God is in the Algorithm

There has been a great variety of religions over the years, most of which worship some form or forms of deity. It’s not really the God that matters though, it’s the behaviour the religion promotes. There are rules, moral guidelines, that each religion preaches. God is the one that smites or rewards you for acting in accordance.

A new religion may be emerging that also comes with a code of conduct but that does away with the traditional notion of God, replacing him with an algorithm. In this emerging ideology, called Dataism, the ultimate goal is to increase the amount of information flow through the algorithm.

“Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus

Rise of the Network

The seeds of dataism were sown long ago, when people learned how to pass information from one person to the next. When we first started spreading across the globe, communication was limited to the small groups we were in. But eventually, with the help of agriculture and money, those groups grew very large, and began connecting with other groups to trade information and resources.

Over time, those communication channels have multiplied, and become far more powerful. Food, products, people, and information can travel anywhere around the world in a relatively short matter of time. Human history can be seen as the process of making this system more efficient.

“We often imagine that democracy and the free market won because they were “good”. In truth, they won because they improved the global data-processing system.”

But it is not only our economic and political systems that are algorithmic. Dataists believe that life itself is made of algorithms. This view owes a great deal to work such as Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ and the identification of DNA. Flow of information is essential to living creatures, if our bodies were to halt the transfer of data, we would die—hence, obstructing data-flow is a sin to a dataist.

The goal of the dataist is to create a more efficient system called the Internet-of-All-Things—that includes every literal thing, from people to plants, cars to couches, ovens to each pair of shoes. If life is the movement of information, then we should extend and deepen it to include everything within the universe.

“The refrigerator will monitor the number of eggs in the drawer, and inform the chicken coop when a new shipment is needed. The cars will talk with one another, and the trees in the jungle will report on the weather and on carbon dioxide levels.”

Information Wants to be Free

In this ideology, freedom of information is the greatest good. Unlike freedom of expression, freedom of information is a right given to the information rather than to any person.

Harari writes that if dataism has a martyr, it was Aaron Swartz, who published the ‘Guerilla Open Access manifesto’ in 2008, and released thousands of research papers from JSTOR using a guest account at MIT. He was arrested and put on trial, and faced up to 35 years in prison, but took his own life before being convicted.

Swartz wrote in the manifesto that, “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”

Many of us are already willing participants in this, even if it’s not to the extent of Swartz. We are plugged into our networks, consuming, uploading and sharing information while in many instances giving up our privacy to do so. Part of the allure, Harari suspects, is that by immersing ourselves in this system, we become part of something bigger than ourselves.

The problem with all of this data flow is that people cannot keep up. There is too much information to process, it is overwhelming. A consequence of this complex system is that we can become less aware of how we fit into it. What effect do our actions actually contribute? 

The individual is becoming a tiny chip inside a giant system that nobody really understands. Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, phone calls and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, phone calls and articles. I don’t really know where I fit into the great scheme of things, and how my bits of data connect with the bits produced by billions of other humans and computers.

The Limits of the Human Mind

Because the data pool is too large and the system too complex for people to fully grasp, we rely on machines to do most of the heavy lifting. The more information we feed them the better they get, from spotting diseases to recognising faces and translating languages. The more we entrust these systems to make decisions, the more we admit that the human algorithm just isn’t capable of handling the influx of information.

That could be a problem. It is quite possible that the feature of being human that has made us the intelligent, most powerful creatures on the planet, is our ability to distill external information into internal knowledge. We are quick learners. But we can no longer keep up, and machines are becoming the only algorithms capable of handling all this information.

“Hitherto, data was seen as only the first step in a long chain of intellectual activity. Humans were supposed to distil data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. However, Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data, hence they cannot distil data into information, let alone into knowledge or wisdom. The work of processing data should therefore be entrusted to electronic algorithms, whose capacity far exceeds that of the human brain.”

Alan Turing’s ideas regarding intelligent machines, and the growing repertoire of smart devices and programs, make it seem as though intelligence too is algorithmic. There is growing concern that people are going to lose work not because they cannot physically keep up with machines, but because they cannot cognitively keep up.

What’s more, these intelligent machines may not require consciousness, which raises a question—if non-conscious algorithms can do what conscious creatures do but better, what function will we serve? Will we have a purpose? Is intelligence more important than consciousness?

“Suppose non-conscious algorithms could eventually outperform conscious intelligence in all known data-processing tasks – what, if anything, would be lost by replacing conscious intelligence with superior non-conscious algorithms?”

The End of Humanism?

For many years we have treated human feelings as the basis of our morals and values—making the world a better place often means ensuring it is hospitable to creatures that can consciously experience it. Dataists believe that data-flow trumps human feelings. They don’t have anything against feelings, but rather believe they have no intrinsic value.

“According to Dataism, human experiences are not sacred and Homo sapiens isn’t the apex of creation or a precursor of some future Homo deus. Humans are merely tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things, which may eventually spread out from planet Earth to cover the whole galaxy and even the whole universe. This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.”

Over millions of years, our feelings evolved into the best algorithms for looking inside and understanding yourself. But as we come to pull apart the genome and piece together the workings of the brain, we will find that computers eventually tell us more about who we are than our feelings ever could.

From a dataist perspective, it seems we are both at a loss for handling the data the world produces, and even in understanding our own minds and bodies. We should instead relinquish our decisions to the algorithms that know us better, they will decide who we date, what we eat, and where we go. We will all be happier and healthier for it.

Perhaps, in the years to come, we will merge with these algorithms. Rather than lose all importance and cede total control to the network, we could join it by giving it all the information that makes you you. Then we will all become data flowing through the system. Humanity, in Harari’s words, could be just a ripple in the cosmic data flow.

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