Acton Institute Powerblog

Sailing to Byzantium with Avatars

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Socrates in some sense has come full circle. In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Central Florida in Orlando have received a grant to create life-like virtual representations of historical figures, with whom students can interact, dialogue, and inquire (HT: Slashdot).

“The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced graphics and video game-type technology to enable us to create historical archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional technologies such as text, audio and video footage,” said Jason Leigh, associate professor of computer science and director of UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory. Leigh is UIC’s lead principal investigator.

This project seminally resembles the technological world depicted by Robert Silverberg in his mid-80’s novella, Sailing to Byzantium. In that work set in the 50th century, Silverberg’s characters travel to variously themed reconstructions of cities, complete with interactive simulacra of historical or mythological figures.

The UIC/UCFO project will focus on creating digital “avatars,” who mimic the mannerisms and characteristics of the persona they represent: “Leigh said his team hopes to create virtual people who respond with a high degree of recognition to different voices and the various ways questions are phrased.”

Some commentators wonder if the concept has commercial appeal. Judging from the popularity of the cities in Silverberg’s novella, I would certainly think so.

But what is more striking is how a project like this provides an answer, albeit one that is incomplete, to the conundrum of communication posed by Socrates himself so long ago.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes the following critical observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

We now have within our sight a superficial answer to Socrates’ critique; these avatars will presumably be able to know “to whom they should reply,” and “to whom not.” Indeed, the simulacra might be able to give more than “one unvarying answer.”

But I think in some ways this simply sharpens rather than dismisses Socrates’ criticism. Will these avatars, in spite of the technological achievement of interactivity, fundamentally represent anything more than the illusion of intelligence, or “the attitude of life”? Whence comes the dynamism and spontaneity of human rationality, willing, and consciousness? Is it possible to truly recreate such things by means of “artificial intelligence”?

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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