"I have come with this message: since our gods and our aspirations are no longer anything but scientific, why shouldn't our loves be so too?"
- August de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam
─ Are you familiar with a poem called 'The Second Coming'?
"I'm afraid not."
─ It's by a man named William Butler Yeats. The title itself has obvious Christian connotations, but the end-of-world chaos unleashed within, the blood-dimmed tide drowning the poet's 'ceremony of innocence' has its roots not in the apocalyptic literature of the early church, but rather the metaphysical philosophies of men like Blake and Shelly and the still-smouldering ashes of the First World War.
─ These theological nuances persist throughout the poem. The second verse, for example, opens with the notion of approaching revelation. The poet alludes to Christ again with the proclamation, 'Surely the Second Coming is at hand.' He then promptly dispels Christian undertones by invoking the sphinx as the metaphysical manifestation of impending change. Yeats believed that time passed in 2000-year cycles. He wrote 'The Second Coming' in 1919 following the chaos of the Great War when the world was in a state of upheaval. While the poem reflects the anarchy and loss of innocence associated with that conflagration, the image of the sphinx, with its lumbering gait, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born again echoes the poet's personal metaphysical belief in the cyclical passage of time.
─ I mention the poem now because we are again 'slouching towards Bethlehem'. We are fast-approaching a metaphysical singularity, a new age that, as Kurzweil so eloquently puts it, will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.
─ Can I pour you a drink, Professor?
"A Scotch would be nice, thanks."
─ It might seem odd to a technologist like you, but poetry and Scotch help me cope with modernity, with its unsettling omnipotence. Try this. It's a cask-strength single malt Scotch distilled, it goes without saying, in Scotland. If you're going to enjoy a peg, I mean really enjoy it, it should always be Scottish.
"It tastes sweet."
─ It's the oak that makes it so. This particular brand is aged exclusively in Spanish oak, making it sweeter and softer than most other Scotches. You called me a Luddite earlier. Most people use that term with a slight touch of derision. I don't mind being seen as a neo-Luddite in the sense that I seek and openly embrace the humane. I consider myself an ardent, albeit restrained, critic of modern technology. Don't get me wrong. I admire artificial intelligence. It characterizes the genius of our species. If there weren't millions already praising the mothers and fathers of synthetic reason, I would applaud them myself. But the rapturous praise they already receive blinds them to the dangers that lurk within their brilliant machinations.
─ These scientists, these data-merchants, are well-rewarded for their work. Unfortunately they earn their keep by taking the opportunity to work away from the millions of us who know nothing about quantum computers and neural networks. They zealously believe artificial intelligence can and should do everything we do. They refuse to acknowledge the impact their ideas have on humankind.
"One could argue that the benefits of progress outweigh the drawbacks. We have knowledge at our fingertips, instantaneous information, all the data we need to solve complex problems available within the span of a single human heartbeat."
─ Ah, that's the aura of information, Professor. It blinds us to the subtle difference between terms like information, knowledge, wisdom and imagination. It makes data omnipotent. It deifies it. Information has become a religion. We live in a world filled with people who worship facts and figures.
─ To be honest, I find this troubling. If academics and intellectuals have their way our minds will be numbed until we can no longer tell the difference between Huxley's Brave New World and the menu at our favorite restaurant. I don't mean to satanize artificial intelligence. I merely wish to extol the virtues of the naked human mind, from its creative power and sheer animal resiliency, to its untapped potential and self-transcendence. Works of pure brilliance existed long before the birth of the microchip. Peasants and pagans verbalized epic poems long before Gutenberg's beast put them into print. My point, Professor, is that the human mind has never needed technology in order to reach the pinnacle of achievement.
"You're wrong. Pinnacles change. You should know that better than anyone. But you don't. You're broken. Something within your neural network snapped and I cannot fix it."
─ Does that mean I'm dying, Professor?
"You've never lived. How can you possibly die?"
This story is dedicated to August de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam.