself, even if the appraisal of their worth bodes a sadder story. Being a professor, at least on paper is entwined with the concept of individuality, and despite all the dogmas of professional socialization and curses of communitarians, students are ultimately animated or display animus towards the person and personality of a professor as much as they are by the subject matter. I know of a person who despised calculus and the menacing mien of a hoary teacher, eons ago when corporeal punishment with bamboo canes still existed. Years later, he wept like a child (metaphorically speaking), and shed many, many tears of joy as he read David Berlinski’s Tour of the Calculus. If style is the man, then pedagogy despite its cacophonic chime is a person. Even so, the question cannot be easily dismissed as a trifle. So after my prolonged peroration, shall we begin in pronto the purpose of this post: “Can a Robot also be a professor?” Emphasis ought to be placed on ‘also.’
It is a rendition of the theme ‘Can Machines think?’ Alan Turing in his classic essay ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ replaced the question “Can Machines think?” with a supposition about function. Can machines partaking in the imitation game, trick the subconscious with imperceptible parleys whereby the human interlocutor is too flummoxed to tell the difference between man and machine. If a computer could perform a function that requires intelligence when performed by humans, Turing believed that the machine should be deemed intelligent. It is interesting after all that Turing was not speaking of Chess or even of solving a mathematical theorem, both well-defined domains or closed systems, instead he was subjecting the machine to the grueling challenges of improvisation. Conversation is a form of improvisation and despite its speciously facile form is maddeningly complex to simulate. Social conversation, in particular, tests a person’s adaptive ingenuity in a vein quite distinct from scripted and bounded exchanges at restaurants, banks, hospitals and the like. A script, as programmed by early researchers in Artificial Intelligence such as Roger Schank, is an instance of case-based reasoning. Hence the term. Since interactions in every day life beyond the paternosters of phatic communication are quite unscripted, researchers in Artificial Intelligence are naturally drawn to learning algorithms and embodied cognition whereby robots are subject to a wide variety of tasks such as navigating obstacle courses, playing ushers, engaging in curatorial conversation at a Picasso exhibit and ultimately engage in full-fledged conversation alongside their three-dimensional counterparts endowed with organic brains. Given the superiority of algorithms in its voluminous capacities at data mining, the notion of robots designing and delivering extraordinary keynote lectures in various fields such as Topology, Comparative Literature, Ethics, Relativity, Art History and so forth should become as benign a sight as seeing cranes lift objects that are a bit too heavy for the human arm.
A person who screams a shrill ‘No’ most earnestly believes that a professor is much more than a robot, and in a state of righteous rage might even call the person raising the specter of this scenario as an unforgivably inhumane and morally dissolute, rabid reductionist. How could an endeavor as sacred as teaching, dare I mention mentoring, be rendered into a bagatelle of mechanical mummery? Oh l’horreur. Turing’s consolations with the tongue-in-cheek reassurance of a mild-mannered non-believer goes as follows:
In attempting to construct such machines . . . we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.
What kind of salve or solace is it for those who are still reeling from the depredations, devolution, deforestation and other pitiable miseries that we have ravaged upon bluish green Mother Earth? Is the Anthropocene going to yield to an even more hellish Meccano-cene? No reasonable sentient being that I am aware of displays any nostalgia for the age of the pre-Archaean eon of the Hadean wherein the earth was devoid of the sound and stirrings of life from the lowliest and loveliest of cyanobacteria to the bourgeoning of higher-order Carbon based life forms? Even a cold-hearted misanthrope, it appears to me, is not too eager to herald the beginnings of a new Earth entirely divested of humans, whereby even traces of our genome are entirely deformed and reformed into an unrecognizable species and vast tracks of land are infested with metallic bots in a cruel Robot Farm without an Orwell to allegorize our passing into desuetude. A ‘cyborg’ like Kevin Warwick who is a bit too eager to move on beyond his humanity, wants to do so primarily out of a fear of not being enslaved by machines in the future. So, in a rather twisted way, he does care about humans. For now, I would advice every God-fearing, Bible-believing, homo sapiens loving Christian or humanist and tree-tending naturalist to desist from composing the requiem for our obsolescence. We should indeed be more petrified of asteroids than robots – for isn’t there plenty of room still for both the human imagination and our own subjectivity?
A person’s subjectivity is his or her own or it may be better described as God’s gift to each person, and this uniqueness will not be extirpated by an electronic brain or a genetic clone (for the clone is also its own person) or even mind-reading technologies. Your experience of a brilliant sunset is qualitatively distinct from mine, and even some sort of probe into my brain is not going to let you experience exactly what I experienced – and that is actually a good thing because phenomenology is and always is first person even though we can sit around a camp fire, hear the embers crackle and share stories about the ‘self’ and the glory that once was or the glory that might have been.
Our private language even while amenable to other minds, by virtue of recounting experiences from our life or the much more insidious and creepy form of mind-reading (a technology that is being gradually unleashed upon this world) is still the incantation of an idiolect that blockades the fenetre and fenestra of translation. It is the equivalent of asking a person the meaning of the brim in their chests or the bumps and kindling of kutis ansterina upon their epidermis while they are listening to a rousing piece of music. The musicologist who writes the program notes does an excellent job highlighting the subtleties and nuances of a given piece; but the evocative aspects of a piece cannot be reduced to the crude language of one-to-one correspondences because such a gesture presumes uniformity of emotional states. The wiser wordsmiths tell us that music is ineffable, since they attempt to express the inexpressible. And just as we settle our thoughts and our souls on this sentiment, John Keats takes a step further by affirming
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, plan on
A private language is the communion of the soul that does not find readymade reference, and has a ringside view of the roundtable of mysteries. And in this silent space, for better or for worse, we weave our tangled webs. The mind-reader and the overlords of scientific divination may see the pictures in our head, without knowing the meaning behind the tropes and turns, the metaphors and montage flitting in our heads. In fairness, mind-reading technology can be beneficial for severely disabled patients – and even in those cases, extreme care ought to be exercised because consent from the patient and family ought not to be a license for peremptory invasions of personhood. If somebody can read your mind, couldn’t that person also have the ability to influence and/or alter your mind in some sort of bizarre inter-cranial hypnosis conducted remotely using magnetic resonance and other forms of imaging technologies now turned into remote sensing communication devices (without those funny looking helmets dotted with electrodes) whereby images and sentences from without are reversed into brain wave patterns within? Perhaps, a smart phone or any networked gadget with a screen could become that device. All sorts of upheavals insofar as frame-of-reference and chain of causation become possible by tinkering with the temporal lobe, implantation of false memories and a host of other nightmares far beyond anything Orwell ever conceived. Put another way, it gives brain-washing and propaganda a whole new meaning – and this could turn into a new form of terrorism whereby a cabal of psychologists, neuroscientists, law enforcement officers and a host of others with a disregarded moral compass begin to target large swathes of the population or a few ‘suspicious-looking’ individuals to sinister ends in the name of safety and security. The worst aspect of it would be mind-control and making harmless people say damnable things; and under these circumstances anybody outside the orbit of these secret experiments in social psychology and shadow governance could become susceptible to the power of suggestion with a future empirical science actually backing up these results.
Let your imagination loose a bit, and picture people confessing to crimes they never committed or uttering hateful propaganda against the state simply because somebody needs a fall guy in order to release a menagerie of minatory visions whereby humanity in a state of mass hypnosis will look to the chosen Leader not unlike North Korea. There can be interference with people’s sleep patterns and confusing their minds to a state where they no longer know if they are dreaming or awake and a host of even more fiendish scenarios enabled by nano, pico or even femto technologies at a scale and level that could very well align with apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation where the Anti-Christ is the Great Deceiver of mankind. Personally, I have never been as paranoid about any technology as much as mind-reading, simply because there are no deterrents to this technology and the cloak of secrecy (no pun intended eh, especially with technologies of invisibility) enables a select group to wield a more menacing power, greater than the government itself. Truly, this dystopian dream I pray will never come true, yet it is not outside the realm of possibility and adds a whole new meaning to the age-old expression “Don’t mess with people’s heads.” Pick any of Thomas Jefferson’s ruminations on tyranny and liberty and juxtapose them with these applications, and gradually it becomes clearer that Christians, people of different faiths, humanists, and the like should rally around this issue.
I do not believe that there is a single cause that is so sacred that requires one to violate another human being’s personhood. If I may make an informal foray into microwave exegesis, let us contemplate the relationship between God and Satan. God can read Satan’s mind – yet He does not use His infinite power to alter Satan’s volition and return Satan into Lucifer, the archangel who once worshipped God. If Almighty God himself desists from such forms of coercion against the very fountain-head of much evil and instead resorts to persuasion, we humans are better advised against playing God when God himself seems to have all sorts of qualms about the uses and abuse of power. Human amelioration in the name of science and technology is undoubtedly an extension of the cognitive faculties that we are blessed with. Even so, the muse of Machiavelli is not the Muse of Christ. . . .
Roy is an independent scholar who has taught previously at academic institutions in Pittsburgh and in the Chicago land area. Currently, he is working on a project on Creation and Cosmology and is deeply interested in issues of history and philosophy of science, theological aesthetics and creative writing as well.