John Lennox is human. As soon as the world’s most recognisable Oxford Professor of Mathematics smiles at me from his UK study via video link, he is apologising for his need to duck off to the bathroom. His immediate physical need arises from not being able to go beforehand, having just finished a one-hour online Q & A session about his newest book, 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity. Not to be confused with the other book Lennox already put out in 2020 – Where is God in a Coronavirus World? – or the movie about him to be released later this year.
“Tinkering with human beings – those ideas interested me.” – John Lennox
Lennox’s toilet break is an unexpectedly fitting introduction to our conversation about his investigation of artificial intelligence (AI) and what it means for what it means to be human. Riffing on the title of English author George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, 2084 is Lennox’s eloquent and succinct attempt to demystify AI, separate science fiction from science fact, and investigate the ethical and theological questions raised.
But let’s cut to the chase of your future-looking book, human. John Lennox, what will the year 2084 be like for people and their intelligent designs? “I thought somebody would start with that question, but you’re the first interviewer to do it,” chuckles Lennox who has been a leading academic Christian in the public square for more than a decade.
Rising to international prominence through viral video debates with “new atheist” royalty such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer, Lennox also has written many books at the intersection between Christian faith and the philosophy of scientific endeavour and progress.
“The whole point is to take off from Orwell’s book 1984, which gave the English language things like ‘big brother’ and ‘thoughtcrime’. There are aspects of artificial intelligence now that actually are fulfilling the role [from] Orwell’s 1984.”
“I wasn’t writing the book to tell people what’s going to happen in 2084 [but] to tell them to think about what might happen in 2084 or what’s liable to happen, because of the developments we already have.”
Lennox came to see the need to evaluate the course of artificial intelligence after a London church approached him, several years ago, to speak about how the Book of Genesis relates with AI. Lennox initially declined but was soon intrigued by considering what humanity being made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26) means to the rising tide of artificial intelligence. Since his teenage years in homeland Northern Ireland, Lennox has been interested in big questions such as where does meaning come from and what is the significance of humans in a universe created by God?
“My interest was [also] sparked a long time ago by two C.S. Lewis books – The Abolition of Man, and the third of his science-fiction book series, That Hideous Strength. Lewis was prescient; he had ideas of, basically, what we now call ‘transhumanism’. Those interested me – the ideas of tinkering with the germ line, as we would now call it, and tinkering with human beings and producing not humans, but artefacts.
“That intrigued me as to where this stuff was going.”
At the start of 2084, Lennox admits he’s not an AI expert. As an interested and analytical onlooker, he distills where AI is at and might be going, including explaining its two key forms – Narrow Artificial Intelligence and Artificial General Intelligence. The former refers to any computer system which can “do one thing superbly well that normally takes human intelligence to do”; the latter is the ‘transhuman’ quest for superintelligence, either by enhancing human beings or by creating a humanoid form where, for example, the contents of a human mind could be uploaded. Or much, much more.
Lennox shares what he perceives as positive developments in AI, from a smartwatch that can recognise seizures to online language translators, and algorithms which digitally assist with our daily tasks or needs. He also articulates negatives, flowing mainly from the ethical issues arising from AI. Lennox wonders how often you or I have stopped to realise we carry a portable tracking device with us – our smartphone – and where our personal data ends up (“surveillance capitalism”, as Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff describes it). What about the human job losses caused by improved artificial intelligence? Or the choice a self-driving car might have to make between crashing into an elderly lady crossing the road or avoiding her but hitting children on the footpath?
“People are afraid to say what they really believe about morality.” – John Lennox
Lennox agrees there is a common view that technological developments always equal positive progress for humanity – even though we experience the opposite (such as how advanced warfare or internet access can display the worst in us). Much of his book, 2084, is dedicated to highlighting how artificial intelligence itself is an amoral creation by humans, with moral issues inevitably arising from the real human input into them.
“Artificial intelligence is not intelligent at all. It simulates intelligence … the word ‘artificial’ means that the output normally requires human intelligence but in this system, the only intelligence involved – which is vastly important – is the intelligence of the designers and programmers.
“Technological progress is not the same as moral progress; the difficulty is that technology outpaces ethics,” says Lennox. “So there’s an ethical void, which has been dramatically increased by the lack of a common worldview which, for centuries, was Christian in the West, but now we’re all over the place. And people are afraid to say what they really believe about morality. That’s an absolute tragedy, which is one of the reasons that I like talking about Genesis.”
Convinced of the ongoing relevance of “the image of God” to defining human value and meaning, Lennox also wanted to talk about several popular books anchored in aspects of AI. So much so that Lennox uses bestselling author Dan Brown’s Origin, as well as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s acclaimed Sapiens and Homo Deus, as structural devices for 2084‘s points.
Lennox doesn’t flinch at being asked if weighing in on an AI novel by controversial and wildly successful writer of The Da Vinci Code was a “cheap shot” – “I’m interested in what influences millions of people,” he explains.
Lennox adds that Harari’s input was vital to being able to engage seriously with Brown’s novel about an AI visionary seeking to scientifically reveal where we came from and where we are going. Harari’s books take a more robust, history-based approach to those key questions; “History began when humans invented gods and will end when humans become gods,” declares Harari.
“… A superintelligent human already exists.” – John Lennox
Notably, Homo Deus‘s advocacy of transhumanism and seeking immortality stirred Lennox at his Christian core. While Lennox doesn’t believe Harari’s ambition for humans to be able to create actual humans can be achieved – “Until we know what consciousness is, all talk of that type is pure hype and pure science fiction. We don’t know what it is. We haven’t an idea” – he was pleasantly surprised to discover how inspired he was by some of what transhumanists seek.
“The thing that really turned the corner for me, thinking the book was worth writing, was a sudden and immediate thought that the transhumanist program is too late and it’s too little – because a superintelligent human already exists,” says Lennox, alluding to divine man Jesus.
“The whole movement of transhumanism … assumes we’re progressing towards [becoming like a god] … when actually the movement we ought to be thinking about is the opposite – of God becoming man, and providing a basis for a way we could answer Harari’s number one problem. The problem of physical death – to which the answer is resurrection, not constructing an artificial intelligence
“Seeing that there was so much in the transhumanist agenda that really was shadows of the Christian message, I thought ‘Aha, here’s a way that I can put Christianity in, perhaps, a rather different way and bring in things that people normally don’t ever do writing a book [about AI].”