RoboFuture? Ten questions about machine intelligence

11 July 2014 by in Business and finance, Codebreaking our future

by Michael Lee, author of Codebreaking our future

[Originally published as a blog on the World Future Society website]

Ever since HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897, various works of science fiction have speculated about the take-over of humanity by advanced robots or machines. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has gone several steps ahead of science fiction by working out an elaborate philosophy and pathway to a future governed by machine intelligence.

Kurzweil postulates that the Singularity will happen in 2045 when “the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed” [Kurzweil, R (2005): 7]. It will represent, he claims, the “culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology…There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.” [Kurzweil, R (2005): 9] The non-biological intelligence created in the year of the Singularity, he states, will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today [Kurzweil, R (2005): 136].

For computer scientist and science fiction author, Vernor Vinge, the core of the Singularity would be “the creation of greater-than-human intelligence” [More, M. & Vita-More, N (2013): 366] at which point all human rules will be thrown away in the face of an “exponential runaway beyond any hope of control” [More, M. & Vita-More, N (2013): 366]. After Singularity, Vinge and Kurzweil both proclaim, we’ll wake up in a radically new Post-human era.

I have several philosophical, logical, ethical, historical and futurological problems with the concept of the Singularity (which I will explore in future blogs) but today I simply want to adopt a common-sense approach. I want to ask 10 questions about machine intelligence. Readers can then answer each one as they see fit. The idea is to highlight the nature of machine intelligence compared to human consciousness.

While information technology has already attained unbelievable and revolutionary utility in today’s world, human intelligence, in my view, is far superior in virtually every facet to the intelligence within computer systems except for the processing, aggregating, calculating, storing and distribution of data at blindingly fast speeds. There have been several decades of worldwide research and development in the field of computers and so it is fair game to dig deep, at this juncture, as to the kind of intelligence which has actually been produced by computers in practice.

Here they are, then, ten questions to ask any man-made machine:

  1. Has machine intelligence ever independently produced an original idea, theory, philosophy or discovered any new principle or law of existence? This question concerns the capacity for sustained, original, creative thought.
  2. Has machine intelligence ever produced a unique, non-programmed story or created any imaginative literary work? This question relates to the power of imagination.
  3.  Has a computer ever spontaneously said “I love you” and meant it? Q3 is about personal, real-time communication.
  4. Has a computer ever said “I’m sorry” and meant it? This question relates to empathy, the skills of listening and emotional intelligence in general.
  5. Has machine intelligence ever invented or coined a new word or term? Q5 concerns original linguistic talent.
  6. Has machine intelligence ever made an independent, non-programmed decision about how to act based on conscience? This question is about ethics and a sense of justice.
  7.  Has a machine ever come up with a solution to a tricky social problem, solved a crime or adjudicated in a complex legal dispute? Q7 relates to the powers of deductive reasoning and lateral thinking.
  8. Has technology itself ever invented new technology, that is, have machines ever produced new types of machine no human had previously thought of? This question touches on the ability to be truly inventive.
  9. Has a machine ever had a religious or spiritual experience, an epiphany or eureka moment, said a non-programmed prayer, exercised faith or known awe and wonder? Q9 is about human spirituality.
  10. Has a machine ever made a spontaneously, personally motivated, non-programmed exchange with another being, whether some form of trade or extended social interaction? This question relates to the ability to engage in complex social, economic and political activity as a social being.

Aside from investigating the many technical and philosophical questions relating to the evolving interface between human and machine intelligence, these ten common-sense questions show it would be well-nigh impossible to mimic human consciousness and intelligence, let alone recreate, upload and surpass it, as proposed by Kurzweil.

Besides, do we really want to hand over control of civilization and human destiny to machinery?

Don’t we want to use, rather than become, technology?

Note: please feel free to send answers to any of these “ten questions to ask machines” to

Codebreaking our future


Kurzweil, R. 2005. The Singularity is Near – when humans transcend biology. London:Duckworth.

More, M. & Vita-More, N, ed. 2013. The Transhumanist Reader. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.


Is God a futurist?

24 June 2014 by in Business and finance, Codebreaking our future

by Michael Lee, author of Codebreaking our future

After reading the title of this blog, you may well be asking two questions: ‘Who is God?’ and ‘What is a futurist?’.

Believers in God know in whom they believe, while for those who don’t have religious beliefs, God is more like the Hypothetical One they don’t acknowledge as real. So let’s move on to the slightly less speculative question of the two, namely, ‘What kind of beast is a futurist?’

In the broadest sense, a futurist studies, analyses and forecasts the future in a disciplined, methodically sound way. The futurist’s currency is foresight, a systematic anticipation of the shape, structure and character of the emerging world. For many theoretical and historical reasons, the study of the future is still a sleeping giant.

In my view, systematic anticipation of the future, which I prefer to call futurology, is the next great science. But that is another topic covered in other blogs and published work. This blog is about God and the future.

We all remember that Einstein claimed that God does not play dice with the world and most readers will also know that Newton was just as deeply interested in theology as he was in physics and mathematics, possessing over two dozen Bibles at the time of his death. And what all science unquestionably shows is that the universe operates intelligently, following laws of nature and evolution. So one can either conclude that such intelligence of design and lawfulness of behaviour derives from a superior intelligence we call God or has emerged spontaneously from nothing/something. Each person makes his or her own determination.

As a futurist, what’s important is the extent to which the way in which science has modelled the universe may have enabled us to make rational predictions about future states. Mathematical genius Pierre-Simon de Laplace wrote in his ground-breaking 1814 essay, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities : ‘Present events are connected with preceding ones by a tie based upon the evident principle that a thing cannot occur without a cause which produces it … We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow … The regularity which astronomy shows us in the movements of the comets doubtless exists also in all phenomena.’[1]

Since we are focusing here on God (or the Hypothetical One, if you would prefer) and the future, one might want to carry out a futurological exercise predicting what is likely to happen to religion – and the forces and institutions of religion – throughout the remainder of the  twenty-first century. Using Laplace’s logic of probability, we would need to start by looking at the past and present state of religion in the world – it’s evolutionary trajectory – and then globally contextualize that pattern over time within the multiple dimensions of our world – social, cultural, demographic, political, environmental, economic, etc. So one would evolutionize and contextualize the data about religion as the basis for futurological conclusions.

In studying the future of religion in this way, we’d get glimpses into the future of God and his role in our world over the next few generations. That would require a major in-depth study well beyond the scope of this blog. But we can certainly provide an appetizer. Then an answer to the question posed in the title will be offered.

The most surprising fact about religion today, especially for those who live in largely secular Western societies from North America to New Zealand, from Europe to Australia, is that religious belief in the world as a whole is growing quite strongly, while the growth of non-religious belief has fallen well behind the average rate of global population growth, that is, the role of secularism is declining, despite the immense impact of Western-style economic and cultural globalization.

First, let’s check out the facts about human belief in today’s world (as at June 2010).

World population distribution of belief systems, with current annual growth rates* 

Belief   system

Percentage   of world population

Current   annual growth rate in belief system’s population size
















Chinese   religions



Ethnic   religions



Sikh   religion









In the table above, only belief system population groups growing at a rate higher than 1.2% are growing faster than the world’s population.  Non-religious people make up only 13.58% of the world’s population and that slice of the global pie is declining. This means that decades of economic and cultural globalization by a largely secular West have not brought about a concomitant, commensurate spread of non-religious belief.

The four largest religious belief system groups, namely, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, together make up 75.99% of the world’s population, clearly a substantial majority.

In a nutshell, then, belief systems of the world are divided up as follows:

Top four religions by size = 75.99%
Non-religious population = 13.58%
Other = 10.43%

Figure 1: Comparative size of religious and non-religious populations in the world (2010)

Figure 1: Comparative size of religious and non-religious populations in the world (2010)









Figure 1 shows that the Hypothetical One is not in any danger of being forgotten any time soon.

Furthermore, the future of religion will almost certainly be reinforced by a fundamental and intensifying global demographic trend, namely population decline. Depopulation is now occurring in many nations across the world. Dr. Phillip Longman, demographer and author of The Empty Cradle (2004) points out that  global fertility rates are half what they were in 1972. It is thought that total human population may peak in 2050 at nine billion and thereafter decline. Bearing in mind that the human replacement fertility rate is 2.1 children per women, it’s alarming that 62 countries, making up almost half the world’s population, now have fertility rates at, or below, this rate, including most of the industrial world and Asian powers like China, Taiwan and South Korea.[2] At the start of the twentieth century, by contrast, the global fertility rate was higher than five children per woman of child-bearing age! The world’s population growth rate has fallen from 2% p.a. in the late 1960s to just over 1% today, and is predicted to slow further to 0.7% by 2030 and then 0.4% by 2050.[3] Most European countries are on a path to population ageing and absolute population decline[4]; in fact, no country in Europe is demographically replacing its population.[5]

Given this grim demographic picture, the role of pro-natal belief system population groups, including religious communities, is likely to become much more significant in the evolution of the human species. In the coming decades, humanity will be wrestling to avoid the disastrous socio-economic consequences of declining populations.

To halt population decline, radical change in values and lifestyle practices will eventually be needed. Human families, and their critical procreative role, will need to be strengthened.

The increasing influence of religion on society, of course, does not prove that God is a futurist, that is, a being who foresees the future in all its multi-dimensional complexity. Yet one of humanity’s first attempts to study the future was ancient prophecy. The prophets of the Old and New Testaments looked forward to a new world and, at times, to the projected end of the world itself. The Mayan civilization had deep insights into large-scale cycles of time, enabling them to make some far-reaching prophecies, including about a society which would one day fatally debase its environment.

The Bible is decisively future-facing in its outlook on the world, from Genesis (promising, for example, a long line of future generations from Abraham’s seed) to the overtly apocalyptic Book of Revelation. Many commentators believe Western civilization drew inspiration, in its rise to global power, from the Bible’s messianic, idealistic message, for example in the renowned Protestant work ethic geared towards building an earthly kingdom to the glory of God.

Given that religious belief systems are increasing in influence despite decades of secular economic globalization, it’s my perspective that the future of God looks promising. And, given that biblical theology is inherently prophetic and eschatological, one might even be tempted to say: the future of a futuristic God is bright.

To many in the world, frightened by religious extremism such as seen in the recent ISIS rampage across Iraq, this spectre of ascendant religion in decades to come may not appear to be good news. There is time, however, to inculcate rationalism, central to the objective discipline of futurology, within the public domain of shared common reality, in order to temper the emotional excesses displayed by the warped politics of some radical brands of religion. We need to move beyond ideology in public governance towards science as the great problem-solver. Slowly, I sense, a giant new science, with deep philosophical roots in the human past, is awakening.

Codebreaking our future


Laplace,P.S. 1814. A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. Cornell University Library.

Longman, P. 2004. The Empty Cradle. New York: Basic Books.

Magnus, G. 2009. The Age of Ageing. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia).

Mandryk, J. 2010. Operation World (Seventh Edition). Colorado Springs: Biblica Publishing.

*Data taken from the Seventh Edition of Operation World based calculated at June 2010

[1] Pierre Simon de Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

[2] Magnus, The Age of Ageing (2009) 40.

[3] Magnus, The Age of Ageing (2009) 33.

[4] Longman, The Empty Cradle (2004) 61.

[5] Longman, The Empty Cradle (2004) 177.