What do these movies have in common?
Bicentennial Man, Tron, Short Circuit, WarGames, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, D.A.R.Y.L.
If you guessed that artificial intelligence is crucial to the plot, and that you must be older than 40 to recognize many of them, you would be correct. Maybe a more current list would include Chappie, Transcendence, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Transformers, and Rogue One. If Hollywood movies are any indicator, we find the concept of self-aware creatures fascinating. So the real-life attempt to make a self-aware “cyberslug” should not surprise anyone.
A group of programmers simulated the real-life creature Pleurobranchaea californica. As shown in this video, the slug gets stung by the prey and that provides a memory that influences the slug over a week later.
According to one of the researchers, they sought to mimic this self-awareness such that the cyberslug “relates its motivation and memories to its perception of the external world, and it reacts to information on the basis of how that information makes it feel.” In practice, they simulated a creature that draws input from its environment (state of hunger and type of nearby food), continually evaluates its appetitive state (integration of environmental data and memory), and makes a decision about whether to attack or flee. The cyberslug behaves remarkably similar to the wild Pleurobranchaea californica. The realism of the simulation occurs because the researchers have mapped the brain circuitry down to the individual neurons.
The article’s description of “self-aware” got me wondering: how should I as a Christian think about this? First, this realistic simulation is a notable achievement. Rather than simply program the cyberslug to behave a certain way, it genuinely makes decisions based on its environment and “state of mind.”
Second, and perhaps obvious, this circuitry is rather elementary compared to dogs, cats, and humans. While the cyberslug does respond to its environment, it only does so in response to a particular threshold being crossed. This simulation falls far short of “predicting” dog or cat behavior, but it provides a base to build more complex organisms. In fact, the authors of the article compare this basic response circuitry to the ones hypothesized to exist in early “ancestral bilaterian nervous systems” that formed the foundation for evolution to produce more complex organisms. It remains to be seen if solely adding more complexity actually reproduces the behavior of dogs and cats. More likely, as we seek to understand more complex organisms, we will discover more elegant designs that we will copy.
Third, even as we understand (and simulate) more complex organisms, we will ultimately encounter a fundamental distinction when comparing with humanity. I would expect to find any number of well-designed systems shared by humans and all sorts of animals. Yet, according to the Bible, physical differences and similarities with animals do not define humanity. As stated in Genesis 1:26–27, only humanity is created in God’s image and thus possesses the imago Dei.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
The cyberslug illustrates this difference clearly. Once its appetitive state crosses a certain threshold, it will attack the nearby food. In contrast, humans can think about the morality of attacking a certain food source. Humans can refuse to feed even when incredibly hungry. In fact, humans can choose to nurture the normally less fortunate prey, even to their personal detriment. All this comes because our highest purpose is not to survive, but to follow God—and that is a truly unique human attribute.