Thursday, August 16, 2007

My proposed graduate study

[Tell me what you think!]

Our age is one of “golems among us,” or so says Byron Sherwin in his book of the same title. [Chris Hables Grey, in Cyborg Citizen, tells of how, as part of exploring the age of robot toys, he roved the streets of Prague for golem puppets.] In October 2002, to explain his country's Project Golem 2002/5763, Argentine Ambassador Juan Eduardo Fleming said, “Today's Golem means artificial intelligence, robots, cloning, the Internet, computers" (cf. Prague Post 2 Oct'02). Fleming is right—but how did we get here?

I'd like to explore the cultural roots of artificial intelligence as a form of computerized gematria and, further, transhumanism as a form of secular eschatology.

As for AI, I would like to deepen the work of Byron Sherwin with a specific focus on cognitive science. His work is more of an ethical exploration of so to speak golemic bioethics, whereas I am hoping to research the theory of robotic intelligence and see how that discourse is framed, or anticipated, by the mystical sensibilities of making life à la Rabbi Löw and Dr. Frankenstein. It is one thing to imagine, with the conscious or unconscious help of ancient mystical lore, making a body for practical (utilitarian) purposes. It is quite something else, as Borges's poem “Scholem's Golem” suggests, to make something with any “inner” conscious life. What are the historical, cultural roots of the shift towards making a sentient golem, as opposed to makinf merely useful workers, or, “robotnik” (as Karel Čapek coined the term in his 1921 play, RUR: Rossum's Universal Robots)?

As for transhumanism, à la Ray Kurzweil, I would like to see how an explicitly secular movement may or may not use and reject elements of Judeo-Christian eschatology. Sherwin's work examines how golem lore can guide our increasing use of biotechnology. In that case, golem are still only one heuristic device in the larger cybernetic movement. What I would like to explore is how transhumanism elevates the golem from a mere device for our current benefit to a paradigm for human destiny. According to transhumanism, it is by making ourselves into new golem, inscribed not with the tetragrammaton or any other religious esoterica, but with the genetic code of life and the imperishable markings of machines, that we become our own Rabbi Löw's. Sherwin's work, by contrast, keeps golem as what they were traditionally, namely, magically manufactured servants of human (viz., Jewish) interests. This I call “golemic humanism,” in which technologically, no matter how humanoid it may be, is still subject to humanistic values and authority. We can learn how to control golemic potential of biotech for our own good, and should do so consciously, lest biotech calamities run out of control like a golem on the loose in the streets of Prague. The meancing air of Gustav Meyrink´s Der Golem colors those streets to this day.

A similar kind of golemic humanism is present in Keith Stanovich's The Robot's Rebellion, but Stanovich's position does lean towards transhumanism. Although he acknowledges “universal Darwinism” does indeed dissolve some, even most, of humanity's most hallowed, ancient values, as traditionally understood, yet he insists we can reclaim those values precisely by being aware of the threat Darwinian thought poses to them. In this respect, Stanovich casts homo sapiens darwinus as a demi-golem, a creature inscribed by a biogenerative code (i.e., “selfish genes” and memes) that operates according to a separate level of concerns (i.e., genetic replication). Once we realize we are golem, however, we can transcend our golemic servitude and battle against the mindless steamroller effect of genetic replication. We are only “owned” as golem if we choose to be. Such is Stanovich's neo-Darwinian evangelion. The freedom to transcend our strict genetic demands is clearly a transhumanist impulse, even if it is ultimately directed towards current human interests. So while Stanovich's robotic evangelion has a transhumanist inspirtation, it is still fairly standard golemism, like Sherwin describes. Our golemic heritage and status is still properly subject to greater human aims. Transhumanism, by contrast, subverts present human interests to a greater, literally “superhuman,” future along the lines of a super-golem. Hence, from a golemic perspective, I am inclined to call transhumanism “transgolemism.” Whereas standard golemic thought uses cybernetic and biotech potential for human interests, transhumanism—transgolemism—fully converts humanity into its own future ideal golem.

While this may seem like a broad “cultural history of an unlikely future,” as skeptics of strong AI and transhumanism would have it, I want to focus my study historically on the German-speaking reception and development of these themes. The links between Nietzsche's Philosophie des Übermenschens, the hopes of science in the atomic age, and the “old European” heritage of golemism and kabbalism are ripe for study. While Nietzsche rejected Christian eschatology, he could not escape matters of final import, which is why his Übermensch can be seen as a critical surrogate for the New Man of traditional Christian hope. What would, or did, Nietysche think about his Übermensch in light of Jewish golemism? Ernst Benz, a 20th-century German theologian, examined the tension and links between evolution and Christian hope, but he really did not apply his analysis to artificial intelligence. Norbert Wiener drew explicitly on golemism in his cybernetic manifesto, God and Golem, Inc. Might there be similar links between golemic lore and both Kurt Gödel´s and John von Neumann´s ultimate pessimism about strong artifical intelligence (at least, by computational means). The powder keg of 20th-century European anti-Semitism was Vienna. How was the Jewish heritage of robotics (viz., golemism) received in age steeping in anti-Semitism? Are there not perhaps two currents from which transhumanism can draw, namely, Jewish religious golemism and Nietzschean Übermenschismus?

As the work of Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki shows, science, as a mature self-sustaining rational inquiry, required a metaphysical climate of thought in order to take off. And while science may no longer need to refer to that religious worldview explicitly any more to continue, nevertheless it still merits looking closely at how consciously or unconsciously the vision and goals and perceived limits of AI and transhumanism are grounded in earlier religious (and mystical) and philosphical traditions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you are 6,000 years too late. Man has been using other men as golems since the dawn of civilization. In fact, the very term "civilization" inherently includes the knowledge of "men manipulating other men"; and the very etymology of the word "manipulate" demonstrates the sentiment of golemism in its infancy.