Book Review: Orthodoxy & Artificial Intelligence

Review of: Orthodoxy and Artificial Intelligence: Dictionary of Technology and a Double Logos, A Contribution to the Dialogue of Science and Religion. Eds. Aleksandar Petrovic and Aleksandra Stevanovic, National Hellenic Research Foundation, 2019,  ISBN 978-960-9538-82-4, pp. 168.

Review by Antoine MelkiUniversity of Balamand

The 2019 publication “Orthodoxy & Artificial Intelligence” proceeded from the workshop “Religion and Technology – Dictionary of Technology as a Case Study” held in May 2018 at University of Belgrade. The book was produced within the framework of the international project “Science and Orthodoxy around the World” hosted by National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens and funded by Templeton Foundation. The volume was promoted in April 2019 at the Institute of Theology at the University of Balamand, Lebanon. The most distinguishing point in this book is its non-transiency. The analysis and outcome presented do not depend on the status of AI which is changing, because the cogitation tackles the essence of it, not the cortex, merging theology, philosophy, and science. At the closing of each article, it seems to be the apex, but by logging into the next, the readers realize that they are going from peak to peak. Although the authorsʼ understanding is based on their Orthodox faith, the content touches every man recognizing their humanity. Its significant topic has not been touched upon by any other religious mindset in this way. That is due primarily to the presence of Dictionary of Technology. The faithful background supports the robustness of the synthesis. There is a plethora of angles approaching the theme of Dictionary, and then aptly penetrating into the AI subject. This highlights the prophetic visage of Dictionary, but also reveals the integral approach of the authors that realized this volume. The least that can be said is that this is a great piece of work. Dictionary of Technology is a multi-layered manuscript composed of 162 lexicographic terms circularly referencing past and present epochal spirit of time as well as phenomenology of human mind in the light of modern technological processes. It was particularly unusual that the question of technology was raised in the form of a medieval manuscript, inverting an Enlightenment view on the world. Moreover, Dictionary of Technology restored the discourse of the pre-modern experience not only through its medieval expression, but primarily in its free-hand creation that rejected conceptually mechanical typing devices. These two pivot points are accompanied by intentional anonymity of the authors in accordance with the medieval creative canon, which, as a matter of circumstance, leaned on the postmodern idea of the “death of the author”. This Dictionary was published in Belgrade in 1981, when theology and technology have rarely been brought into any relation. It was prohibited the following year by the Yugoslav authorities when magazine Time praised Personal Computer as the Man of the Year. Such an extraordinary script considers technology as a form of modern Zeitgeist, but it is written at premodern way by anonymous authors as a handwritten manuscript. Its peculiar position in critical historical moment offers the possibility for profound reflection on historical and ethical context of modern technology, its relation to Orthodoxy, but also of the spirit of (post)modernity. 

The opening paper by Tatjana Paunesku (Northwestern University, Chicago) “The Fall of Insight – Dictionary of Technology as a Prediction of Future” deals specifically with the cases of biotechnology, genetic engineering and scientific (and technological) understanding of the nature of biological processes. It suggests that reduction and overly simplistic ideas about the biological complexity are a result of gradually obscured boundaries between science and technology. It also implied that the execution of genetic commands is far more complex than initially anticipated. The author considers the problem of language and the impact of technology on it. It appears that by creating its mirror, a programming language, as the language of communication between man and machine, has been brought into existence. “Computer and internet developers are inching closer and closer to obliterating wider concepts degrading them into meaningless catch-phrases” (p. 23). Therefore, the author apostrophes the decision of the author of the Dictionary to give anthropology of technology in the form of a dictionary.

The second chapter “Middle Ages and Artificial Intelligence” by Aleksandar Petrovic (University of Belgrade) provides an insight into the historical and philosophical background which Dictionary determined as the prerequisite for the emergence of technology. For the author, it is Descartes’ philosophy; that is, search for the certainty of existence through the “I that thinks”. The paper shows how Ego Cogito has become “our basic mental instrument for problem solving” (p. 40). Its prevalence as the sole ego-criterion for the confirmation of existence, at the expense of all other forms of perception and senses of reality, made it possible for artificial intelligence to exist. “Through technology the subject transfers thinking to the object that thus transforms into an artificial subject that has the capacity to exist” (p. 51). The ground on which technology walks is nothing but the schism that Descartes has established “reducing self-conscious mind onto intellect that manages objects” (p. 52). In contrast to that, the man of the Middle Ages is brought to the scene and hypotheses are raised about the factors that would limit his development of technology. Technology as we know it today was not possible at that time because its net rests on myriad of centers while Middle Ages had only one unparalleled theocentric axis. Thus, it becomes clear that technology demands polycentricity and, in ultima linea, polytheism. Therefore artificial intelligence portrays the way of thinking and experiencing the world in the many-centered, fragmented postmodern age.

The paper by Suzana Polic (Central Institute for Conservation) explores the appearance of electronic personality. It observes the adopted 2017 proposal of the Parliament of Europe to protect the rights of the electronic person and terminological confusion that has resulted in the automated robot being named a person. “Furthermore, implicitly contrasting the notion of technology that anything may be made and developed, Dictionary of Technology warns that it is not possible to create selfhood” (p. 69). Since technology is a “re–creation of the world as form” such forms cannot be called persons because “selfhood has no form (even though form is its force)” (p. 87). As one of the main features of technology the author recognizes its unpredictability, and emphasizes the fact that the electronic personality is “being developed regardless of the lack of complete image of its future implications” (p. 95). Therefore, the hasty solutions of the institutions are not surprising, considering that they are still unconscious of the terrain where all implications of the artificial intelligence must be faced.

The fourth chapter, “The Fourth Dimension of Dictionary of Technology” by Aleksandra Stevanovic (University of Kragujevac) is the result of the search for examples that would help shed light on the anthropological meaning of technology. It also seeks to understand Orthodox principles and experience of the world directed by technology. Relations of Gurdijeff’s teachings to the messages of the Dictionary are pointed at, which all may be explained by a single syntagm – mind awakening where consciousness has been recognized as the element that eliminates illusions and universal automation. The second part of this chapter discusses the challenging issue of politics as a space of technological decision-making. The author explores dam construction in the case studies of India and Serbia, showing how political decisions reshape religious identity, striving for the greater socio-technological well-being.

Chapter five “Theology behind Technology” (by Vladimir Dimitrijevic) is insightful for those who want to know more about the historical context and political climate that preceded Dictionary of Technology. The analyzed period includes social revolutions and protests of 1968 until the years after the death of Yugoslav president Tito. The author underlines the ideological basis of the social upsets, but also discusses potential links between socialism and technology. “The society on its path to Socialism still verbally held to Lenin’s attitude that Socialism cannot exist without electrification (which means that Socialism is the triumph of technology that would help the working masses to abandon the agrarian world)” (p. 113).

The final chapter “Technological–Theological Dilemmas in the Postmodern Era” by Aleksandar Gajic (Institute for European Studies) illustrates perspectives that extend throughout the publication, which is considering technology from a position that has gone beyond a relativized view of its neutrality. Their position stands on the way of the relativization where depending on its critical or uncritical use, for good or for bad purposes, technology could be classified on one side or the other.

The publication brings forth intriguing insights and stands as a contribution to the interdisciplinary exploration of the relation of theology and technology. It raises awerness that a theological re-evaluation of technology is of crucial importance. It should be a continuous/recurring process, as new dramatic challenges are presented by technology to man and his role in the contemporary world.



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