Machines Like Us?

I’ve often been a keen reader of historical fiction – a great way to learn history and enjoy a story at the same time. But Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me was the first ‘ahistorical’ (if there is such a genre) novel that I have come across.

It is set in 1982 and Britain has just lost the Falklands War… yeah… I thought they won it too! I had to check but once I did I realised I was reading a novel that was going to bend and contort history at will (important if you are considering it!)

The novel centres around Charlie Friend, a fairly hopeless and aimless day trader who has just used his inheritance to purchase one of the first batch of ‘synthetic humans’ loaded up with the latest in artificial intelligence capabilities. The key player in the creation of these ‘robots’ is Alan Turing, who (in this story) did not suicide but went on to use his genius in the development of these creatures.

So we have a semi-sci-fi story set in an alternate history which is more technologically advanced than we currently are.

The story revolves around the relationship between ‘Adam’ the Android and Charlie and his girlfriend Miranda. Adam was one of 25 of the first batch of Androids created – 12 male, 13 female and of varying ethnicities. Charlie is able to ‘program ‘ Adam’s personality to some degree, however he chooses to only do half of what is required and leaves the rest to Miranda.

Without giving away too much of the plot, what we see developing is a robot with AI who learns as he interacts, who ‘learns’ feelings and develops a conscience. Of course Miranda uses him for sex – which confuses both Adam and Charlie. She compares him to sex toy, but somehow Charlie can’t live with that explanation. And it turns out Adam finds it equally confusing.

An intriguing aspect of the story is the ‘suicide’ of 4 of the robots, who after learning about human existence with all of its faults and complexities decide that logically ‘non-existence’ is a better option. In one sense it’s a dark commentary on life as we know it. Yet the fact that many of us choose to continue despite the darkness says there must be joy in life that is found beyond sheer intellectual processes – that AI simply can’t grasp the depth of what it means to be human.

As Adam grows he learns and he becomes more human each day. He is physically indistinguishable from other people and it’s only his slightly awkward (autistic like) interactions that occasionally give him away. His redemption and means of avoiding his own demise is that he falls in love with Miranda and he learns to write poetry – haikus, both of which embue him with a level of humanity that resists self destruction.

I’ll stop there before I give too much of the plot away, but if you want a novel that is a little mind bending then this one is certainly worth a read. And it would make you think twice before allowing any AI into your life!

Fire & Brimstone & A Whole Lot of Grace

At some point in my final year of school I remember feeling that it was necessary for me to tell a girl by the name of Denise that she was going to hell – because she was a catholic and (in my view) not actually a ‘Christian’.

I was 16 and of Irish Protestant descent so I was an authority on these things…

Denise didn’t take it well – nor did her mum who I later discovered got quite angry with me. I didn’t back down though. It was clear – black and white to me and I was doing her a favour in helping her understand where her eternal destiny was headed. She never thanked me…

I don’t tell people they are going to hell any more. That one incident tempered my zeal and I eventually grew out of the need to do Gods work for him. I also realised that the task of judgement is far more nuanced than a young fundamentalist is capable of navigating.

I wasn’t much interested in the Israel Folau case when it first developed, but it has slowly become a fascinating study in what is going down in our world with regard to the politics of language – particularly religious language.

At face value it was a high profile athlete making a statement on his Instagram account airing his views on who would go to hell – but also calling people to repent

One of those ‘hell bound’ groups listed was ‘homosexuals’, but they were alongside liars, drunks and idolators and several other fairly large groups. In short most of us are apparently on the same train.

However Folau’s statement was bald, crass and badly in need of a context. On one level it’s completely untrue. I have been guilty of lying, drunkenness and idolatry but I don’t believe I am bound for Hell (however you see Hell) Jesus’ death on the cross freed me from my own failings.

What is interesting though is that the only term of concern to the critics was the one related to same sex activity. Adulterers and fornicators weren’t up in arms even though the same standard was applied to them.

While these two sins may ‘pass’ with no fuss, in today’s tetchy culture you dare not transgress with a suspect comment on same sex relationships.

Folau has fallen foul of the culture police and it seems he will be made an example of – to warn others who may be inclined to be equally foolish.

So there are numerous issues being considered here:

a) Folau’s contract breach – it seems Folau’s comments are in some way a breach of his contract with Rugby Australia and therefore able to be penalised. The question seems to be whether it was a ‘dumb thing to do’ and worthy of a ‘grow up and behave like an adult’, kind of reprimand, or (as it is being interpreted), a ‘high level breach ‘ and worthy of termination as Rugby Australia have deemed it. Obviously this is their interpretation of what constitutes ‘high level’, but I am sure many onlookers are wondering about where the bar is set and who gets to set it – or interpret its ‘height’…

b) Maturity – Folau isn’t a child, but sometimes we adults still do things that are childish in their nature. It has been said repeatedly that Folau’s faith is ‘fundamentalist’ in its form and people of that ilk (like my 16 year old self) are given to jarring, un-nuanced statements . It wasn’t particularly helpful on any level, (I doubt that liars, fornicators and thieves are repenting in droves) but it reflects the religious culture that he is part of. I’m sure some of the people around him who are less embedded in that strong fundamentalist environment might have said ‘hey Israel – maybe think twice in future as it isn’t really helping anyone.’

c) Theology- I’m not wanting to be pedantic, but it just isn’t a complete statement. It may be true – it may not be true. There will be liars, homosexuals, drunks etc in heaven as well as in hell. The only difference is that the ones in heaven will be forgiven and redeemed.

d) Language – It seems that this post has been interpreted as ‘hate speech ‘ towards gay people and as a result deemed to be ‘wrong/destructive/evil’. In our easily offended culture maybe these are strong words, but Folau is simply quoting his religious text. Alan Jones has written at length on this so I won’t try to repeat all of his arguments, but it does seem a massive stretch to categorise this as ‘hate speech’ and therefore worthy of the most severe punishment. Jones’ observation regarding the role of Alan Joyce in this is significant – an openly gay man at the helm of Rugby Australia’s main sponsor who does seem to wield an inordinate amount of power.

So in short my own views:

⁃ If it’s a clear breach of contract and Folau knew that what he was doing was a provocative act then he needs to just cop that and move on. But a life ban for something like this?… I smell something more than a concern for justice at work there.

⁃ It wasn’t a smart or helpful thing for Folau to do in any culture, let alone the one we are currently navigating. That’s not weak, or compromising. It’s acknowledging that for our words to heard they need to be said in a way that resonates with the hearers – even the hard stuff.

⁃ Someone should take Folau aside and explain to him both how theology works and also how language works. He is good at rugby but not so good at speaking faith to culture. Maybe he should be advised to stay off social media until he has a strong grasp of how his posts will be perceived. He hasn’t done any of us any favours with this post.

⁃ We are clearly living in treacherous times and the reaction to Folau’s post has drawn some cultural battle lines. Are Christians no longer allowed to quote their Bible if it brings offense to the reader? And who then gets to determine what is considered offensive and what is ok. If you offend me are you legally culpable for my feelings?…

⁃ While I would consider Folau unwise in his original post, I support his refusal to back down or retract his comments. It’s no longer just a case of contract breach- it’s become a test case for freedom of speech – for all…

Perhaps this period in history will be remembered as the time when we Christians become the minority – where we learnt afresh what it is like to be marginalised and persecuted – to stand on the outer and have no voice. Perhaps that will be good for us.

If this is the direction we are headed then I can only imagine it will further the cause of the gospel. If you’ve ever been told not to read ‘that book’ or associate with ‘those people ‘ then chances are your curiosity will be aroused and you will be more likely to learn about them as a result of your own initiative. Suddenly boring and beige becomes intriguing again…

To know our best move however is tricky. If we roll over on this then what’s next? If we fight then how are we perceived?

It’s something of a no-win,

Latest news has Folau standing by his statements and unwilling to yield – in the name of speaking truth. Wisdom would suggest that he may like to gather some older people around him who can give him counsel and direction in regards to his capacity for influence via social media and from there he may like to delete that twitter account and start again, not because he has recanted or changed his views, but just because some things don’t need to be said that way in public.

In the midst of all the argy bargy there has been precious little grace from either side. Perhaps this is the missing element in a conversation of this sort- and maybe it’s down to Israel to go first? What would that look like I wonder?