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Are We Spiritual Machines? Are We Machines at All?

Inventor Ray Kurzweil proposed in 1999 that within the next thirty years we will upload ourselves into computers as virtual persons, programs on machines

I’ve been reviewing philosopher and programmer Erik Larson’s The Myth of Artificial Intelligence. See my earlier posts, hereherehere, and here.

The event at which I moderated the discussion about Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines was the 1998 George Gilder Telecosm conference, which occurred in the fall of that year at Lake Tahoe (I remember baseball players Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire chasing each other for home run leadership at the time). In response to the discussion, I wrote a paper for First Things titled “Are We Spiritual Machines?”  it is still available online at the link just given, and its arguments remain current and relevant.

According to The Age of Spiritual Machines , machine intelligence is the next great step in the evolution of intelligence. That man is the most intelligent being at the moment is simply an accident of natural history. Human beings need to be transcended, not by going beyond matter, but by reinstantiating themselves in more efficient forms of matter, to wit, the computer. Kurzweil claims that in the next thirty or so years we shall be able to scan our brains, upload them onto a computer, and thereafter continue our lives as virtual persons running as programs on machines. Since the storage and processing capacities of these virtual persons will far exceed that of the human brain, they will quickly take the lead in all aspects of society. Those humans who refuse to upload themselves will be left in the dust, becoming “pets,” as Kurzweil puts it, of the newly evolved computer intelligences. What’s more, these computer intelligences will be conditionally immortal, depending for their continued existence only on the ability of hardware to run the relevant software.

William A. Dembski, “Are we spiritual machines?” at First Things (October 1999)

An abridged version of this article then appeared in an anthology edited by my friend and colleague Jay RichardsAre We Spiritual Machines? Ray Kurzweil and the Critics of Strong AI. This anthology is still available and still worthy of attention, if only to point out how the same themes and misconceptions about AI persist.

You may also wish to read:

A critical look at the myth of “deep learning” “Deep learning” is as misnamed a computational technique as exists. The phrase “deep learning” suggests that the machine is doing something profound and beyond the capacity of humans. That’s far from the case.

Artificial intelligence understands by not understanding The secret to writing a program for a sympathetic chatbot is surprisingly simple… We needed to encode grammatical patterns so that we could reflect back what the human wrote, whether as a question or statement.

Automated driving and other failures of AI How would autonomous cars manage in an environment where eye contact with other drivers is important? In cossetted and sanitized environments in the U.S., we have no clue of what AI must achieve to truly match what humans can do.


Artificial intelligence: Unseating the inevitability narrative. William Dembski: World-class chess, Go, and Jeopardy-playing programs are impressive, but they prove nothing about whether computers can be made to achieve AGI. In The Myth of Artificial Intelligence, Erik Larson shows that neither science nor philosophy back up the idea of an AI superintelligence taking over.

William A. Dembski

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.

Are We Spiritual Machines? Are We Machines at All?