Theopolis Monk, Part 1: Envisioning a Future of A.I. Public Service

We begin a multi-part discussion on future uses of AI for the public good, with a bit of sci-fi nostalgia.

As a young person, I was a devotee of the TV show “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” which was a science-fiction retelling of the Rip Van Winkle myth. When 20th-century Buck comes back to Earth after being accidentally frozen in space and cryogenically preserved (it’s not really explained why he’s not simply killed), he is arrested as a suspected spy and assigned a public defender/interrogator in the form of a disk-shaped computerized intelligence (known as a “Quad”) named Dr. Theopolis, pictured above.

Readers of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts will notice the similarity between the name “Theopolis” and the addressee of these New Testament books, “most excellent Theophilos.” The Greek name “Theophilos” (Latinized to “Theophilus”) means "friend of God,"[1] whereas “Theopolis” means "city of God."[2]

“The City of God” is a famous work by Augustine and is widely regarded as “a cornerstone of Western thought.”[3] It describes, among other things, how the decline of Roman civilization was not due to the rise of Christianity and advances the notion of an enduring civilization based on Christian spiritual principles.

The intent of the writers of Buck Rogers in choosing the name "Theopolis" is unclear.[4] One wonders whether the writers had wanted to use "Theophilus" but were told "Theopolis" was easier to say or sounded better. Or perhaps the connection to City of God was deliberate: in the 25th century, earth society has recovered from a cataclysmic "holocaust" and is principally centered in New Chicago. The new society is an 'enlightened' one -- even the Alexa-like home entertainment system in the apartment where Buck is placed under house arrest responds to the voice command ‘Enlighten me.’

This is why the name “Theopolis” stuck out to me. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality over revelation, resulted in a decline in the amount of religious practice and the eroding of confidence in religious doctrine. Despite the fact that religious freedom is celebrated in Thomas Moore’s Utopia,[5] and some science fiction can take a sympathetic or at least tolerant view toward religion,[6] sci-fi typically takes a disparaging view of ‘religious superstition,’ often envisioning a future society freed of religious sentiments.[7] Thus I found it remarkable that a name with religious connotations was used for a ‘positive’ character, one who takes the form of a public servant.​

The society that Buck arrives in is governed by an oligarchy of sentient AIs known as the Computer Council on which Dr. Theopolis, or “Theo,” sits as a chief scientist. According to ComicVine, he was once a human scientist whose "mind was transferred into a computer prior to his death,”[8] but in the actual script we are told by Dr. Elias Huer that Theo has been programmed by other Quads:

“These Quads are not programmed by man: They've been programmed by one another over the generations.”[9]

Regardless of how the intelligence got ‘in there,’ in the 25th century it is running on silicon (or perhaps some new substrate). People in this society felt that the AIs were more trustworthy and/or capable than purely human representatives. Dr. Elias continues: ​

“You see, the mistakes that we have made in areas, well, like our environment, have been entirely turned over to [the Quads]. And they've saved the Earth from certain doom.”[10]

​(It’s almost as if humanity longed to be under the care of a benevolent superintelligence. ;-) )

These recollections on Buck Rogers can serve as a springboard for discussing potential positive future uses of AI, human consciousness, and envisioning a future ‘enlightened’ society or ‘City of God.’ The key observation from Buck Rogers is that the AI entities on the Computer Council were more or less benevolent, and were acting as public servants -- this is opposed to notions of SkyNet or superintelligences that leave humans behind in the dust. It represents an alternate narrative of the future from the dystopian visions which are prevalent in science fiction today.[11] Several sci-fi creators have recently expressed a desire to intentionally bring back a sense of optimism (e.g., [12-14]), that “we need more utopias” in sci-fi today, both because of the chilling effect of so much doom and gloom on the human spirit and because predicting the future is a difficult game.[15] The recollection of Buck Rogers from the early 80s showcases some optimistic variety in the space of speculative fiction about AI.

​We are already living in an era of AI public servants, as machine learning (ML) statistical models are increasingly applied in government, healthcare and finance. Yet concerns exist regarding their ability to form concepts (or “representations”) and produce decisions in ways that are understandable by the humans whose lives are affected by the inferences of such systems. We'll discuss this in our next (upcoming) post, “Theopolis Monk, Part 2: Their Thoughts are Not Our Thoughts.”​

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. In what ways might the hope of a future utopia made possible by technology parallel a Christian hope of residence in the New Jerusalem?

Q2. Given our present technical challenges of securing systems for commerce and government (e.g., database hacks, vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines), what factors would contribute to public trust in government AI systems?

Q3. Would a demonstration that human cognition is computable have any impact on your Christian faith?​

Acknowledgement:

Sponsored by a grant given by Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II, a project run by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO), the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, with funding by Templeton Religion Trust and The Blankemeyer Foundation.​​

References:

  1. W R F Browning, ed., Theophilus, in The Oxford Dictionary of the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  2. “Theopolis” is a proper name that showed some popularity in the 19th century, and is also sometimes attributed to individuals more commonly known by the name “Theophilus”, e.g., John Milton uses the former in Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641) to refer to the 23rd Pope of Alexandria.
  3. Wikipedia contributors, The City of God, 2018, .
  4. I have been unable to find any references regarding the creators’ intent in choosing this name. ‘Theo’ was a new character for the 1979 TV series, and not part of the original Buck Rogers comic strip.
  5. Sanford Kessler, “Religious Freedom in Thomas More’s Utopia,” The Review of Politics 64, no. 02 (March 2002): 207, .
  6. Teresa Jusino, “Religion and Science Fiction: Asking the Right Questions,” Tor.com, January 6, 2010, ; Jo Walton, “Religious Science Fiction,” Tor.com, January 21, 2011, .
  7. “Science Fiction — Mythology of the Future | Think Magazine,” accessed June 5, 2018, .
  8. Doctor Theopolis (Character) - Comic Vine, n.d., .
  9. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century S01e01 Episode Script | SS, n.d., .
  10. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century S01e01 Episode Script | SS.
  11. Sarah Begley, “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Utopian Novels,” Time, September 2017.
  12. Tom Cassauwers, “Sci-Fi Doesn’t Have to Be Depressing: Welcome to Solarpunk,”
  13. Adam Epstein, “I Miss Optimism: The ‘Family Guy’ Creator Wants to Bring Back Hopeful Sci-Fi,” Quartz, 2017.
  14. Cory Doctorow, “In ‘Walkaway,’ A Blueprint For A New, Weird (But Better) World,” NPR, April 2017.
  15. Lauren J Young, How To Move Beyond The Tropes Of Dystopia, n.d.,
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