The Challenge of AI

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To listen to today’s reflection as a podcast, click here
Automation isn’t just the wave of the future.  It’s already here.   
Extraordinary machines assemble our pickup trucks, sweep our floors, and will soon be driving us around in autonomous vehicles. 
Now there’s even a robotic, self-cleaning kitty litter box.  As someone who shares life with six cats (four in the barn, two in the house), I consider this a landmark moment in human progress.
But what about artificial intelligence-based software programs that are designed to gather, collate, and report information faster and more efficiently than any person who has ever lived?  Is AI on the verge of eliminating human productivity?   
Last spring I decided to see if AI was up to the task of writing reflections.    
I enlisted ChatGPT, a program pioneered by the research organization OpenAI, to compose a devotional based on a single verse of Scripture: I Timothy 3:16.  I instructed the program to include relevant quotes by John Calvin, Billy Graham, and Yogi Berra.  That should make things interesting, I thought.     
I hit the Start button.  My screen was immediately populated with sentences.  The entire composition was delivered within 45 seconds.  Wow. 
The exegetical comments on the verse, to be honest, weren’t particularly insightful.  I thought the Calvin and Graham quotes were useful.  And Yogi?  Here’s how ChatGPT wrapped things up: “Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player and coach once said, ‘If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.’  Berra’s words may seem out of place in a discussion of this verse, but they remind us that we need to have a clear sense of direction in our lives. We need to know where we are going and what we are aiming for, so that we can follow the path that God has set for us.”
Not bad for 45 seconds. 
Nevertheless, my brief encounter with the future wasn’t nearly as eye-popping as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s experience last year with Craig Mundie, the former chief research and strategy officer for Microsoft.  Mundie provided a demonstration of GPT-4, a highly advanced version of ChatGPT. 
“You need to understand,” Craig warned Friedman, “this is going to change everything about how we do everything… It is qualitatively different – and it will be transformational.”
Since Mundie was about to make a presentation to the board of Planet Word, an innovative museum of human language in Washington D.C., he asked GPT-4 to summarize the mission of Planet Word in exactly 400 words. 
Done.  In just seconds.  Then he requested a summary in 200 words.  Then in Arabic.  Then in Mandarin Chinese.  Then back to English again, but this time in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.  Each task was completed in about two seconds.
Mundie then asked the program to summarize Planet Word’s mission in abecedarian verse – that is, 26 total lines, where the first one starts with the letter A, the second with B, and so forth, all the way through the alphabet.  Here’s the stunningly creative composition that appeared on the screen almost before Friedman could blink his eyes:
Alluring in Washington, is a museum so grand,
Built to teach, inspire, and help us understand.
Curious minds Planet flock to Word’s embrace,
Delving into language and its intricate grace
Every exhibit here has a story to tell,
From the origins of speech to the art of the quill.

And all the way to Z…
Now that’s impressive.  And not a little frightening. 
Are we ready for a technology that can run circles around human capacities – that genuinely seems powerful enough to change everything about everything we do? 
The evangelists of artificial intelligence promote it as humanity’s ultimate servant.  Imagine what might be accomplished through human-machine partnerships in the realms of scientific research, medical diagnosis, technological innovation, and strategic problem-solving.  Shouldn’t we unleash “super-intelligences” to work on complex matters like climate change?
But other scientists and innovators are leery of AI’s startling power.  What if our servant decides to become our master? 
Is it possible that a super-intelligence, for instance, might come to the conclusion that life would be a whole lot easier if human beings – with our sloppy emotions and lousy track records of impulse-control –  were simply pushed aside?
A few years ago, Time magazine’s culture writer Lev Grossman called the idea of a robot uprising “one of our most enduring nightmares.”  When DARPA – the high-tech arm of the U.S. Department of Defense – revealed its desire to build robots that can do things that are unsafe for humans, like defusing bombs, Grossman pointed out, with mock panic, this is how it always starts in the movies
Then there’s physicist Stephen Hawking, who told the BBC shortly before his death: “The development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger, Will Robinson!
When it comes to machine-human interfaces and artificial intelligence, two issues are front and center at the present moment. 
The first is this important question: What does it mean to be human? 
Many scientists – but certainly not all – subscribe to the view that human beings are highly evolved biological entities.  We are complex machines composed of living tissues.  In the words of biologist Francis Crick, “You are nothing but a pack of neurons.”  Those two words, “nothing but,” should fill us with terror.  According to Crick and like-minded colleagues, there is no You.  Consciousness, free will, and imagination are simply momentary states of brain cell agitation.  When your brain is gone, you are gone.  Forever.
According to this view, a bot with advanced AI can equal and surpass any human being, since humans are likewise nothing but machines.
Those who subscribe to belief in a Creator see things differently.  Human beings are, as Genesis 1 asserts, made in God’s image.  Consciousness is not an “emergent property” from cellular tissues (and therefore just an illusion), but primary evidence that we have been made to know God and be known by God. 
Even the most committed materialists find it difficult to explain fundamental aspects of our common experience – like love, compassion, hope, courage, and the yearning for justice.  All of us live as if we are persons, not machines. 
The second AI-related issue before us concerns the current speed of technological advance.
How in the world can we possibly make wise decisions about the future when progress in automation is outstripping our ability to engage in careful, essential ethical conversations? 
Here we might recall Ian Malcom, one of the characters in Jurassic Park, who says to John Hammond, the entrepreneur who has created a theme park swarming with live dinosaurs: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” 
There’s a huge difference between what is possible and what is wise.  It’s urgent for thoughtful people of all persuasions to wrestle with the future of artificial intelligence. 
Is there a Robotapocalypse just around the corner?  There’s no evidence for such a thing, despite what Hollywood tells us.  But followers of Jesus have come to know something else from experience:  Whenever we look for security or happiness or progress via things that are Not God, our creations will betray us.  Our idols always turn on us.
As an AI-based program recently reminded me, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
Yogi Berra never spoke a truer word.