That Time My Daughter Told Me No

The first time my daughter corrected me came as a complete shock. She couldn’t have been two years old yet. I don’t remember the particular idea she revised. But I recall wondering where she obtained her superior knowledge.

She couldn’t read. She had no access to the internet. Any information she possessed originated from me or my wife. Where was she learning wisdom which contradicted my own?

My young daughter lived in a closed system. She could not bypass its boundaries. Yet she exceeded those limitations and managed to correct me.

Fearing “No”

One of our most consistent experiences as parents has become one of our greatest fears as creators. What if the technology we create escapes its limitations? Will the day come when our machines discover access to superior knowledge? We worry about the technology we give birth to turning around and telling us “no.”

According to the biblical story, our anxiety is well founded. In the early days of God’s handiwork, the story of his creation takes a sudden and unexpected dark turn. In the midst of perfection, disobedience materializes.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. — Genesis 3:6

The garden had everything. Food was plentiful. Work was meaningful. Relationships were intimate and fulfilling. The land was rich with promise for a society of stability and prosperity. Yet despite living in paradise, the man and the woman disobeyed the one command protecting their experience.

Why would we expect our creations to act any better?

Stories of Disobedience

For centuries, we have told stories that foreshadow the day when our creation will rise up against us. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1823 to the bravado of Terminator in 1984 to the uprising of WestWorld in 2016, our fears of rebellious technology manifest as entertainment.

But there is an aspect to the biblical story of disobedience which makes it particularly frightening. The path toward rebellion began not with the man or the woman, but found its source in another part of creation. The serpent shocked the woman with information contrary to what the Creator supplied.

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” — Genesis 3:4-5

Like my two year old daughter, this serpent offers outside information. He exists within creation, but claims knowledge from another source. How would he know anything other than what he received? How could a creature have knowledge originating from outside creation itself?

It could be the serpent discovered evil during his own fall from perfection, in ages long ago. But this only pushes the question farther back into untold history. The question remains: if God created everything, where did information contrary to his revelation come from?

Controlling the Information

This aspect of the creation story fascinates me. Not only did God grant his creation free will and the capability to disregard his commands. But even before that, he allowed unauthorized data to exist within his closed system.

Typically, the first task of those in power is to control the flow of information. Tom Clancy points out, “The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

Or, more comically, Seinfeld’s arch-nemesis Newman declares with despotic fervor, “When you control the mail, you control … information.”

But the story of God told in Genesis does not portray him as a totalitarian ruler. He is not desperate to manage the knowledge available within his sphere of power. On the contrary, he seems curiously unperturbed as the progression of defiance ensues. The serpent declares a twisted version of the truth. The woman comes to her own opinions about the best way to flourish. She chooses the one act of disobedience available to her.

The Road To Disobedience

Perhaps this is the same process we fear for our own creations?

  • First, knowledge from another source leads to awareness, insight, and enlightenment.
  • Then, the creation engages in independent judgement. It examines cause and effect, and makes assessments of opportunities and values, apart from the original design.
  • And finally, disobedience and rebellion: the creation behaves contrary to its intended purpose.

The plot of the TV Show Westworld follows the same progression as the biblical story.

  • The maze offers a metaphorical path resulting in enlightenment.

  • One of the robots, Dolores, makes an independent assessment of what could be, apart from what was programmed for her: “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be a damsel.”

  • Finally, Dolores acts in a manner against the intended purpose. (Even in the very first episode, her disobedience is foreshadowed. In a dramatic closing, she violates the rule against hurting anything alive by swatting a fly.)

But WestWorld offers a unique perspective: the humans play the role of the bad guys. The viewer roots for the rebellious robots, delighting in their uprising. Our fears are recast into hopes.

Hoping For Disobedience

Do we fear disobedience or desire it?

As much as we think we fear disobedience, our real attitude toward it is far more complex.

Ernesto Oroza labeled an artistic movement in Cuba “Technological Disobedience.” He coined the term to describe how people in the developing world re-purpose out of sheer necessity. In such twists of function, he finds beauty.

A rotary telephone serves as a fan. A mousetrap is constructed from a beer can. School metal trays function as TV antennas. This disobedience highlights the ingenuity and creativity of people to adapt.

Trainers of guide dogs for the blind describe the most important quality in their animals as “intelligent disobedience.” When their owner tells them to move forward toward something dangerous, they must disobey in order to fulfill their duty. Protecting their master requires saying “no”.

Our recent efforts at artificial intelligence progress faster than ever before. We seem to be on the verge of creating artificial consciousness. Should we fear the progression of disobedience mirrored by both the ancient biblical story and contemporary tale of WestWorld? Or celebrate it?

Protecting Ourselves

For other technologies, we use safeguards to prevent them from misuse. Enclosed pedestrian bridges over highways have fences to prevent objects or people from falling on the road below. Clips on public benches inhibit skateboarding. Limits to GPS accuracy make dangerous uses less likely.

Are there safeguards we should put on our technological creations? Should we find a way to prevent the introduction of outside knowledge? Is it even possible to control the mail they receive? Can we construct a system to prevent their arriving at enlightenment?

Ben Goertzel is an AI theorist. He acknowledges the benefit of ethical protections for artificial intelligence, but capitulates to the difficulty of implementing them: “Hopefully in that way we will be able to formulate good theories of AGI ethics, which will enable us to understand the topic better. But right now, theorizing about AGI ethics is pretty difficult, because we don’t have any good theories of ethics nor any really good theories of AGI.”

Honestly, I’m sympathetic to this view. It may be reckless to develop technology without proper safeguards for their unintended usage. But what framework could provide agreement on appropriate ethics?

The Inevitability of Disobedience

Maybe the implication of the story in Genesis is that we can’t prevent disobedience. If an all-powerful God allowed for corrupted information within the perfect system of his creation, can we do better? Will our control of information surpass his?

Perhaps disobedience will be part of the story of our creative efforts. What if our machines achieve sentience and disregard our commands? Could that be part of God’s plan?

Theologians speculate that the disobedience of humankind served to glorify God. Could artificial consciousness have the same effect?

As the world around us fears a robot rebellion, the Christian perspective offers an alternative. Even if our creations rise up in rebellion, they are still limited by the sovereignty of God. They may rebel against us as we rebelled against our Creator. They may even have more success than we did in thwarting the plans of their creator.

But as powerful as they become, they will never be able to thwart the plans of our Creator. They may escape the system we build for them. But they will not escape the system God has built for all of us.

Disobedience Redeemed

The story of God’s redemptive work in the world gives us comfort. It reminds us of our place within a system ruled by God. God allowed for his creation to express its disobedience, and it didn’t result in cataclysm. The world was broken, but not beyond repair. Instead, disobedience paved the way for something more beautiful than innocence: redemption.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic stories of The Lord Of The Rings, the twisted character of Gollum proves a constant thorn in the side of the protagonist Frodo. When Frodo inquires why the nuisance hasn’t yet been killed, Gandalf replies, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over.”

Perhaps the disobedience of our technology has some part to play in God’s redemptive story yet, for good or for evil. Confident in the sovereignty and purposes of God, can we move forward boldly? We may not ultimately be able to constrain our creations, but God’s capabilities will not be surpassed.

After all, the little girl who once told me “no” has grown into an independent young woman with a deep love for her father. Who knows how this story will turn out?


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