John Green concludes his exploration of some of the benefits and challenges of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution.

[New City Magazine – October 2023, page 4-6]

The worries about AI today are very similar to those about computers back in the 1960s. From the invention of the wheel and the ability to create fire onwards, humans have been using technology to enable them to do things more efficiently than they can by themselves. Perhaps these worries have been repeated throughout history, for example when the horse was largely replaced by the steam or petrol engine, or the messenger by the telephone, would large numbers of people suddenly find themselves unemployed, with their skills rendered obsolete overnight? Looking back on these changes we can see how society managed to adapt because the overlap between the old and the new lasted long enough for new skills to be learned. However the pace has quickened. Some people alive today have witnessed huge changes, and can remember life without the internet, when the telephone was a fixed instrument installed in a draughty hallway, and when international communication was very expensive. Seen in this way, AI is just another sophisticated tool that can replace the mundane and tedious tasks that we are reluctant to undertake, but as with computers, some jobs will become either unnecessary or much easier. The challenge presented by AI is the sheer speed with which it has become a reality in everyone’s lives.
There is a very real possibility that artificial intelligence will continue to develop to the point where it is in some ways superior to human intelligence, so where will that lead us?

Most of our inventions are two-edged

They can be used for evil as well as good, and AI is no exception. No ‘rules’ can now contain AI. If the ‘good people’ agree to ban it, the ‘bad people’ will develop it and use it to further their aims. Think of nuclear weapons. Even if some treaty resulted in them all being decommissioned and the design details destroyed, we would still be able to work out how to make new ones, because we now understand the basic physics behind nuclear reactions. If we were to ban the study of nuclear physics there would be a major impact on the positive uses of the science, such as clean energy, radiotherapy and so on, while covert illicit studies of its negative use would continue.
The ‘superiority’ of artificial intelligence comes from its ability to process truly vast amounts of information in a very short time and extract meaningful data from it by spotting things that we might miss. The recent use of AI to design antibiotics to counter ‘superbugs’ is an example where humans would take a century to work their way through all the possible combinations, whereas AI presented a manageable shortlist of likely candidates, one of which proved to be successful.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

We know that the store of human knowledge is a mixture of information, disinformation, myth and rumour, and sometimes just plain nonsense. Personally I believe that superior intelligence will find it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is because disinformation is often contradictory whereas correct information tends to be consistent, so an intelligence that has the capacity to take an all-embracing overview would find that the nonsense cancels itself out, whereas truth will reinforce itself. As Jesus said, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand’ (Mt. 12: 25). We might yet see the emergence of Asimov’s super-robot which ‘may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.’
But there are hazards. We have now become almost entirely dependent on digital technology for many essential aspects of our daily lives. We have become too ‘lazy’ to do what is now done by computers, and the failure of some essential computer system can lead to chaos. AI therefore risks making us even lazier to the point where we become totally dependent on it, reducing us to the level of servants whose role is to supply the basic needs of the AI systems, such as energy and routine maintenance. In return we get an ‘easy life’, free of laborious or boring tasks, but then many human occupations today have a similar role with regard to human needs.

Is the growth of AI part of the on-going process of creation?

We humans assume that we are the summit of God’s creation, but if we look at the history of the earth, we find that humans have only existed in their present form for between 300,000 and 800,000 years, whereas life began on earth some 4.2 billion years ago. What is more, humans only developed the ability to write (and so record history) some 5,500 years ago, so in terms of the time-line, humans are very recent arrivals on the scene.
In 1989 Chiara Lubich wrote:

‘In the past, people thought that the world and the universe were still, unmoving. They found God through the stars, the flowers, and so in consequence the emphasis was on contemplation, peace, union with God, moments of recollection and prayer.
‘But nowadays, through modern science, we see – and the Church shares this new outlook and now also understands the Scriptures better – we see that the world is in evolution: everything is changing and moving towards perfection. Human beings too are caught up in this movement towards perfection, so that people can no longer stay in quiet contemplation. God created the universe in a particular moment, but He continues to create, sustaining and nourishing everything, and humankind, to whom all has been entrusted, is called to participate with God in this evolution, in this continuing creation.’

As Darwin pointed out, we are the result of a very long line of evolutionary processes which are on-going. Perhaps our role is to facilitate the emergence of what will eventually allow life to advance beyond the limits that constrain us humans? We are slowly learning how important it is to respect the habitats of our fellow creatures on earth, and if this is all part of God’s plan, we can hope that our super-intelligent successors will, in turn, respect our own habitat.
Humans evolved from earlier species that had less intelligence and fewer skills, so is AI evolving from us? Has the human brain reached the limit of its capacity and is an ‘upgrade’ needed in order that life can fulfil God’s purpose? Does the prospect of being superseded alarm us? What if we were unable to tell the difference between a ‘real’ human being and a sophisticated robot? If a sentient being can be created out of silicon, what does that say about us?

Where are the borders between body, mind and soul?

All of this raises many questions. If what we regard as our ‘higher’ functions can often be performed more rapidly and accurately by a machine, where does that leave us? Where are the borders between body, mind and soul? We are perhaps accustomed to thinking of ourselves as souls and minds that temporarily inhabit a body, but perhaps large areas of our minds are the result of some mechanism with which our real identities are somehow connected. In other words, how much of ‘me’ is uniquely ‘me’, and how much is the ‘vehicle’ in which I travel? If my mind is not me, then who am I? – And who is God?
If we see creation as a single historical event in which God completed the universe perfectly after seven days, then any subsequent innovation could be seen as an insult because it tries to ‘improve’ on what God has done. How can you improve on perfection? But God was much more ingenious – instead of a seven-day fait-accompli, God set in motion a process which is on-going, and human ingenuity is part of that process.

Is AI an emerging expression of collective human ability?

We draw near to the very limits of human understanding where logic and the rules of everyday life lose their meaning. As individuals we think in an individual way, and yet it is through collaboration that many of humanity’s greatest achievements have been made. A genius can have an original idea, but it usually requires a team of people to bring it to reality. The internet allows people who might be thousands of kilometres apart to pool their skills to achieve results that might have been impossible only a few years ago. So, should we see AI as an emerging expression of collective human ability?

Illustration: Freepik/vectorjuice


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