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Our Machine Masters

I confess up front that the title for this inspirational reflection is stolen from a recent article by David Brooks who uses the same title.  I am a regular reader of Brooks, not because I agree with everything he says, but because every thing he says is so thoughtful and insightful.  He takes on big, important issues and deals with them in a way that I have to take seriously.  In this article Brooks focuses on artificial intelligence.           

I confess, too, that I know virtually nothing about artificial intelligence.  Rather than take pride in my ignorance, I am worried about it.  I know that ignorance is seldom good---especially for the one who does not know.  And that is precisely the point of Brooks’ trenchant treatment of the topic.  I figure if I am ignorant, at least I ought to know of what I am ignorant!  What are the issues?           

Early on Brooks quotes technology writer, Kevin Kelly.  Kelly “argues that the age of artificial intelligence is finally at hand.”  Then Brooks adds another line that is deep, but troubling.  Kelly says, “Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize,”  Let me unpack this a bit.  We have electrified so much stuff in our lives.  If you have a garage door opener in your car, that is electrified.  Everything on your computer is electrified.  And the list goes on.  We use this electrified stuff to think about and use to our advantage.           

But Kelly points to another step.  Now you are being bypassed.  The computer not only stores (electrifies) knowledge.  It begins to cognitize that material.  To cognitize is to think.  In fact, the computer has advanced to the state that it often can out-think humans.  Humans lose chess matches to artificial intelligence.  Computers figure out which music you like, which stuff in the grocery you buy, etc.  What we once assumed was the human domain (thinking and reason) is now being co-opted by computers who cognitize!           

Now Brooks steps into the equation.  “Two big implications flow from this. The first is sociological. If knowledge is power, we’re about to see an even greater concentration of power.”  Brooks says that the power will be centralized in a few big companies—think Google or Amazon.  And then he offers a sober warning.  “If you think this power will be used for entirely benign ends, then you have not read enough history.”           

“The second implication is philosophical,” says Brooks.  “A.I. (artificial intelligence) will redefine what it means to be human.”  We may be beaten at the intelligence game, but Brooks says we can win at the game of affection, intuition, imagination, and morality.  There will be the defining hallmarks of our humanity.  Our human advantage will be “personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate.”           

I like this list because it reminds me of the kind of spiritual characteristics I think are central to being human.  To be fully human means to be spiritual.  Just look again at the four faculties Brooks enumerates.  We can be likeable.  For me likeable could be the basic step toward loving.  Likeable is foundational to peacemaking.  If people can become more likeable, there will not be enemies.           

Industrious is the trait describing people who are willing to work and to be disciplined in that process.  Industriousness eradicates laziness.  Artificial intelligence will not replace the need to work.  It should eliminate much of the drudgery of some work.           

Trustworthy is a huge human advantage---or disadvantage if it is missing.  Trust goes to the heart of human interaction and relationship.  Artificial intelligence can electronically hook up with other computers.  But that’s different from developing trust.  I know trust is simply another word for faith.  You cannot electrify faith and automatically produce trust.  And that easily leads to affection and being affectionate.           

Who wants to hold hands with a computer!  I doubt that God is computer-like, although God’s work in the world might seem a bit that way.  The Biblical tradition holds that God is love and I am still good with that basic definition.  God is love and therefore capable of being affectionate.  And God is trustworthy.  No doubt God is industrious---six days on the job and one day called Sabbath.           

And God is certainly likeable.  God is always for me and for you.  What’s not to like about that?  If I can be clear about all this, then I don’t ultimately worry about being mastered by machines.  I know artificial intelligence will become more prominent---whether I understand anything about it or not.  But I am a child of God and not the computer’s offspring.  I am created in the image of God---thank God!

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