Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Too Clever By Half

I wonder if you watched the television documentary that I saw last month?  I wonder if you heard the scientific report on the radio that I listened to this week?
Let's bring these two programmes together and indulge in a little anxiety . . . anxiety alleviated by hope.

The scientific documentary was a celebration of modern achievement.  In the final sequence, the scientist led the reporter to a glass window in his laboratory on the other side of which was a small room.  Seated facing each other on the floor of this small room were three robots.  As we watched, one of the robots lifted up a placard bearing two numbers and nodded emphatically to indicate that the numbers were accurate.  He then held up another card with other numbers and shook his head to indicate that these ones were incorrect.

His two fellow robots sat watching intently.  To my amazement, it slowly became clear that the first of the robots was teaching communication skills to his companions.  He was showing them that a nod indicated agreement, that a shake of  the head conveyed the opposite.  The scientist who had 'taught' the robot these extraordinary skills, stood proudly beside the reporter and was clearly taking no part in the exercise.  It was the robot, and the robot alone, who was passing on  his knowledge to his companions.

Judging by the commentary, we, the viewers, should have been lost in wonder and admiration . . . I, on the contrary, was amazed and appalled.  In my eyes this was learning without perception, skills without sensitivity, cleverness without wisdom.  I found it terrifying.

I might have forgotten the disturbing incident had it not been for this week's scientific report.  It appears that an international team at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, a team comprising scientists, mathematicians and philosophers, has been considering an important question, namely:  'Are we on the verge of our own unexpected extinction'.  

If nothing else, it was an unexpected question!
It appears that the answers given by the team were not governed by considerations of climate change, population expansion, food and water shortage, or even global warfare.  Instead, and more surprisingly, they related solely to technological advancement.  According to one of the scientists, a real gap has appeared between the speed of technological advance and our understanding of its implications.
"We're at the level of infants in moral responsibility," he said, "but with the technological capabilities of adults.  Modern technology is like a dangerous weapon in the hands of a child."

Other members of the panel shared these views.  One was apprehensive as to the uncertain outcomes of biological experiments, another was concerned about the social fragility and lack of resilience in our technology-dependent society.'  They were unanimous in proposing a Group for the Study of Existential Risk to consider current threats.

Once again, I'm reminded of the scheming Sourcerer's Apprentice.  Without the timely intervention of a Sourcerer, are we, too, in danger of being swept away by our own cleverness?  Will we tamper with one gene too many?  Will our labour-saving robots decide that it's time to rid the planet of their cocksure creators and assume the mantle of control?
Cleverness without wisdom . . . curiosity without integrity . . . ambition without compassion . . . are we, indeed, on the verge of our own unexpected extinction?

The Institute in Oxford brought their questioning to a close with a memorable statement: "There is no plausible moral case," they declared, "not to take the situation seriously."

I read their conclusions with a sinking heart.
Mightn't a little humility be a good idea?  Let's be honest . . . we can't create life . . . we can't even explain what life is.

Just think about it, could you or I produce an ounce of honey without a bee?  Or grow an oak tree if we had no resource to acorns?  Without a seed, could we even create a simple blade of grass?  And what about those two vital necessities of life . . . air and water?

Oh yes, we are clever and ingenious and smart . . . but we are only playing at the edges of creation and everything could seriously backfire.

We said that we'd start with anxiety, but that this anxiety would be alleviated by hope.
So . . .  where's the hope?

First of all, don't let's forget an important factor that we constantly overlook . . . as a species, we are still evolving.  You've only to look at us, to listen to us, to realise that as a work in progress, we've still a long way to go.
Are we living in harmony with the rest of our world?  Hardly . . . !
Our hope lies in the fact that creation is still creating, echoes of the Big Bang are still vibrating through every cell of the universe.

Hope lies in the trust that cleverness will evolve into wisdom, that we will recognise our interdependence with the world around us, our unity with every other aspect of creation.
The hope that, as creatures, we will raise our energy frequency and marvel  . . .   love . . .  collaborate . . .  and cherish.

As I write this a rapidly swelling group of people is assembling in Parliament Square.
Why?  They are gathering to oppose the latest pesticides and to register their support for the honey bee.
Isn't that ground for hope?

I hope so!