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BusinessDay: Will AI make us god-like?

By Johan Steyn, 11 January 2021

“At this moment in our civilisation, we can create cybernetic individuals who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: we are the gods now.”

Speaking at a TED conference, this individual’s company's ambitious plans for the future are laid out before a captivated audience as he outlines humankind’s major technological advancements. The charismatic billionaire plans to join an interplanetary mission, financed by his corporation, to unearth humanity’s origins.

Are you thinking Elon Musk? If so, you are forgiven. This incredible claim was made by Sir Peter Weyland, a billionaire entrepreneur and inventor, the founder and CEO of Weyland Corp. This is not a typical TED talk. It is a fictitious event, taking place in 2023, and it appears in the 2012 Ridley Scott film Prometheus.

Weyland plans to use technology to achieve the “apotheosis of man” (from the Greek, ​​“to deify”.) Homo sapiens could be raised to god-like stature. The deification of man is an age-old idea. Cultures in the ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, China and Southeast Asia aspired to godlikeness.

If you visit the US Capitol in Washington DC, standing in the rotunda and you look up to the dome, you will see a marvellous 1865 painting by Constantino Brumidi. It depicts George Washington, god-like, surrounded by mythological figures. The father of the new nation is presented as a celestial being and the painting is known as The Apotheosis of Washington.

Peter Weyland’s butler and surrogate son is an android known as David. “I am your father, you are my creation,” Weyland claims. David replies, “If you created me, who created you?” Technologies of the future will inevitably challenge our perception of ourselves, forcing us to rethink our origins and destiny. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) will continually force questions and discussions on topics related to ethics and philosophy.

AI is still in its infancy, known as “weak AI”. But in the future, the arrival of “strong AI”, also known as artificial general intelligence (AGI), will necessitate a rethinking of most of the qualities we associate with uniquely human life: consciousness, purpose, intelligence, the soul, in short: personhood.

The greatest challenge will possibly be to the philosophy of religion. Many religious traditions are closely aligned to the idea that humans possess a sacred identity, an origin and belonging to a divine creator. If we can manufacture creations that are creators in their own right, will we not generate a stand-in for God in our own image?

AGI will have the intelligence and abilities of a human being. In the event of its development, humans will have to rethink how they interact with technology. Does a self-aware AI machine deserve more than the status of a mere machine? Are sentient, self-aware entities going to be enslaved by us?

The role of religion in society must be fundamentally reconsidered given machines with advanced intelligence, or even consciousness. In the same way that people used to speculate about the nature of God, AI is now the subject of much debate. Is it possible for it to completely replace religion?

“You know that I will settle for nothing short of greatness, or I will die trying. For those of you who do not yet know me … my name is Peter Weyland. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to change the world.”

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA.


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