Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already all-pervasive in our daily lives. From social media algorithms, to medical equipment detecting heart conditions. But the ‘robots’ in our lives look very different from the robots imagined in science fiction: they look like servers hidden away in secure buildings, and for most of us they look like our computer screen. But it is clear that they are not something of the future—they are already here.
Last week I was one of a panel of three on national Irish radio (RTE 1) discussing the challenge of Artificial Intelligence on their weekly programme Leap of Faith. The link to the broadcast can be found below. It was both a little daunting but also a privilege to be able to engage with others who were expert in their field.
Some of the key themes emerging for me included:
The way that AI often imitates the phenomena of human intelligence, rather than human intelligence as such. It is all to easy to think that, because systems mimic what humans do, they are somehow becoming human. Christian theology will also resist the reduction of human life to the phenomena that make that life up.
AI and other technological enhancements are predicated on the idea that creaturely finitude (our human limitations) are only problems to be overcome, and that human happiness consists in overcoming them. Christian theology believes that fulfilment can be found within our limitations as creatures.
Many people will look to the theological idea of the human soul, but in fact Christian theology has always gone further than that to understand human life as embodied—we are ‘psychosomatic unities’, body-soul creatures whose inner life cannot be separated from our outer, bodily life.
Moral and ethical reflection is always needed, since AI never deploys itself, but is always deployed by humans with particular ends in mind. AI might not be developed with the idea of harm in mind, but we humans who deploy it are lazy, selfish and greedy, and that will always shape how AI is actually used in society. Often the questions around AI come back to the three issues of money, sex and power, but just in a technological expression.
The universal effect of technological development is the removal of barriers and inhibitions to human agency—the elimination of ‘friction’. The key question is: which human activities would we like to make easier, and for which human activities is it good that there is difficulty and resistance?
A key ethical conviction proposed around the use of AI is that the humans affected should always be the ends or goal of the technology, and not merely the means used to reach another goal. Unless you think that (for example) Facebook was developed with the purely altruistic goal of improving human relationships, then it is clear that that ethical test was failed a long time ago.
Here is the blurb for the programme:
On the Leap of Faith this week, Artifical Intelligence is considered by some as the greatest threat to religion since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species. On tonight’s programme, as robots and AI enter our homes and our lives we explore the ethics that govern their interactions with us and how the human creation of such intelligence fits into theology.
The guests on tonight’s programme are Rev Dr Ian Paul, Theologian, author and a member of the Church of England’s general synod; Professor Barry O’Sullivan University College Cork and President of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence; and Dr Mary Aiken, Cyberpsychologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at UCD.
You can listen to the programme by clicking through from this page. (You will need to enable pop-up windows and use of Adobe Flash on your browser.)
Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!
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