The Human and the Machine

There has not been enough philosophical, much less theological, reflection on the implications of Artificial Intelligence. We have mostly asked where the boundaries of development should be, with the assumption that we are in charge. Sometimes authors delve into about the legitimately worrisome questions of whether and how soon it will advance in ways we do not approve, and how much of human work (with the dignity it brings) it will destroy.  There is usually the concomitant problem that humanities types like me don’t  know much about technology’s ‘nuts and bolts’ (which no longer exist!). 

The real purpose of philosophical and theological interrogation is surely to get at the latent assumptions and implications of this momentous development, the ‘big picture’, as it were.  One such assumption  is the extent to which AI is inherently gnostic, by which I mean already assuming that we ourselves are intelligences with bodies attached, which is to say, proto-computers!  Another is whether the tendency of social media to find success by moving, as one recent lecture argued, ‘down the brain stem’ (i.e. succeeding by appealing to yet more base human instincts, anger, lust, lying, etc.) will simply be accelerated dramatically in AI. (At the same time we must admit that jaw-dropping advances for good, e.g. new medicines, would follow).  Pushing these meta-questions are what philosophers, and theologians, have to offer.

In this regard, I want to offer what amounts to a ‘book report’ on an article to which my friend Victor Austin drew my attention.  Stephen Bishop, an Episcopalian, teaches ethics at St. Louis University.  In his article entitled ‘What is the Human that AI Should be Mindful of Him?’  Bishop challenges a common assumption that the human is the master and technology his tool. He traces this assumption back to the very roots of Western philosophy.  The key issue has to do with anthropology, that is, the question ‘what is a human being?’ In answer Bishop says that.  we are creatures who create culture, which in turn influences us. The human and his or her world are at their root an interaction.  This includes our technology, not least writing in an earlier Bishop compares the human being to the spider, who spins a web from his own body; the web in turn empowers his sensation and procures his food. The human forms and is formed by what it creates.  This insight comports with other things we can readily see, namely the way writing, and then printing, set parameters for what and how we know.

In the most telling section, entitle ‘off-loading moral and intellectual habits,’ Bishop uses this idea of technology as an extension of ourselves which comes to circumscribe out activity, only this time the activities ‘off loaded’ have to do with prudent judgment, inter-personal contact, etc. what is off-loaded may be our humanity, features of which are implied in the creation and so freighted with theological significance.  The implications being occluded from our eyes is no excuse, since we can already see the harbinger in social media.  Nor has the way to evade this outcome yet become clear to us. But a genuine understanding of our own nature, and so what is at risk, are a good start.



Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.