Hunger for Wholeness

Hunger for Wholeness: Star-struck and AI Futures with Neil deGrasse Tyson (Part 1)

June 26, 2023 Center for Christogenesis Season 2 Episode 17
Hunger for Wholeness
Hunger for Wholeness: Star-struck and AI Futures with Neil deGrasse Tyson (Part 1)
Show Notes Transcript

Hunger for Wholeness: Star-struck and AI Futures with Neil deGrasse Tyson (Part 1)

Ilia Delio interviews astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about science, technology and recent advances in AI. In part 1 of their conversation, Ilia asks Neil about the universe’s calling to him, and the importance of the night sky. Neil shares how he envisions the role of technology and AI in our daily lives, and the future of our society.


“Everything we do, every thought we've ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a renowned astrophysicist, planetary scientist, and author. His research interests are broad, but include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our Milky Way. In addition to dozens of professional publications, Tyson has written, and continues to write for the public. His recent books are Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization and Welcome to the Universe in 3D: A Visual Tour. His newest book, To Infinity and Beyond: A Journey of Cosmic Discovery, is scheduled for release in September 2023. Tyson is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid 13123 Tyson.

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Star-struck and AI Futures with Neil deGrasse Tyson (Part 1)

Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Today, it is a pleasure to host astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the first part of our conversation, Neil reflects on cosmology, personal calling to him and the significance of the night sky in human society and culture. Then later, Ilia ask Neil about the future of AI and how he sees technology's role in our daily life.

Ilia: Tell us what drew you—I know from childhood on you were sort of attracted by the stars and the galaxies. Maybe tell us in your own words what drew you to the study of cosmology of astrophysics.

Neil: Yeah. I would say it's not so much that I was drawn to it. Yeah, that's true. But I like to think that it called to me, as though I had no choice in the matter. And after a first visit to my local planetarium, and I think we all, each of us remembers our first visit to a planetarium, but typically it's our first immersive virtual reality encounter. And that takes place with the universe where you go into a dome, the lights turn out and the stars show up on the ceiling, this curved ceiling, and you're transported. You're no longer on earth, and you follow the narration into the universe. And I'm old enough so that this was happening with much more primitive technology than what's available today, yet I was nonetheless star-struck by it.

Ilia: You were literally star-struck.

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Neil: Star-struck. And on a level where even today I go to mountaintops, finest observing locations on Earth, and I sort of drink in the universe from there and I'd look up, but my first thought is, "This is so beautiful. It reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium." So that's a very urban perspective on the world,


because I was imprinted by a planetarium sky, so now the real sky to me is an imitation of the planetarium. So, that's the warp sense of where I'm coming from here. It was called to me. I remember having a distinct thought that maybe I don't want to become an astrophysicist because the universe is so interesting, everyone will want to become an astrophysicist and there'll be no room for me. That's how self-evident I thought it was that the universe would be calling—if it called to me that way, why isn't it calling to everyone?

I would be in high school before I'd realize, no, people just simply have different interests. But then I would nonetheless realize that even if you have a different interest, there's still a part of the universe that calls to you too. And that's why, you know, I live in New York City which is a major news gathering center of the world, and if the universe flinches in any way, I get a phone call. And I'm not twisting their arm saying, you must listen about the latest rocket launch or the James Webb space telescope, or I'm not forcing them to inquire. This is their own energy and initiative. And so in that sense, I'm a servant of the public's appetite and curiosity for the universe. And that's how I think about it.

Ilia: Yeah. Wow. That's a public servant. Yeah, I think that's really true. I love the way you describe the universe called you. You didn't seek the universe, the universe sought you. I really love that. Actually, the ancient, spoke of the universe as the first place to know what we're about. And even Christian writers talked about it as the first book of God, you know, don't make this...

Neil: The book of Nature.
Ilia: Exactly. Reading ourselves. Are we looking at ourselves when we look at the universe?

Or are we looking at something more than ourselves?

Neil: Well, I think the urge is to anthropomorphize the universe. And I think what we've learned from the methods and tools of science is that those steps, as strong as that urge may be, never really lead to any insights into anything. In other words, they don't help you make the next discovery. It may feel good thinking that way, because early evidence of this


is you look up at the night sky and there's a planet there and the constellations are there and my crops are blooming. "Oh, so the universe must know about my crops. Oh, so this universe knows about me.” And the whole point of this universe is for me, and I'm in the middle of it because it revolves around me. And this urge to put ourselves in the center of cosmic events knew no limits until the discoveries of science, where we became decentralized from any observations or even understandings of our place in the universe.

But by the way, as ego dismantling as that may be, it can also be ego building when we learn about the chemical elements. I remembered I asked my chemistry teacher in high school, where did the elements come from? On the table he said, "Well, we dig them out of the earth." But I'm thinking by then, I'm already thinking about the universe. And I say, that's an answer, but it can't be the answer. And I would later learn that these elements are forged in the cores of stars that exploded and scattered that enrichment across the galaxy and made subsequent generations of star systems, one of which was ours. So yes, we're not at the center of anything, not in time space, nothing. However, we share common atomic ingredients with the universe itself. And so if you want to gain a sense of belonging in the face of the sense of demotions, of your ego, there's nothing like learning that not only are we alive in this universe, the universe is alive within us. But you shouldn't think of that as centering on us. Instead, you should think of it as we are a participant in a great unfolding of cosmic events.

Ilia: The universe is so much more and it's probably, you know, we can learn so much more, and yet we have forgotten the heavens quite honestly. I think your experience as a boy looking up into the heavens and the stars, there was something about that wonder and the awesome. It's really awesome. It's truly awesome. Now we're all locked behind computer screens and they're somewhat awesome and wondrous. You know, we can reproduce the universe on a screen. But there is something about the actual experience, the physicality of cosmic life that I think sometimes we can lose in an AI world. I mean, where do you see artificial intelligence in the world—certainly we're becoming something more or


something other with artificial intelligence. How do you think that will play out in our cosmic life?

Neil: So there's a lot in that question. Let me go to the base of that question, which was, have we lost sight of the heavens? And that's been an ongoing slide ever since about a hundred years ago when we began to electrify the cities. The moment we had street lamps that were brighter than the tiny flame of an oil canister in the streets, the moment we electrified the cities, the night sky began to disappear from us. Not to the farmer, but as people gathered to the cities, because the way we live has changed over the past centuries. We're less agrarian by population and much more urban dwelling. And even if you're in the suburbs, the light pollution takes out your sky. So from the city, you might be able to see a few hundred stars in the night sky, the suburbs, I don't know, maybe a thousand stars—not 500 stars. Hundred stars in the city, 500 in the suburbs, thousands in rural settings.

But then there are places where you are far away from a city, but there's another city if you'll hit like in the northeast corridor that we call it. You go from Washington to Philadelphia to New York, to Boston, even though there are hundreds of miles between each other, the light spillage is total. It's total. So, nobody has a relationship with the night sky. Neither did I until I saw the night sky in the planetarium. Yeah, I knew the moon was up in a few planets. Sure. But you look up, you see a building and you look higher, it's like the night sky is fogged out. And when I grew up, there was also air pollution was rampant. And it's not just me; city dwellers have no relationship with the night sky. And it's a loss.

There are people, and I'm all for it, who want to declare the sky as a United Nations preserve. Something worth preserving, right? But you know, like a heritage. A human heritage. Because think of how much of our lore, how much of our storytelling, how much of our historical religions were anchored in the night sky. You look at Greek and Roman religions, their likeness is represented, if not by the shape of the constellations, but by the forces imbued into the planets themselves. All of this was a way, especially in an illiterate


time where you can pass stories from one generation to the next without having to know how to read or even open a book. So, this is a fundamental part of the history of our species.

And by the way, there's an organization that exists today. If you give them a moment, I'll remember their name, where they want to manage and limit the number of satellites we are launching into the sky because each satellite is a moving dot of light against the tapestry of the night sky. If the night sky becomes this sort of freeway of satellites, and we know they're helping us here on earth, the weather satellites and communication, we know that. But is there a way where we can still preserve some of that, so that when you come out and look up at the night sky, it doesn't look like a speedway as we launch these hundreds and thousands? So, that's my long answer to your question about have we lost sight of the heavens.

All this recent talk about AI intrigues me only because in my field, astrophysics, but science in general, especially the physical sciences, we have been in the company of powerful computers from the beginning. And every time a computer got smarter, we said, "Great, let it do what I don't want to do, or what I can't do, but what I haven't figured out how to do yet, let it do it. And I'll take us to the next level." So we've had neural net programming for decades in my field where computers are making discoveries. You train them on what to see, what not to see, what to pull out of the data and set it loose. And there it goes. Especially today where we are obtaining vastly more data that any human could ever compile. We can no longer do science without our computers.

So in the last couple of years, computers stepped across this line in the sand, and then now they're composing your turn page. So, the whole liberal arts world loses their shit over this, okay. It's like, oh my gosh, AI is taking over everything. We've had smart computers forever, okay. I could give a whole list, okay. And you know what drove a lot of the computers, was the military. How do you get a cruise missile to know where it's going? How does GPS guide military operations? Oh, by the way, they allow us to use it for


commerce, GPS. So, you can talk into this device called the smartphone saying, "Hey Siri, where is the nearest Starbucks, and I want to get there before it closes?" It figures this out and tells it back to you. Oh no, but you didn't call that AI, did you? Even though it's doing your thinking for you, and it's telling you where the shortest path is to grandma's house, because traffic just builds up on this street. Not a single human is involved in that decision. Oh, you're not calling that AI, are you? Computers beat us at chess, at the ancient Chinese game Go. It even beat us in Jeopardy. Did you call that AI? If you weren't scared then. Oh, it steps into the world of the liberal artists and they're freaking out. So what I'm saying is, there's no extra reason to freak out now than you ever had since computers have been running our lives and our society and our military and the moving frontier of modern science.

Ilia: Yeah, no, I'm completely with you actually.
Neil: I'm not screaming at you here, but you started this, you got me started on this.

Robert: Artificial intelligence has been part of our lives for far longer than many of its modern forms. But whether it is a light bulb, computer or GPS, where exactly does nature end and we begin? Is there a distinction at all? Next, Ilia and Neil discuss our techno sapien future.

Ilia: The truth is, we've been creating technology forever. Nature is techne. It's always been kind of able to craft things and do it probably, I don't know about, I'm a biologist more than I know anything about astrophysics, but I think nature is very crafty. It finds ways to take the elements and optimize life. It kind of likes life. I think our artificial intelligence is really not so much artificial. It's really sort of, we're extending our minds through devices and more electronic means. But it's still, we're interacting with these things in the same way we interacted. Like when they invented the printed book, that was a huge technology in the Middle ages. That was like so disruptive. And the whole idea was like, what's going to happen to us with this printed book. So anytime we cross these thresholds with a major technology, we get all bent out of shape because we tend to adapt to them, you know, and


then we kind of settle in like, gee, you know, we've always been this way. And of course we haven't always been this way.

Neil: But I would say the people who were developing the technology, they were not freaking out by it. It's everybody else where it just shows up on your doorstep.

Ilia: We're inventors, from our side, our religious side, we always say we're transcendent. There's always something more that we're always seeking to know more, to discover more. We're the more people, you know, the more species, and therefore, discovery, creativity, knowledge. That's really what gets us up in the morning. You know, it's not just getting to Starbucks, it's like finding a new Starbucks. It's like realizing that Starbucks now has robots that can do your coffee. So, it gets more and more exciting as we keep inventing. So I do want to come back to the question of artificial intelligence, but I also want to go back to your point on the lights, the artificial lights. I think I once read that with the invention of the electric light bulb and then the manifold nature of electricity, like everyone has electric light bulbs on, we sort of lost sight of natural light and the incredible beauty, not just the physics, but in a sense the wonder of light itself.

Again, back to the medievalist, Robert Grosseteste in the Middle ages spoke about light as the beginning of all life. You know, that life itself is like a light that began to radiate. And he meant physical life. He didn't mean that in a metaphysical sense. So we begin to mix the artificial with the natural, and we're coming to a point where we don't know anymore what's artificial and what's natural. And maybe it's all artificial or maybe it's all natural. I don't know, how you might stand on that, you know, position.

Neil: I have an unorthodox view of technology. And oh, by the way, there's the comedian Brian Malow, he noted that the light bulb was such a good idea. It became the symbol of a good idea.

Ilia: Right, yes.


Neil: I thought that was a brilliant, meta joke right there. Definitely true. I view everything we create as nature because we're a part of nature. You don't look at a beaver's dam and say, well, the dam is not nature, when the beaver made it with its teeth and hands and tail and ingenuity. The beaver is the symbol for many, for like MIT, their mascot is a beaver. In high respect for the engineering ability of this creature. So the fact that we make and build cities and create artificial ingredients or extend natural ingredients to make them stronger, better, faster, lighter, heavier, whatever is our need; I see cities as what humans do to thrive in nature. And I don't see a city as anything different from a beehive or like I said, or from a beaver's dam or from a rabbit warren or from a termite mound. It's just how we live. And we're using our minds, the termites use their mouth or whatever, the ants use their pinchers. They all got their tools or the attempts. They all have the parts of who and what they are to build what it is they need or desire, and that's what we are.

So this idea that there's natural light and artificial light is light. It's light. If it happens to come from the sun, I can duplicate sunlight, precisely. We can do that. You can buy sun balanced light for your plants. You can put your plants on a schedule that is not beholden to when the sun is above the horizon. This is a control of nature that I don't judge. I observe it. And in fact, I celebrate it, in the same way beavers are damning a river, completely changing the ecosystem for their own purpose. So, I'm not concerned that we have artificial light mixed in with natural light because we know what natural light is and we can duplicate it at any turn.

Ilia: So with that go for all information then, so would you agree that there's no artificial intelligence, that it's all intelligence, however that intelligence is mediated or processed? Would that be the same?

Neil: No, to me, it's just a machine that's replacing our brain power, which is a natural technological evolution from machines replacing our body power. When a machine could, or first we did on the backs of animals, farm animals, but then we got a machine to do it once we understood the physics of machines. So, that started replacing us from the very


beginning. Our technology rendered our body essentially obsolete. I don't have a problem with that because that meant our body could do other things. We didn't have to do the laborers that now were relegated to machines. In fact, the machines are better at it. You may be old enough, I know I'm old enough to remember that there was a real chance in the morning that your car would not start for some mysterious reason. That doesn't happen anymore.

In fact, it's laughable if you see it in a movie, you say, what are they doing? There's someone's getting chased and they run into the car and they try to start the car and the car won't start. The first thought of any modern born person is, "Oh, they ran out of gas." Not that the engine has problems. There was a day when engine problem was a completely legitimate reason for you to be on the side of the road with the hood of your car open looking inside. That basically doesn't happen anymore. Robots build your car, and they're way better at it then the human assembly line was. The quality control is better. The precision of the alignment of all the parts are better. So now we have computers replacing our brain power, I don't have a problem with that. I'll use my brain for other things.

Ilia: I agree. But do you think that there's anything unique about us as humans? Is there anything worth preserving? Is there any aspect of us that cannot be reproduced in a machine or that cannot be reduced to, you know, in a sense, a pragmatic thing? For example, the question of love or beauty. Now, we know Chat GPT can do artwork these days, can write beautiful poems, so is there anything about us that is worth preserving? Or should we just resign ourselves to our techno sapian evolution and we'll just kind of begin to merge more and more with our machines and eventually maybe the robots will take over. We'll marry robots and we'll have inter robotic children

Neil: Marry robots!
Ilia: Oh yeah, there's a book on that by the way.


Neil: Yeah. But just consider that that's not the direction robots are going in. When someone makes a humanoid robot, it's in the news, but that's not the direction. Those are novelties. It's just not the direction. So in the movie, iRobot, based on the Isaac Asimov novel where robots are like humanoid, a humanoid robot is not where AI is going today. The AI is taking on tasks that you don't want to take on. And the human form is not the ideal form for most tasks. You might imagine a day where you'd have a robot driving your car. No. Today we have cars that are robots. The self-driving car is the robot and it doesn't have hands and feet. It doesn't have a mouth and eyes. So movies, notwithstanding like, what's that one, Megan, with the toy? There's some scary storytelling out there about humanoid robots. No doubt about it. But my point here is, you asked about love. Well, are you mixing together love and art? You kind of did because you said the computers will compose poems that are beautiful. Sure. But if I feel loved, I'm feeling the love, not the computer. That's not going to go away. If I want to go to the Bahamas with a loved one, the computer's not going to do that for me. It'll help me get there and avoid traffic and make my perfect cup of coffee. Let it do that.

Ilia: Okay, great.
Neil: The computer is not going to be laying on the beach reading a novel, I will be.

Ilia: No, I appreciate that. Actually, you kind of answered the question then. And then you are saying that there is something then distinct about us that the computer will not entirely be placed -

Neil: No. You got it on. It's not that the computers replace. Okay, hold on. So, I have feelings, I have thoughts. The computer's not going to replace my feelings and my thoughts. It never will, because it's not me. It'll have its own thoughts. If it's true AI, it'll do, you said it in the corner, it'll think stuff up, fine, I don't have a problem with it. Let it think, and if it wants to write a poem or a sonnet, let it. If the sonic's better than Shakespeare, good, let it be—okay. But I'm going to the beach tomorrow, and I'm going to meet new people there, and my computer is not the one who's going to meet the new people. I'm


going to have a life experience that it's not going to have. So of course, there's value to your life now. There's less value to tasks that you were assigned because maybe the computer can do it faster and better than you.

Robert: This concludes our first episode with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Next week, I ask Neil what we can learn from the universe about how to treat each other. Be sure to listen. And if you'd like to dig deeper into today's conversation, consider supporting Hunger for Wholeness on Patreon, for listening notes from our team that delve more fully into the questions we ask here. We are in the final days of our June fundraiser at the Center for Christogenesis. If you enjoyed the podcast today, please consider donating at to help us continue producing high quality accessible programming like this podcast. We are looking forward to what we will accomplish, but we can only do so with your support. I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.