Machinery, one of the fruits of scientific research, is intended to benefit humanity. It often does. However, even machines with totally peaceful purposes – hay balers, for example – can be deadly.
Machines-run-amuck populate many dystopian novels and films. One of the most successful franchises is Terminator. Humanity is brought to the precipice of extinction, after devising machines – and their perilous companion Artificial Intelligence. The very first film, The Terminator (1984) brilliantly uses the biblical allusion “Judgement Day,” to mark the sentience of the genocidal Skynet.
Nearly forty years later, debates about weaponized autonomous systems have moved far beyond speculation. And it does not require a doctorate in computer science to recognize that given a potentially lethal machine the power to make its “own” decisions poses a deadly risk. After all, if software programs can be virally infected, and secure systems can be locked tight and held for ransom, there are no guarantees that “terminators” will not be part of our future.
We’ve seen how weapons can easily be mounted on the robotic dogs that are currently accompanying our troops.
And in a recent Air Force Magazine article, “Unmanned Flying Teammates,” we read the promise that “Robots will join the Combat Air Forces within the next decade.”
The common nomenclature for the current generation of these machines is Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. You can read about “slaughterbots” at the Future of Life Institute site.
Whereas in the case of unmanned military drones the decision to take life is made remotely by a human operator, in the case of lethal autonomous weapons the decision is made by algorithms alone.
Slaughterbots are pre-programmed to kill a specific “target profile.” The weapon is then deployed into an environment where its AI searches for that “target profile” using sensor data, such as facial recognition.
While the first generation of such weapons are still being designed, a genuinely wonderful new machine foreshadows what might be an ominous future.
In response to the destructive necessity for pesticides, scientists have come up with a new self-driving farm machine that avoids the need for poisons by selectively zapping individual weeds with lasers. Forbes has a great article on the subject, with the unwieldly but informative title, “Self-Driving Farm Robot Uses Lasers To Kill 100,000 Weeds An Hour, Saving Land And Farmers From Toxic Herbicides.”
The weeding machine is a beast at almost 10,000 pounds. It boasts no fewer than eight independently-aimed 150-watt lasers, typically used for metal cutting, that can fire 20 times per second.
They’re guided by 12 high-resolution cameras connected to AI systems that can recognize good crops from bad weeds. The Laserweeder drives itself with computer vision, finding the furrows in the fields, positioning itself with GPS, and searching for obstacles with LIDAR.
I applaud this invention, with one major caveat. How large a step is required between zapping weeds and burning holes through human bodies?
Ironically, they have even named this agricultural prototype for human-hunting machines “Terminator technology.”
Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. They are also known as suicide seeds. Terminator’s official name – used by the UN and scientists – is Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).
Actually, this is a very positive breakthrough in terms of increasing harvests while preserving the natural health of the earth (and the Earth). C.S. Lewis, I believe, would have welcomed this new technological achievement.
The affinity of C.S. Lewis and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien for nature is well recognized. The two WWI veterans were averse to industrialized landscapes, and much preferred bucolic images. You can see that in Lewis’ fiction, although it’s much more evident in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Even Tolkien’s truest fans must admit that some readers find his elaborate discussion of the Hobbits’ harmony with nature almost mundane.)
True science is a good thing, but one must remain vigilant against an idolatry that masks itself as science.
Beware of Scientism
C.S. Lewis’ role as a an apologist for Christianity – and for what was worthwhile in past history – brought him into more direct conflict with technology. Of course, it was not scientific advances per se of which he was wary. It was the creeping idolatry of scientism, which assumes the trappings of faith in its disciples’ eyes. Tolkien shared his concerns regarding the matter, but confronting such lies was not part of his vocation.
Lewis’ clearest exposition of humanity’s lust for progress may be his 1954 Inaugural Lecture as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. De Descriptione Temporum (A Description of the Times) should be read in one sitting, as it was delivered. It is included in several collections, but available online here. The quotation below offers a very small slice of his influential lecture. (Coincidentally, A Pilgrim in Narnia featured a superb column on the address just yesterday.)
[The birth of the machines] is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. . . . What concerns us . . . is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation,” with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”?
Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?
Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. . . . But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.
It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. . . .
Our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder [all of those who have gone before us.]
A thought-provoking article, “The Folly of Scientism,” offers the argument of a professor of Biology, which is independent of C.S. Lewis, while echoing many of his cautions.*
Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics – seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence.
An excellent work on this subject is available for purchase, entitled The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism. Michael Aeschliman’s excellent treatment is evidenced by the fact the 2019 version is the third edition of the title.
But why should this central civilizing truth about the “res sacra homo,” [the fact that “humanity is a sacred thing”] . . . need C.S. Lewis’s [reaffirmation]? The answer to that question is philosophical, historical, and complex, but it should not be as obscure or little understood as it is today.
Although there was never a “golden age” of civilization within historical time, this radically noble idea was often better understood in the past, even the recent past.
Back to the Robots
Wait, I just noticed some armed drones flying overhead, and what appeared to be a silhouette resembling a GURT-101 Terminator skulking through the woods outside my office . . . Perhaps I’ve already written too much.
* This article appears in The New Atlantis, where they say “Our aim is a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.”