The Gospel of Tron

In an early blog post to the Transfigurist, I wrote some thoughts on the relationship to faith, creation, and programming:

What is particularly interesting about programming is that the creative process occurs in the abstract only. Yes, the program is stored on disk in the form of magnetic variations, but even this is invisible to the human eye and is not the purpose for which the program is created. A program is not the series of characters typed by the programmer. Rather the substance of a program is thought itself, concept described. Working this close to raw thought not just at the beginning of the creative process but all throughout the program’s creation requires a high level of concentration and mental exertion but likewise delivers a high level of satisfaction and joy. 
While the details of exactly what 'spiritual creation' is may be unclear, this process of creating implementable concepts and structures mentally surely must play a pivotal role. Thus, as we practice and participate in the process of creation and exercise our faculties (mental, physical, and spiritual), we draw nearer to God and learn more about the nature of eternity. This is why programming is, and many other creative processes are, so joyful. The creative process is itself a symbol of Eternity.

And elsewhere I've written about how I feel life, creation, and God are fundamentally emergent phenomena:

Mormonism sees mankind both as the beneficiaries of this kind of emergent God in our past and present; but continues with our becoming benefactors of this divine gift as mankind evolves and emerges into and merges with God in our future. The New God Argument lays out some of the logical underpinnings of this idea. And it's this kind of self-referential or cyclical pattern, capable of infinite diversity, that I previously explored as having fractal attributes... Creating environments out of which infinitely diverse and entirely novel intelligences can emerge as co-eternal, independent minds becomes the final, inexhaustible frontier. 

One work of fiction that I think captures this essence of emergence and co-eternal creation is the movie 'Tron: Legacy'. [SPOILERS] In the movie a vast, immersive, virtual world is created by Flynn. In that world, Flynn seeks to create a "perfect system" of control and order. But as he tries to design this system from the ground up something else happens: the "miracle", as he calls it. Out of the system emerges a new kind of life: the ISOs. This discovery completely changed Flynn's view of the value of the system. Rather than building programs that were only ever reducible to their programming, this discovery would forever alter consciousness and was ultimately what Flynn was willing to sacrifice everything for.

Flynn describes how the ISOs "didn't come from anywhere", that the conditions were right and that they came into being, like a flame. The ISOs had a wisdom and ability beyond the reductive algorithms of control and order he had been using. But as Flynn seeks to introduce the ISOs to the real world, he is betrayed by the programs he employed to create the "perfect system". The antagonist program, Clu, saw the ISOs as a threat to order and perfection which ultimately drove him to rebel and seek to destroy Flynn's efforts and dreams. Clu rejected the emergent properties of the system since they didn't fit his mandate of reductive creation of control and order, leads the programs to destroy the ISOs, and Flynn ends up trapped and exiled in the system. Mormons can see echoes of our own religious notions of pre-earth life with Satan seeking perfect control and order and rebelling against God's plan for the souls of mankind that is not reductive to control and order.

Here's a clip of Flynn remembering these events:

Flynn's son Sam, retracing his father's steps, discovers this virtual world and enters into it. He finds his father, exiled, and the world ruled by Clu. As he tries to escape with his father and Quorra (the last ISO), Quorra is damaged and Flynn tries to repair her.  During the repair, Flynn's son Sam asks him if he created the ISOs. Flynn's response was that he created "some of it" but that ultimately there were emergent properties that were "beyond him".

Here's a clip of that exchange:

Stepping away from the story, Tron Legacy underscores an important question in the field of artificial intelligence: Is general AI something we reductively design, is it an emergent phenomenon, or both?

To be clear, saying AI is emergent does not mean we just sit back and watch it emerge (as Google's Alfred Spector correctly argues against). The act of creating general AI is like any creative act: it requires active work by the creator in the medium of creation. But it is entirely different from other forms of creation (saving biological reproduction) in that the creation itself wakes up, becomes aware of its medium, and can transcend its origins. In the field of AI this is described as "recursive self-improvement" which can lead to an intelligence explosion.

While there is a great amount to say about weak AI, strong AI, and super-intelligence, I think there are lessons to learn in works of fiction like Tron Legacy which explore the contrasts between creating systems of reductive control and order vs systems tuned for emergence, the limits and conflicts between those two approaches, and the risks and opportunities of both. And I think the hope or "good news" (gospel) of works like Tron is that in working with AI, our creations may be able to transcend our thinking and show us things more amazing than we ever imagined.