Wednesday, November 24

Book Review: God and Golem, Inc.

God & Golem, Inc: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, published in 1964, has been penned down by Norbert Wiener. Wiener (1894-1964) happens to be the coiner of the term ‘cybernetics’ in its modern sense. Wiener is a well-regarded mathematician and has a vast number of technical papers to his credit.

However God and Golem Inc, has very little to do with the subtleties of theoretical physics or mathematics, it concerns itself majorly with socially relevant issues of cybernetics that intersect with religion. The author here refrains himself from using any highly technical phrases to prove his points. Some of the ideas do remain rather vague, as a result of this approach. But it seems necessary as the book caters to a much wider audience this way. 

The three main issues, discussed throughout a number of short essays in the book, are: 

  • Machines which learn themselves
  • Machines which have capacity to reproduce themselves
  • The relation between man and machine

Learning is a property which has been long attributed to self-conscious systems, or simply put living organisms. But there have been efforts to make learning machines, which might ultimately lead to the invention of the long anticipated (and feared) “Artificial Intelligence”.  The author takes an intereting example of Checkers playing machine. The computer which has been programmed to play a game of Checkers also possesses an interesting ability to “learn” from its past experience and improve its game in accordance. Such a machine was able to consistently defeat its creator, Sameul, in the initial phase. "It did win," the author writes, "and it did learn to win; and the method of its learning was no different in principle from that of the human being who learns to play checkers.”  An interesting point raised here is the conflict between the Devil and the God, as described in the Book of Job or Paradise Lost, might seem to be a pitifully unequal contest in the first sight. To avoid moral dualism Devil must be considered God’s creation. The game, it has been argued, between the Creator and the creation, ignoring the omnipotence of the Creator, happens to be quite a real conflict with a possibility of the creator losing the game.

Second point deals with the ability of reproduction amongst machines, or whether such ability exists at all? Man makes man in his own image, which is supposedly an echo or a prototype of the act of creation, by which God has made Man in his own image. The author demonstrates that man has made machines which are able to make other machines in their own image. These images can very well be pictorial as well as operative images. This brings me to the title of the book. Can we safely say that God is to Golem as Man is to Machine? Golem is considered to be the embryo of Adam, shapeless and not fully created, according to Jewish mythology.

The author ponders upon the relation between Man and Machine next. He ponders on the subject of androids, or the semi-machine humans. In fact to have forecast the development of such systems in back in 1964 is rather impressive. "Render unto man the things which are man's and unto the computer the things which are the computer's," the author warns. The issues discussed here are more of ethical in their nature.

The author also touches upon a lot of other important issues, except for the main three described above. Some of the examples include human responsibility in usage of advancing technology, sensory feedback to artificial organs, machine game-playing, Cold War, Marxism, Darwinism, adversities of Ideological thinking and even Economics as a science. This exemplifies the range of the author as well as shades some light upon his vast knowledge pool.

However, at times, it appears that the book lacks direction. Some of the issues are left rather contentious. His ideas including the right to die and the ones including machine self-reproduction seem rather vague. The book however remains crisp and sharp, devoid of any unnecessary length. The ideas are presented in progressive manner. Sometimes it appears that he overestimated future technology, such optimism however isn’t very uncommon among the authors coming from a scientific background.

He puts forward the notion that scientists and engineers are moral people, whose work is based on their fundamental belief in human goodness.  He states that deepest hell in Dante’s Inferno has been reserved for the sin of Simony (which was used in the context of the misuse of Church’s power). He draws parallel to this old term in the sense of misuse of growing technological powers for a more personal gain, or usage of money as a force.

It remains an important book. One might not necessarily agree with all the points covered in the book, especially the ones touching upon religious issues, depending upon his/her personal beliefs. But the book has got courage to ask difficult questions.

My favorite line from the book:
“Remember that in the game of atomic warfare, there are no experts." 

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