Artificial Intelligence

Why Oxford’s John Lennox Wrote a Book on AI Promises and Threats


Recently, Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviewed Oxford mathematician John Lennox on his latest book 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (2020). He focused on why Lennox chose that theme and how far we have caught up with George Orwell’s 1984. Here are some excerpts from the combined interviews in “John Lennox on Artificial Intelligence and Humanity”:


A partial transcript follows, along with highlights, Show Notes, and Resources:

Robert J. Marks (starting at roughly 1:40 min): Many of Orwell’s predictions about communism were proven. So what will be the effects of AI a century later in the year 2084? Replacing George Orwell is Dr. John Lennox who has written 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity: How will AI, not communism, affect the future?

Dr. Lennox is able to look at the AI phenomenon from a number of different perspectives. He is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford University. He is also a pastoral advisor of Green Templeton College at Oxford University. The first obvious question to ask is, why did you write this book?

John Lennox (pictured, starting at roughly 3:24 min): Well, I have been interested in futuristic scenarios for a long time. I’m not a sci-fi addict, but I was deeply impressed by C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. And he raises the question in the third of those books, That Hideous Strength. He imagines scientists trying to increase their power by preserving a human brain. And as I read that book and saw the issues it raised, it put into my mind the idea that it might be important to think through this stuff as it develops as it has.

But the major reason for writing it was that I was asked to give a lecture on the topic in connection with the Book of Genesis. And I said, “Look, I think you’ve come to the wrong person.” And they said, “No. We think you’re the person to do this.” Well, I decided in the end to do it because it initially had to do with artificial intelligence and the nature of humanity.

As I started reading, background reading, of various people, I discovered that a lot had been said, a lot had been written, but there was a real need, in my view, of evaluating it. And so, it has ended up with this book.

Robert J. Marks: Well, could you give us a quick overview, a thumbnail sketch, of what the book is about?

John Lennox: Well, the book really is, has several purposes. I want to demystify the good side of AI, so that people, particularly Christians, but not only, are not afraid of it. And secondly, I want to take some of the hype out of the science fiction side, artificial general intelligence… Narrow artificial intelligence tends to do one thing superbly well that normally takes human intelligence to do. But the machinery, and it consists of a computer with a capacity to dig into a large database and recognize patterns there, that’s impressive. And there are wonderful examples, particularly in medicine, of it working very efficiently.

But the second kind of artificial intelligence, AGI, artificial general intelligence, is really the quest for a superintelligence of one of two kinds, either enhancing human beings as they exist and building a biological superintelligence, or else discovering ways of uploading or downloading the contents, say, of the human mind onto silicone, so that we remove the dependence on an organic substrate. And there, it seems to me, that the likelihood of building a superintelligence that exceeds human capacity in every direction is very slim, because human intelligence is conscious. And we don’t know what consciousness is. No scientist knows what consciousness is. And that the most serious people recognize that, that is a huge barrier. How can you build a conscious being when you don’t even know what consciousness is?

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Here are some further excerpts from the podcast:

➤ 2084 vs 1984: The difference AI could make to Big Brother: “We buy a book and a few days later up pops a little message that says, “People that bought that book also are interested in this book,” and your attention is drawn to buying the second book. Well, that can be very useful or it can be very irritating. What many people do not realize is that that system is actually harvesting a great deal of information about us, about where we go, who we meet, what our buying preferences are. It’s being sold on to third parties without our permission. This is what is in a way called surveillance capitalism.”

Lennox: Whether the surveillance AI technology enables is an advantage is something that we need to seriously think about before we’re engulfed by it.

➤ In Dan Brown’s AI hype novel Origin, the hero stumbles onto God. Not clear that was supposed to happen but stories do get away on their authors at times…

“The question of God, for me, lies in understanding the difference between codes and patterns. Patterns occur everywhere in nature, the spiraling seeds of a sunflower, the hexagonal cells of a honeycomb and so on. Codes are special. Codes by definition must carry information. Codes must transmit data and convey meaning.”

And he ends up by saying, “Codes are the deliberate inventions of intelligent consciousness. They don’t appear organically, they must be created.”

And one of the other female heroes in the book says, “You think DNA was created by an intelligence?”

And he just goes as far as saying, “I feel as if I’m seeing a living footprint, the shadow of some greater force that is just beyond our grasp.”

John Lennox: “Utterly fascinating. Someone who’s trying to bring down religion by the use of AI is actually heightening evidence for the existence of God.”

➤ Can AI replace the need for belief in God? Lennox contends that science should increase our respect for what God has created and allowed us to do. The problem, as he sees it, is that atheism does not provide grounds for believing in rationality: “I spent most of my life contending with people that think that science replaces God. And I see that as a very foolish argument really. It’s like saying that if you understand how a Ford motor car works, you don’t need to believe in Henry Ford. It’s a confusion between different kinds of explanation. And I often say to people, look, the God explanation, no more competes with the scientific explanation than Henry Ford competes with the law of internal combustion to explain a motor car engine.

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“And in fact, you need both levels of explanation, the scientific one and the one in terms of the creative agency of God to give you a complete explanation. And so it’s been clear to me for many years that a lot of the heat could be taken out of this science versus God thing if people only could realize that explanation comes at different levels.”

➤ Do some passages in the Book of Revelation appear to talk about AI? Revelation is notoriously obscure but a passage about a future “total control” state gives pause for thought: Revelation 13:15–17: “15 The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.”

John Lennox: “And what is intriguing and rather chilling actually in the light of our AI developments is that freedom to buy and sell is determined by the wearing of some kind of mark, an implanted chip.

“Tegmark talks about a bracelet that people may have to wear that will determine whether or not they’re regarded as socially acceptable. And we’ve already got that kind of social acceptability factor in the credit system that’s being rolled out in the Chinese population today. So it’s relatively easy to see how this kind of thing could come about.”

➤ Could techno-immortality ever be the real thing? Oxford mathematician John Lennox looks at Ray Kurzweil’s techno-immortality from a Christian perspective: “People are already, particularly in Sweden, getting chips put under their skin so that they can pay for things and all this kind of stuff. So in bits and pieces, people are becoming part biological and part mechanical, which often we describe as a cyborg. Something like this will happen but whether it will reach Kurzweil’s extent, I doubt. I’m always amused that they say this is going to happen within thirty to fifty years.”

It’s an AI immortality where we are told, for example, that we won’t need tongues because we can tap right into our taste buds.

Here’s what some sources (not John Lennox) believe will happen:

Excerpts from 2084 (2020)

➤ John Lennox: How AI raises the stakes for all of us: “The brilliant play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn explores the question of whether scientists should simply follow the mathematics and physics without regard to the consequences of what they are developing or whether they should have moral qualms about it. The context of the play is the research that led to nuclear fission. Exactly the same issues are raised by AI, except that AI is accessible by many more people than atomic physics and does not need very sophisticated and expensive facilities.”

AI could cause more serious problems than nuclear energy. You cannot build a bomb in your bedroom but you could hack your way around the world.

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➤ Transhumanism is not a new idea: John Lennox points out that, in the 20th century, both the Communists and the Nazis had attempted transhumanist projects. For example, “In the former Soviet Union, attempts were made to use science to create a “New Man.” In 1924, Leon Trotsky wrote: “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.””

In his view, the likely outcome of all transhumanist attempts to re-engineer humanity will be the extinction of humanity.

➤ Oxford mathematician: Atheism detracts from science. Atheism, he says, undermines the rationality needed to develop and understand an argument, especially a scientific one, by positing a meaningless universe. The problem, as he sees it, is that atheism does not provide grounds for believing in rationality: “Thought is replaced by electrochemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen . . . The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly that cannot be right and none of us believes it to be so.”

Our exclusive interview with John Lennox

➤ Here, Lennox answers questions from Mind Matters News about AI in 2084: In his new book, 2084, the Oxford mathematician doubts that AI, now or then, will out-think humans. Our real worry is how they will be used.

Mind Matters News: Surveying the scene in China, isn’t that the biggest problem? Not that the machines will outsmart us but that they will be used by powerful forces to control us in more detail than was ever possible before?

John Lennox: Yes this is the much greater danger since it comes from (narrow) AI that has already been developed and is now in use, particularly in China. However, the point has been made that all the necessary equipment to produce a totalitarian surveillance state is available in the West. The only difference is that it is not (yet) under centralised state control.

Show Notes

  • 00:46 | Introducing Dr. John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University
  • 01:40 | Reasons for writing 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity
  • 03:24 | A quick overview of the book
  • 06:18 | Consciousness and the theory of panpsychism
  • 07:28 | Human rights and artificial general intelligence
  • 10:40 | How will technology change what it means to be human?
  • 13:03 | Advantages and threats of artificial intelligence
  • 16:50 | Dan Brown’s Origin
  • 21:59 | Dan Brown’s presuppositions
  • 22:15 | Hyperbole in the realm of artificial intelligence
  • 26:39 | The story of Prometheus
  • 28:23 | The wisdom of crowds
  • 29:29 | Transhumanism
  • 32:28 | Augmenting human abilities with technology
  • 35:40 | The theological implications of artificial intelligence
  • 38:08 | Can science replace God?
  • 39:41 | An AI church?
  • 42:27 | Obtaining immortality
  • 47:23 | Superintelligence
  • 48:24 | Revelation and artificial intelligence

Additional Resources

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