Animism and AI

Animism transcends all human culture. It is considered the proto-religion of our species, the first explanation we humans had about the workings of the world. Animism comes from our cognitive inability to distinguish between our psyche and the external world of animate and inanimate objects (read my post of Piaget’s relevant theory here). It is therefore of fundamental importance if we are to understand our relationship with artifacts that move, speak, or think.

With time, animism transformed to more sophisticated explanations that we today recognize as religion. A key characteristic of this transformation, at least in Europe, was the gradual anthropomorphing of animistic souls and powers. Thunder became Zeus; Earthquakes Engeladus; Fire Hephaestus, the Sun formed into handsome Apollo, and so on. Although there were still zoomorphic monsters out there and chimeras of all description, pantheism, as evolved in pre-classical Greece, attributed conscious and human-like intentions to everything in nature.

(Left: A robot made in Greece)

The Olympian human-like gods ended up ruling over everyone and everything. Although in Greek proto-religion creation occurs through the union of the primal elements,  the Male-Sky and the Female-Earth, the Olympians (image reflections of humanity “below”) were now capable to giving life too. They could create animated artifacts, like Hephaestus who poured the golden life-blood of the gods (“ιχώρ” in Greek, pronounced “ichor”) into Talos, the metallic man placed in the service of King Minos of Crete. Animism, as developed through pantheism, arrived at an intermediate position of human-like gods inculcating life, and consciousness, into things.

The invention of democracy in classical Athens (6th century BC) changed the relationship between gods and humans forever. Subjects became citizens, a novel political breed with the right to decide their destiny through debating and voting. Now, there was no power superior to the will of the people, which meant that  in a democracy human beings were truly free men, including free from the will or whim of gods. The Athenian democracy was far from atheist, but the degree of elevating human beings to the level of gods cannot be underestimated. The Parthenon’s friezes in the 5th century BC depicted Athenian youths riding their horses during the city’s greatest celebration. Till then temple friezes in Greece were reserved only for gods .

(Left: Automatic diversions by Heron in Hellenistic Alexandria)

The Hellenistic period that succeeded classical Greece went a step further: it sought to imitate gods by constructing animated machines. In ancient times “animation”, i.e. movement, was considered the principal characteristic of life. Life was by definition conscious because it had intention; and intention was expressed through movement. Movement was the “Turing Test” of the ancient world.

Engineers in Alexandria build machines that moved, mechanical clocks, steam engines, copper birds that sung. Those machines were still used and displayed in the Eastern Mediterranean centuries later, when Greek-speaking Christian emperors ruled in Constantinople. Their ideology was much different. Medieval Christianity, particularly in the East, frowned upon engineering, or the practical application of any knowledge.  Knowledge ought to be kept “pure” and for the sake of worshiping God; applying knowledge to an end was regarded as a sinful. The mechanical automata of Byzantium were meant to impress diplomatic missions from the empire’s periphery, not to compete or imitate the life-giving power of the now One – and Only – God.

(Left: Following on the tradition of building machines that move.)

When Christianity was questioned in 15th centuryEurope and later, the thread that was lost since Hellenistic times was rediscovered. Retro-animism in the sense of reanimating dead matter resurfaced, as alchemical, as automata, and in the ensuing industrial revolution as the construction of machines that replaced human workers. But the ideology of the Hellenistic engineers was forgotten No one remembered the psychological and religious roots of the call. Economic utility was now the principal, and sufficient, reason for engineering machines that moved, spun, pumped, steamed and worked.

This modern, utilitarian ideology still holds true today. AI researchers, when we aim to build an intelligent machine, we do not aspire to imitate godly powers. Presumably many of us, if not most, do not believe in a god to begin with. We want – at the very least – to do some interesting research that will help people and business, and – when real ambition kicks in – to solve one of the greatest mysteries of all time; consciousness.

Nevertheless, although these objectives may appear detached and “scientific”, I would argue that understanding a deeper requirement for strong AI that seems to stem from primal animism may inform the scientific quest for artificial consciousness better and, perhaps, resolve a paradox in its objectives.

For it is often argued that building a machine that thinks is not such a useful application after all. Machines are better than humans because they do things without “thinking”, or “feeling”, or being “conscious” of themselves. There is not an apparent added utility in replacing a naturally conscious agent with an artificial one; except when extreme environmental issues are at play, for instance if the conscious artificial agent must operate in a hazardous environment or independently for prolonged periods of time (e.g. in deep-space travel). However, the benefits from such applications are marginal when judged under the light of scarce research resources that could be better deployed to solve the bigger problems of the world. Perhaps, the deeper reason we want to create artificial consciousness is because we need to confirm our cognitive instinct that inanimate objects can think and have intentions too.