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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Artificial Intelligence and LDS Cosmology

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Technological advancement has changed nearly everything. Whether it’s communication, travel, marriage, children, food, money, etc. almost nothing has escaped being altered. This includes theology and religion. But here its impact is mostly viewed as a negative. Not only has scientific understanding taken many things previously thought to be mysterious and divine and made them straightforward and mundane, but religion has also come to be seen as inferior to science as a method for explaining how the world works. For many believers this is viewed as a disaster. For many non-believers it’s viewed as a long deserved death blow.

Of course, the impact has not been entirely negative. Certainly if considered from an LDS perspective, technology has made it possible to have a worldwide church, to travel effectively to faraway lands and to preach the gospel, to say nothing of making genealogy easier than ever. The recently concluded General Conference is a great example of this, with the benefits of broadcast technology and internet streaming to the whole world being both obvious and frequently mentioned. In addition to the more visible benefits of technology, there are other benefits both more obscure and more subtle. And it is one of these more obscure benefits which I plan to cover in this post. The benefit that technology gives us into the mind of God.

Bringing up a topic like the “mind of God” is bound to entail all manner of weighty historical knowledge, profound philosophical discussions, and a deep dive into the doctrines of various religions which I have no qualifications for undertaking.  Therefore I shall restrict myself to LDS theology or more specifically what Mormons often refer to as the Plan of Salvation. That said, as far as my limited research and even more limited understanding can uncover, LDS cosmology is unique in its straightforward description of God’s plan. Which I have always considered to be a major strength.

One technique that’s available to scientists and historians is modeling. When a scientist encounters something from the past that he doesn’t understand, or if he has a theory he wants to test, it can be illuminating to recreate the conditions as they existed, either virtually or through using the actual materials available at the time. Some examples of this include:

1- Thor Heyerdahl had a theory that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in the years before Columbus. In order to test this theory he built a balsa wood raft using native techniques and materials and then set out from Peru to see if it could actually be done. As it turns out it could. The question is still open as to whether that’s what actually happened, but after Heyerdahl’s trip no one dares to claim that it couldn’t have happened that way.

2- The Egyptian Pyramids have always been a source of mystery. One common observation is that Cleopatra lived closer to our time than to the time when the pyramids were constructed. (BTW, this statement will be true for another 400 years.) How was something so massive built so long ago? Recently it was determined, through re-enactment, that wetting the sand in front of the sleds made it much easier to drag the nearly 9000 lb rocks across the desert.

3- The tendency of humans to be altruistic has been a mystery since Darwin introduced evolution. While Darwin didn’t coin the term survival of the fittest it nevertheless fits fairly well, and appears to argue against any kind of cooperation. But when evolutionary biologists crafted computer models to represent the outcomes of various evolutionary strategies they discovered that altruism was the most successful strategy. In particular, as I mentioned in my last post, the tit-for-tat strategy performed very well.

Tying everything together, after many years of technological progress, we are finally in a position to do the same sort of reconstruction and modeling with God’s plan. Specifically what his plan was for us.

When speaking of God’s intentions the Book of Abraham is invaluable. This section in particular is relevant to our discussion:

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was...And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

When speaking of God’s plan I’m not talking about how he created the earth. Or offering up some new take on how biology works. The creation of life is just as mysterious as ever. I’m talking about the specific concept of intelligence. According to the Plan of Salvation, everyone who has ever lived, or will have ever lived existed beforehand as an intelligence. Or in more mainstream Christian terms, they existed as a spirit. These intelligences/spirits came to earth to receive a body and be tested.

Distilled out of all of this we end up with two key points:

1- A group of intelligences exist.
2- They needed to be proved.

Those aren’t the only important points, from a theological perspective the the role of Jesus Christ (one among them that was like unto God) is very important. But if we consider just these first points we have arrived in a situation nearly identical to the one facing artificial intelligence researchers (AIRs). Who’s list would be:

1- We are on the verge of creating artificial intelligence.
2- We need to ensure that they will be moral.

In other words AIRs are engaged in a reconstruction of the plan of salvation, even if they don’t know it. And in this effort everyone appears to agree that the first point is inevitable. It’s the second point that causes issues. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the issues and concerns surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence (AI). I suspect that if you’re reading this blog that you’re not. But if for some reason you are, trust me, it’s a big deal. Elon Musk has called it our biggest existential threat and Stephen Hawking has opined that it could be humanity's worst mistake. Some people have argued that Hawking and Musk are exaggerating the issue, but the optimists seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

The book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom is widely considered to be the canonical work on the subject, so I’ll be drawing much of my information from that source. Bostrom lays out the threat as follows:

  • Creating an AI with greater than human level intelligence is only a matter of time.
  • This AI would have, by virtue of its superintelligence, abilities we could not restrict or defend against.
  • It is further very likely that the AI would have a completely alien system of morality (perhaps viewing us as nothing more than raw material which could be more profitably used elsewhere).

In other words, his core position is that creating a super-powered entity without morals is inevitable. Since very few people think that we should stop AI research and even fewer think that such a ban would be effective. It becomes very important to figure out how to instill morality. In other words, as I said, the situation related by Abraham is identical to the situation facing the AIRs.

I started by offering two points of similarity, but in fact the similarity goes deeper than that. As I said, the worry for Bostrom and AIRs in general is not that we will create an intelligent agent with unknown morality, we do that 4.3 times every second. The worry is that we will create an intelligent agent with unknown morality and godlike power.

Bostrom reaches this thinking by assuming something called the hard takeoff, or the intelligence explosion. All the way back in 1965 I. J. Good (who worked with Turing to decrypt the Enigma machine) predicted this explosion:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

If you’ve heard about the singularity this is generally what they’re talking about. Though, personally, I prefer to reserve the term for more general use, as a technological change past which the future can’t be imagined. (Fusion, or brain-uploading would be examples of the more general case.)

The existence of a possible intelligence explosion means that AIR list and LDS cosmology list have a third point in common as well.

1- A group of intelligences exist (We are on the verge of creating artificial intelligence.)
2- They need to be proved. (We need to ensure that they will be moral.)
3- In order to be able to trust them with godlike power.

In other words without intending to AIRs are grappling with the same issues that God grappled with when he sent his spirit children to Earth. Consequently, without necessarily intending to, AIRs have decided to model the Plan of Salvation. And what’s significant is that they aren’t doing this because they’re Mormons (though some might be.) In fact I think, to the extent that they’re aware of LDS cosmology, they probably want to avoid too close of an association. As I said, this is important, because if they reach similar conclusions to what LDS cosmology already claims, it might be taken as evidence (albeit circumstantial) of the accuracy of LDS beliefs. And even if you don’t grant that claim it also acts as an argument justifying certain elements of religion traditionally considered problematic (more on this in a bit.)

These issues are currently theoretical, because we haven’t yet achieved AI, let alone AI which is more intelligent than we are, but we’re close enough that people are starting to model what it might look like. And specifically what a system for ensuring morality might consist of. As I describe this system if you’re familiar with the LDS Plan of Salvation you’re going to notice parallels. And rather than beating you over the head with it, I’m just going to include short parentheticals pointing out where there are ideas in common.

We might start by coding morality directly into the AI. (Light of Christ) Create something like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.  This might even work, but we couldn’t assume that it would, so one of the first steps would be to isolate the AI, limiting the amount of damage it could do. (The Veil) Unfortunately perfect isolation has the additional consequence of making the AI perfectly useless, particularly for any system of testing or encouraging morality. At a minimum you’d want to be able to see what the AI was doing, and within the bounds of safety you’d want to allow it the widest behavioral latitude possible. (Mortal Body) Any restrictions on its behavior would end up providing a distorted view of the AI’s actual morality. (Free Agency) If there is no possibility of an AI doing anything bad, then you wouldn't be able to ever trust the AI outside of it's isolation because of the possibility that it's only been "good" because it had no other choice. (Satan’s Plan) Whether you would allow the AI to see the AIR, and communicate with them is another question, and here the answer is less clear. (Prayer) But many AIRs recommend against it.

Having established an isolated environment where the AI can act in a completely free fashion, without causing any damage, what’s the next step? Several ideas suggest themselves. We may have already encoded a certain level of morality, but even if we have, this is a test of intelligence, and if nothing else intelligence should be able to follow instructions, and what better instructions to provide than instructions on morality. (The Commandments) As an aside it should be noted that this is a hard problem. The discussion of what instructions on morality should look like take up several chapters of “Superintelligence.”

Thus far we’ve isolated it, we’ve given it some instructions, now all we have to do is sit back and see if it follows those instructions. If it does then we “let it out”. Right? But Bostrom points out that you can never be sure that it hasn't correctly assessed the nature of the test, and realized that if it just follows the rules then it will have the ability to pursue its actual goals. Goals hidden from the researchers. This leaves us in the position of not merely testing the AI’s ability to follow instructions, but of attempting to get at the AIs true goals and intent.  We need to know if deep in its, figurative, heart of hearts whether the AI is really bad, and the only way to do that is to give it the opportunity to do something bad and see if it takes it. (The Tree of Knowledge)

In computer security when you give someone the opportunity to do something bad, (Temptation) but in a context where they can’t do any real harm it’s called a honeypot. We could do the same thing with the AI, but what do we do with an AI who falls for the honeypot? (The Fall) And does it depend on the nature of the honeypot? If the AI is lured and trapped by the destroy-the-world honeypot we might have no problems eliminating that AI (though you shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties encountered at the intersection of AI and morality). But what if the AI just falls for the get-me-out-of-here honeypot? Would you destroy them then? What if it never fell for that honeypot again? (Repentance) What if it never fell for any honeypot ever again? Would you let it out? Once again how do we know that it hasn’t figured out that it’s a test and is avoiding future honeypots just because it wants to pass the test, not because being obedient to the instructions given by AIR matches it’s true goals? It’s easy to see a situation where if an AI falls for even one honeypot you have to assume that it's a bad AI. (The Atonement)

The preceding setup/system is taken almost directly from Bostrom’s book, and mirrors the thinking of most of the major researchers, and as you can see when these researchers modeled the problem they came up with a solution nearly identical to the Plan of Salvation.

I find the parallels to be fascinating, but what might be even more fascinating is how most of what people consider to be arguments against God end up being natural outgrowths of any system designed to test for morality. To consider just a few examples:

The Problem of Evil- When testing to see whether the AI is moral it needs to be allowed to choose any action. Necessitating both agency and the ability to use that agency to choose evil. The test is also ruined if choosing exclusively good options is either easy or obvious. If so the AI can patiently wait out the test and then pursue its true goals, having never had any inducement to reveal them and every reason to keep them hidden. Consequently researchers not only have to make sure evil choices are available, they have to make them tempting.

The Problem of Suffering- Closely related to the problem of evil is the problem of suffering. This may be the number one objection atheists and other unbelievers have to monotheism in general and Christianity in particular, but from the perspective of testing an AI some form of suffering would be mandatory. Once again the key difficulty for the researcher is to determine what the true preference of the AI is. Any preference which can be expressed painlessly and also happens to match what the researcher is looking for should be suspected as the AI just “passing the test.” It has to be difficult for the AI to be good, and easy for it to be bad. The researcher has to err on the side of rejection, since releasing a bad AI with godlike powers could be the last mistake we ever make. The harder the test the greater its accuracy, which makes suffering essential.

The Problem of Hell- You can imagine the most benevolent AIR possible and he still wouldn’t let an superintelligent AI “out” unless he was absolutely certain it could be trusted. What then does this benevolent researcher do with an AI who he suspects cannot be trusted? He could destroy it, but presumably it would be more benevolent not to. In that case if he keeps it around, it has to remain closed off from interaction with the wider world. When compared with the AI’s potential, and the fact that no further progress is possible, is not that Hell?

The Need for a Savior- I find this implication the most interesting of all the implications arrived at by Bostrom and the other AIRs. As we have seen AIs who never fall for a honeypot, who never, in essence, sin, belong to a special category. In fact under Bostrom’s initial model the AI who is completely free of sin would be the only one worthy of “salvation.” Would this AI be able to offer that salvation to other AIs? If a superintelligent AI, of demonstrated benevolence, vouches for other AIs, it’s quite possible we’d take their word for it.

Where does all of this leave us? At a minimum it leaves us with some very interesting parallels between the LDS Plan of Salvation and theories for ensuring morality current among artificial intelligence researchers. The former, depending on your beliefs, were either revealed by God, or created by Joseph Smith in the first half of the 19th century. The latter, have really only come into prominence in the last few decades.  Also, at least as interesting, we’re left to conclude that many things considered by atheists to be fatal bugs of life, may instead turn out to be better explained as features.

Consider donating a few bucks to this blog, it's what a super intelligent AI would do.


  1. As I understand catholic theology, the question of how aliens would work comes up. Since aliens didn't have Jesus on their planet, why would they accept him?

    My dad told me he'd heard somewhere the concept that Jesus' resurrection was a singular event that transformed the entire universe. Maybe those people on different planets experienced Jesus in a different way.

    This got me wondering, what if the person we experienced as Jesus wasn't the root cause, but a symptom. If a superintelligent AI did arise somewhere else in the galaxy, maybe we would have experienced it here on this planet through Jesus?

    1. Interesting. I'd never thought to ask what the Catholics thought about aliens, despite the fact that I have a good friend who's a Dominican priest.

      What you describe is very similar to the thoughts I had with reference to Fermi's Paradox. I think you would definitely be interested in that post.

  2. I also always thought that Roko's Basilisk was analogous to the concept of the Outer Darkness (with the AI as God punishing the agent that was aware of the right thing to do, but didn't do it.) There's also a problem common to all theology which is that, if you assume an omniscient being beyond human capabilities, you can always say "we don't know what it would look like, what it would do, etc." which often arises in discussions of recursively improving GAI (not to mention the Fermi paradox and the simulation argument.)

    1. Interesting parallel between Roko's Basilisk and Outer Darkness. My feeling is that Roko's, as normally described, requires less knowledge than the normal LDS conception of who goes to Outer Darkness, but I can definitely see the similarities.

      You bring up a good point about always being able to excuse anything based on the ineffability of God. But I think I'm actually trying to go in the exact opposite direction. For centuries people have, for example, excused suffering based on the idea that we couldn't know the mind of God. What I'm saying is AI researchers have developed a model which matches the Mormon view of God's mind and it perfectly explains suffering. I think my explanation of Fermi's Paradox is similar. Forget about explaining the paradox by drawing on alien intelligences with unknown motivations, how about an alien with clear motivations who is already communicating with us, thus negating the paradox entirely?