Sometimes it takes a good 4,000 years or so to appreciate just how wise God is.
When you read the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, God’s response can sound like a bit of an overreaction. Humans developed the material and engineering technology to construct a tall Ziggurat on the plain of Shinar. And they had the totally mistaken notion that they could build it to reach the heavens (Genesis 11:4), perhaps building their own access to God’s dwelling. So God’s response was to “confuse their language” in order to frustrate their ambition and dilute the population concentration (Genesis 11:7–8). Why? Did God feel threatened by their faulty tower?
No, God was not threatened by human ingenuity. Rather, God was wisely and mercifully mitigating the threat of human ingenuity to humans and to the rest of creation. When God said, “this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6), he had in mind things far grander than a brick and bitumen tower. He foresaw things that have taken four millennia to dawn on the human mind.
The Towering Century
I don’t know an English superlative that captures the 20th century. The quantum leaps in human technological advancements on almost every front boggle the mind.
When the century began, a two horsepower engine meant two horses were powering your carriage. When it ended, horseless carriages like the Dodge Viper were powered by internal combustion engines containing the equivalent strength of 450 horses. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright made the first recorded powered flight, a 12-second, 120-foot voyage that reached a top altitude of about 20 feet. On December 19, 1999, the Space Shuttle Discovery took off on an 8-day, 3.2 million mile voyage soaring 317 nautical miles above the earth. Advances in medicine, agriculture, and many other converging technologies increased average human life expectancies in the U.S. 30–40 years, more than doubling them in some demographics. Technological wonders exploded everywhere.
And therefore, so did the horrors. In 1900, the most powerful armies had long-range artillery that could fairly accurately hit targets a few miles away. Barely five decades later and humanity was facing the existential risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. Many of the technological advancements that had power to greatly benefit humanity also had power to destroy it. And as a result, never in the history of the world were so many people destroyed by so few in the course of a hundred years. Statistics vary, but credible calculations put the number of human deaths resulting from wars and armed conflicts in the 20th century to over 230 million.
But as the 21st century dawned, a new disturbing possibility began to appear on the horizon.
The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been talked about by foreseeing technological scientists and futurists since the dawn of computing in the late 1930’s. Robots have been part of the popular imagination since the mid-20th century. Scads of novels and films have explored the idea of human-AI compatibility and competition (think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, C-3PO in Star Wars, Pixar’s WALL-E, or Ultron, the Avengers’s AI nemesis).
Many of us still think of AI as science fiction. But as the decades have passed it has become increasingly less fictional. It’s now all around us and feels normal. You are reading this article on an artificially intelligent device.
We currently live in an era of Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), AI that in some cases can outperform humans, but only in a narrowly focused expertise (think Siri or IBM’s chess master Deep Blue).
But some experts are predicting that sooner than we may expect, perhaps only 25–40 years from now, we may reach the era of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), where an AI attains the rough equivalent to human intelligence (think C-3PO). And it’s this that has numerous prominent AI thinkers waving yellow and even red flags. For when AGI occurs, it may open the Pandora’s Box of Artificial Superintelligence (ASI). This is when an AI attains overall intelligence beyond, and perhaps way, way beyond, human intelligence (think Ultron).
Afraid of Creating God
Some experts don’t believe ASI will materialize. But many do. And the sorts of possibilities that are being seriously discussed by credible and brilliant minds are amazing, even fantastical. The discussions have an increasingly urgent tone because technologies now exist and are emerging that make possibilities feasible that until recently just made for entertaining films. This has some experts euphorically predicting that ASI will help us eradicate human disease and food shortages and successfully colonize other planets. But others warn that we do not know what we might awaken. We may create an intelligence that has the exponential ability to increase and protect its own intelligence and over time assumes qualities that we now only attribute to God. The concerned experts believe this should give us serious pause. Such ASI may have no need for the human race.
It’s not my purpose (or qualification) to weigh in on that discussion. But it is my purpose, in light of the astounding 20th century and what might prove to be more astounding 21st century, to point to the wisdom of God displayed on the plains of Shinar: God knows what he’s doing when he frustrates man.
God Can Be Trusted with Our Frustrated Efforts
When God threw the Ziggurat builders into confusion, they had no idea of the future possibilities. They did not know that the most complex thing in the material universe is the human brain. But God did. He knew the power of collective human ingenuity. He knew its potential power for good, but he also knew its post-Eden potential power for evil on a scale that for the Mesopotamians was yet unimaginable. And in his wisdom and mercy he confused and dispersed the people, much to their frustration.
Now in God’s wisdom he is letting human technological advancement move at a dizzying pace, in spite of the language, culture, geographical, political, and economic obstacles. Why? Beyond what is revealed in Scripture, we, like our ancient ingenious ancestors, do not yet know. But what we who believe Scripture do know is that God can be trusted in these matters. With thousands of years of retrospect, we know more than ever that the wisest thing we can do is to trust God’s promises and purposes far more than our shortsighted perceptions.
And what is true on the massive scale of human history is also true on the micro-scale of our own lives. There are more to the things that frustrate and hinder us, that present us obstacles and delays, that confuse and sometimes disperse us, than we yet see.
So let us not be quick to get angry over our frustrations. The God who presided over the confusion in Shinar presides over our Babel moments, large and small. And for all of us who love him, he promises to turn them for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28).
Someday, perhaps in the distant future, we will see in the things that confuse and frustrate us now God’s incredible wisdom and mercy.