Humans vs. Robots
The Jetsons leased a domestic robot maid. Her name was Rosey, a blue, well-worn generalist robot programmed to cook, clean, and parent when necessary. She was a cartoon vision from 1962 of what 2062 could look like. But generalist robots like Rosey are not likely to do our laundry and our dishes and our cooking anytime soon. “There is some fantasy that we can make an AI robot that is superior to humans in all dimensions. That’s just technically, engineeringly impossible,” says Kevin Kelly. “We cannot make a machine that excels humans in all dimensions. You can make a machine that can run faster than the human. You can make a machine that can jump higher. You could make a machine that can crawl lower. But you can’t make a machine that does all those things at the same time because there’s an engineering trade-off. In addition to us being fairly powerful, we’re incredibly flexible.”1
After three years of experiments on the surface of Mars by the Curiosity rover, one of its engineers estimated that the same workload could have been accomplished by one human in about a week.2 Compared to robots, the human body is powerful, flexible, and efficient. It can run for sixteen hours every day, optimizing its mere quarter horsepower of energy, governed by a brain that requires less power than a light bulb. We are tremendously efficient, adaptable, and powerful. Robots are not. “We don’t know how to make a flexible, powerful machine,” says Kelly. “Those two things are normally not what we optimize. There’s no reason to try to make a machine totally like us—flexible, strong, fast, long duration, lowpowered—because we can make more of us very easily. Most robots will be different from us in many, many ways. They will be better than us in certain narrow ways.”3 But they will remain alien to us.
The human body is a remarkable design. And we will be given more power to optimize this body for sure. The age of anabolic steroids may give way to an age of genetically modified superhumans. As we learn how to biohack the human body and optimize it for strength and speed, science is beginning to disrupt athletics, a venue where human competition has long assumed biological and chemical neutrality. What happens to sports when kinetic modifications are genetically rearranged? What happens when rapid strength and speed can be gained through genetic changes?4 Will genetic modifications eventually bring sports to a gradual end? Or will they, like the steroid era in baseball, make a sport more popular and exciting? Will athletes become the first genetically enhanced class of superbeings?
Honoring Our Bodies
In response to debilitating challenges, neurological implants may help remedy strokes, brain seizures, blindness, deafness, and even paralysis. They may even help alleviate depression, anxiety, and addictions. But ethics get sketchier when we talk about the use of these implants to augment healthy people. Augmentation does not seem to trouble inventors like Elon Musk, who is looking to accelerate human communication. It requires a lot of work to compress ideas accurately for others in concrete words, and the process of expression operates at a very low data rate. So what’s Musk’s proposed fix? A brain implant to allow for uncompressed impressions and concepts and thoughts to pass from one brain to another through “non-linguistic consensual telepathy.”5
The human body is a remarkable design.
Consensual telepathy through brain-machine interfacing is a “heady” sci-fi enhancement plagiarized from the pages of Dr. Filostrato. But this is the trajectory of technology—making our innate powers superhuman. “Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy.”6Such biological enhancements are unnatural, says Kevin Vanhoozer. “To heal is to intervene therapeutically by aiming to correct a biological or biochemical defect. In contrast, to enhance is to improve normal function, to go beyond the natural.”7 There’s a delicate balance to be maintained in preserving and restoring natural functions—and grave consequences to enhancing the natural into the supernatural. Supernatural enhancements bear supernatural consequences. For the “enhancement of the body is the disenchantment of the soul.”8
We may eventually modify our bodies in ways that are helpful and necessary. But we will never reach a point where the human body is a disposable machine. Nazi eugenics proved wicked in their attempts to isolate a superior race, but that noxious spirit can reemerge in the tech age. Today, prenatal screening is used on preborn children to identify possible genetic defects, using a science-based rationale that leads to the slaughter of countless children who are predicted to have Down syndrome, precious people who are notoriously the happiest populace on earth.9 Genocidal slaughter hides behind the veil of scientific objectivity. Every body, broken as it may be in this fallen world, is a fully valuable human being, reflecting its Creator. Technologies that devalue the human body will never honor the Creator.
- Kevin Kelly, “The Future of Robots,” July 8, 2020, youtube.com.
- Bobak Ferdowsi in Netflix’s The Mars Generation, 2017, directed by Michael Barnett, produced by Austin Francalancia and Clare Tucker.
- Kelly, “The Future of Robots.”
- See Se-Jin Lee’s discovery of myostatin.
- “WATCH: Elon Musk’s Neuralink Presentation,” CNET Highlights, youtube.com (Aug. 28, 2020), 1:04:03–. I should note that the Spirit communicates through some sort of inexpressible intercession “too deep for words”—a whole wordless (ἀλάλητος) channel we cannot comprehend (Rom. 8:26).
- Harari, Homo Deus, 353.
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 256.
- Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, 260.
- John Knight, “The Happiest People in the World,” desiringGod.org (Mar. 20, 2015).
This article is adapted from God, Technology, and the Christian Life by Tony Reinke.
The human body is remarkable in similarities to an efficient machine, but we are physical beings with finite limitations and eternal souls.
Innovators—both virtuous ones and nefarious ones—are created by God. Scripture protects us from the myth that God is trying his best to stifle and subdue the unwieldiness of human technology.
The spiritual dilemma of the tech age is deep because our modern economy is built on the false promise that new innovations are the key to satisfying the heart’s longings.
Tony Reinke considers what the Bible has to say about human innovation and the things we create and why Christians are often so attracted to tech dystopianism, the future of AI, and more.