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On an alternate Earth I am designing, the entire industrialised world is dominated by a single religion. This religion has many denominations, but in all of them both genetic engineering and advanced AI systems are totally forbidden. This world may sound like one quite self-limiting in terms of its technology, but there is one thing that makes this less the case than it might seem: Whilst it is forbidden to create a machine to fill the role of an organic brain, it is entirely permitted to wire machines with no intelligence of their own to be controlled by an organic brain.

As such, whilst their AI technology is limited to around late-2010s level and they refuse to use genetic engineering even for staple food crops, cyborgs are commonplace and replacing body parts (with the exception of the brain) with mechanical ones is virtually completely uncontroversial.

Ignoring, for now, the issue of attempting to create better-than-organic mechanical body parts without advanced AI, there is still one potential flaw I can see in this: The kinds of religious groups that would are so hardline against genetic engineering and would regard even late-2010s level AI with extreme suspicion are also generally the kind of people who would be at least wary of casually replacing body parts with artificial ones.

In short then, I am asking: Is there actually any way to have a religion which would both prohibit significant advances in machine learning and totally forbid all genetic engineering but which would, nonetheless, be entirely and undividedly happy with the idea of people casually replacing their limbs and organs with brain-controlled artificial versions?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 17 at 8:22

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The religion can set constraints, but no cyborg would be halal

A religion may set any rules, its narrative serves to make them consistent, not logical. See other answers. This is not a frame challenge: religions are quite often internally inconsistent, so it will be 'realistic' to have such a religion. Also, when the powers that be require cyborgs to exist, religions tend to comply and ease up the rules to accommodate the powers that be.

Paradox

When these rules are carved in stone, I doubt if cyborgs would exist at all. Science and religion both embrace cyborgs, but the religion doesn't allow AI or genetic engineering? This will make it very difficult to create a functioning cyborg! Its brain may remain human, but a cyborg cannot be constructed without AI or genetic engineering in its senses, and to connect limbs extensions to the body. When you want to let a cyborg walk, you'll need to connect sensors to neural pathways, which can only be done properly with the help of genetic analysis. Now suppose your cyborg has both legs replaced by mechanics, you'll need to add servos and electronics for balance, which is driven by learning, a system which needs AI to exist inside the Cyborg, but outside its brain. If it is not allowed, you'll end up with a very clumsy cyborg.

Some notes on AI application in brain-machine connections

I view AI as everyday, current technology. I regard learning (or adjustment) on the side of the artificial limb as needed for the cyborgs physics-brain connection. Maybe when the religion would reject "deep learning" or "machine learning" instead of "AI", the discussion in the comments below could have been avoided, but this extra part would not have been written, so thank you @Pelinore and others for the input!

In the question, it says

Q: "In short then, I am asking: Is there actually any way to have a religion which would both prohibit significant advances in machine learning and totally forbid all genetic engineering but which would, nonetheless, be entirely and undividedly happy with the idea of people casually replacing their limbs and organs with brain-controlled artificial versions?"

When the predominant religion cannot coexist with AI, your people it can't make an advanced, autonomously balancing prosthesis, like this one,

https://daw-usa.com/knee/slk-multi-matrix/

Ok, let's talk medical devices as an example of modern (learning) AI application.

In the early 1980s, there were pioneers in NL working on artificial limbs and even artificial hands, connected to the brain. These systems were based on electrodes and patient learning, not machine learning. That is: the patient had to learn to manipulate the device. Back then, these systems were ineffective an unstable. The reason for that: brain signals were multiple, that is the patient had to invent how activate multiple electrodes to move the device, all parts of it.

When machine learning came in, the number of electrodes could be reduced. The artifical limb would not be "driven" by the brain rather "react" to the brain. As a result, we now have artificial hands, and artificial legs, as well as dancing robots. These artificial limbs "live" for 80% autonomously, behaviour induced by machine learning. By learning, it got used to your brain signals, the level of them.. and the combination connected to certain movements. The patient's learning is still needed, but the device learns too, it adjusts to the patient. Individually.. no system can be copy-pasted from one patient to the other.

The ideal in the end, a real cyborg (like in your title) will be able to move his superior limbs intuitively. It will be able to jump and fight, to perfectly connect the motor system in the brain. We're not there yet, but AI, that is machine learning, is regarded as the key to connect the parts while training the patient (or "terminator" or "cybercop", one day)

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    – L.Dutch
    May 17 at 10:01
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Yes.

Internal consistency is not a requirement for religious policies. (Citation: Earth.) And while what you've described skirts what we consider inconsistencies (embracing technology in some guises, and rejecting it in others), it's not particularly egregious.

One way to overcome a reader's concerns about this is to provide either the justification or the history of how and why the religion adopted these policies, or to hint at them and let the reader fill in the gaps. For an excellent example of this, see the Dune novels and the Butlerian Jihad.

Why would a religion reject humans that can take the place of a human mind? History idea: A machine revolt (even something non-violent -- an AI deciding to disable the power grid). Philosophical idea: Only organic minds can go to the afterlife, so making non-organic minds reduces the opportunities for ascendance.

Why would a religion reject genetic engineering? History idea: A disease that ravaged a monoculture crop, leading to famine. Philosophical idea: DNA is God's signature, and modifying it is hubris.

Why would a religion embrace augmentation and cyborgs? Well, why not? It increases quality of life, and without a reason to reject it (and none of the reasons above apply) it could easily become accepted.

I think you're fine here.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why eat one kind of meat, not another? Millions of people do this despite the reason for this rule, if there ever was one, having become moot ages ago. $\endgroup$
    – bytepusher
    May 15 at 4:26
  • $\begingroup$ Religions do require/claim internal consistency. Ask any pastor or priest if their faith is internally inconsistent. However certain areas are unrevealed and/or designated mysteries. (Which is slightly more honest than secular philosphers who excoriate the religious but do the same thing). $\endgroup$ May 15 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ Addaon if anything under-stresses the importance of Frank Herbert's Dune compendium, pretty-much fulfilling the scenario in almost the very words of the Question. 12 immense tomes devote much of their content to how thinking machines shall not be suffered; people replacing their limbs and organs with brain-controlled artificial versions is acceptable; genetic engineering is a broadly black market… which allows the cyborgs, unable to think of anything more stimulating, to oppress entire planetary populations. $\endgroup$ May 16 at 10:42
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Yes

What you are describing is not only possible, but practiced by most people.

AI are an imitation of God’s life. Many religions consider recreating life to be a sin, since you are saying humans are equal to God.

Genetic engineering is modifying God’s life. This is like questioning God’s work.

Prosthesis is filling in a gap due to an accident, or is similar to tool use. Full replacement is too extreme for most religions, but if you can remove the prosthesis and the prosthesis is to replace a normal function of the human body people are ok with it. No one cares about people in wheel chairs or with hook hands, so it isn’t as much of a push to get full prosthesis.

Genetic engineering either takes a new life like a fetus and modify it without consent, or make a new life and change it fully. Some people aren’t ok with that. AI makes new life in a way that God doesn’t control.

Prosthesis on the other hand is just bending metal in a new way and making it work with your body. All but your most restrictive religion allow this a little bit, and many allow it a lot.

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    $\begingroup$ Islam could fit the bill for your world religions. This question has some very thoughtful answers as regards Islam and artificial intelligence. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/69549/… The view of Islam as regards tampering with Creation is pretty much as @Charlie Hershberger sets out. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    May 14 at 18:00
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Yes, the answer to your exact question is easy - we have extant religions banning Coca-Cola, shaving, polycotton or eating meat on a Friday except for beaver, so the bar is pretty low.

I'm going to try to answer a slightly different question: what could be a coherent belief system that would result in banning AI and GM but not advanced mechanical engineering

Begotten, not made

Your religion has a supreme Creator who made the Universe and all in it. (She/he/it/they) willed the cosmos and the Earth into being with (thought/song/dream/etc.) alone, exactly as they are now; but when it came to living things, she did not make them: she planted them, and they grew.

The process of developing from a "seed" is sacred. It's what distinguishes the lifeless from the living. The religion's imagery focuses a lot on the wonder of a small, featureless kernel acquiring the complexity and wonder of a fully grown being. This is taken as a sign of "ongoing creation", that the process of development is a live connection between a being and the Creator.

In practice, anything with aspects of significant emergent complexity is taken as the realm of the divine. AI (and a lot of the more advanced ML) is seen as an attempt to "play God" on an artificial substrate, because the algorithms are designed to "grow" and acquire properties that were not explicitly designed into them. Genetic modification (tampering with the sacred seed) is also obviously heretical, and in fact the entire field of developmental biology is a very suspicious discipline, as it attempts to explain and trivialise what is an evidently ineffable process. All of biology would probably be held back to the equivalent of our mid-19th century descriptive "stamp-collecting".

Building a machine from specs is 100% fine, no matter how complex it is. It is obviously made, and therefore not alive.

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Injury is the gateway.

Modern religious groups are fine with people and priests getting prosthetic attachments. Religion doesn't protect you from being sick. It might become very common to get cybernetics to help improve health and deal with sickness.

Don't ask don't tell is the end.

Because cybernetics is so useful a lot of people might get augmentations without injuries. It may well be socially unacceptable to cyber up with no injuries, so most will vaguely hint at injuries. Most religious places won't dig into it, because they recognize the value of cybernetics.

The socially acceptable view on it is that cybernetics is just done for handling illnesses and chronic pain, and that almost everyone who has it was injured, and that prosthetics are just like for like replacement of limbs. Talking about how you got augmentations for enhancement of function is a massive social faux pas.

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What is AI?

Exactly where you freeze "machine learning" requires you to define what elements of machine learning are and aren't halal, and this is going to be complicated.

I'll just state as unambiguous fact that we don't have "advanced" AI yet. We have various flavours of machine learning which are able to be trained, by humans, to carry out some highly-specialised tasks with some acceptable degree of accuracy. We also have enough processing power that you can brute-force-hack simple pattern-matching tasks like chess. That's it. That's all we've got. Nothing more than that.

When did we start getting that kind of machine learning? Opinions will vary, but a good starting point would be with Kalman filters. These started to be used in the 1960s, as a method for control electronics to learn the performance characteristics and environmental factors when controlling a ship, aircraft or spaceship, by comparing expected motion against actual motion and changing its internal model of the system to match its observations.

Does this count as AI, since it's doing what a skilled helmsman or pilot would be doing? If so, you need to roll back your technology cutoff by 60 years for Kalman filters. You also need to allow for your society to have a lot more people in decision loops than we currently have, from warfare to vehicle control to industrial manufacturing. And in practise your cyborgs are going to have a lot of problems moving if you take this away. Almost certainly you'd need an inherently-stable cyborg platform (e.g. four wheels) instead of anything inherently-unstable (e.g. legs).

If you want to be even stricter, you could even consider closed-loop control to embody machine learning. It allows machinery to react to its environment and change its response accordingly. This could invalidate machinery as simple as speed governors on engines; and if you take out speed governors then you can basically rule out water, wind or steam power and all forms of industry and modern technology, so anything as advanced as cyborgs is right out! So you see that this isn't exactly a straightforward situation.

Voice activation is a neat trick, sure, but that's just another brute-force hack. It's nothing that hasn't been around since the late 70s - it's just got better hardware and slightly different details for the same methods. Don't be fooled into thinking Alexa and Siri are AI, simply because they can (mostly) recognise human speech. All they're doing is some audio processing and pattern-recognition lookups - there isn't any concept of meanings behind it.

If you define AI as something closer to machine consciousness though, the situation becomes very different. We are still a long, long way from that! Not only do we not know how to do it, we don't even have a well-defined path to get there. The best we can say so far is that we have developed a lot of technologies which, whilst being useful in many specialised contexts, give us examples of what consciousness isn't. I wouldn't bet against someone developing strong AI in the next 50 years, sure - but famously it's been "10 years away" since at least the early 1970s, and still the best we can say is that we've found a bunch of different technologies which are useful in their way but are just different flavours of dead end when it comes to actual consciousness.

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I think a simple reason would be this religion won't allow humanity to play to be gods:

  • Manmade sentient beings (AI) are an abomination.
  • Modify the very essence of already existing living beings (genetic engineering) is another abomination.

On the other hand Cyborgs are just human beings with advanced prosthetics, you are not creating new species. If a peg leg is allowed, there is no reason to allow a nice titanium version with joints and servos.

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