One Impact of Artificial Intelligence No One Accounted For

One of Yuval Harari’s contentions is that many people researching into AI do not concern themselves with consciousness for the simple reason that their AI systems are allowing them to create intelligence (simulated) that is not conscious – and that is sufficient for their purposes.

It is easy to get some idea of what this means. Suppose I take a taxi journey from the train station to a meeting in Oxford. The taxi driver is conscious – otherwise the journey is rapidly going to run into serious trouble. But if I undertake the journey in an autonomous vehicle, the taxi driver is superfluous. All I need to achieve my goal is an AI system that “knows” the route and can guide the car along it, but there is no need for a conscious driver at any stage.

Or suppose I need heart surgery. The last surgeon I experienced was a conscious human being; the next, should I need it, may well be a non-conscious robotic AI system.

Genesis tells us that when God created humans in his image, he linked intelligence and consciousness together in one being, for he is himself like that – a conscious intelligent being. However, God, who is Spirit, links consciousness and intelligence together in a non-material being. The fact that God is Spirit shows that neither consciousness nor intelligence necessarily depend on a material substrate – another reason to think that humans will never be able to make a conscious material machine.

Humans were assigned work

Genesis 2:15 informs us that God gave work, in a garden, as part of the human raison d’être before sin entered into the world. That is why people who try but do not succeed in finding work often feel deprived and unwanted. Yet, work, though very important, is not all of life as it was essentially thought to be in the Communist concept of a “worker state.”

However, what is happening now is that, as suggested above, by decoupling intelligence from consciousness, AI would seem to be pushing us in the opposite direction to a situation where work becomes a smaller and smaller part of human activity. Even if Ray Kurzweil is overly optimistic in saying that most human tasks will be taken over by robots by 2030, we need to think about what even a partial AI/robot takeover would look like in light of the biblical view that work is part of our God-given significance as human beings.

Yuval Harari writes: “In the twenty-first century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This ‘useless class’ will not be merely unemployed – it will be unemployable.”

Digital assistants, robots, and the like can be regarded as slaves, and the world already experienced a slave economy where the very few were served by the many. That very few did little work, and when society collapsed, having forgotten how to work, they had no idea how to rebuild. Some suggest it was for that reason that the Roman Empire eventually collapsed.

The concept of a “useless class” is chilling and dehumanising. The New Testament advice for believers is: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). It does not, however, say, if anyone does not work, let him not eat. It is almost as if Paul envisaged the possibility of unemployment. If certain AGI pundits are right, the prospect of future techno-unemployment is worse than grim.

In chapter 5, we gave some idea of the projected time-scale of job erosion in the survey by the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. It is obvious that there is an urgent need to create many new jobs, and if they are not to disappear too rapidly, they will have to be jobs that humans can do better than algorithms. This will mean that many, if not most, people will have to keep learning throughout life, a prospect that many will find either daunting or simply impossible.

The techno-optimists hope that even if such people cannot be employed, there will be enough financial surplus from the new technology that they will be fed, housed, and supported throughout life. But who will be paying for the new technological services – certainly not people who have no work? Where will the financial surplus come from? Such techno-optimism seems extremely naive! The extreme techno-pessimist view is, as Nick Bostrom warns, that humans will not in fact reach the final stage of unemployability, as an ascendant AI may well simply exterminate them.

Yet according to Scripture, work is an important ingredient in human flourishing. How can those of us who are convinced of that fact communicate and maintain it in the face of a technological invasion of the workplace? Is our stark choice really between learning to work with robots or being replaced by them? Once AI masters the art of horticulture, will there be a job for Adam?

The problem is huge, and it starts not with retraining those that have already been employed, but with the basic education of children. The World Economic Forum reports:

The jobs of the future will require students to have strong cognitive skills in mathematics and literacy, as well as soft skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking, to enable them to adapt to a quickly changing environment. However, millions of children are not gaining these skillsets, either because they never started school, they have dropped out of school, or their school does not offer a quality education.

It would appear that 617 million children and adolescents fall below an acceptable standard in reading and mathematics. The tragedy here is that this represents an immense waste of talent and leads to severely reduced potential to escape long-term poverty.

It is a sobering thought that AI may leave millions of children far behind, totally unable to compete with the more privileged.

Humans have the faculty of language

God instructed man to name the animals in Genesis 2:19–20. The thought that an AI system might be able to name objects does not sound completely far-fetched since, at the basic level, a name is to a large extent an arbitrary sound attached to the object and then written down. Human capacities, however, go way beyond naming things.

Theologian Keith Ward wrote: “There are here three distinctive capacities of the human person, unique among all organisms on Earth, so far as we can tell – the capacity to be sensitive to and appreciative of information received, to be creative in responding to it, and to learn and develop such capacities in relation to other persons in specific historical contexts. Human persons receive information, interpret it, and transmit it in a fully semantic way.”

This would seem to be in a completely different category from the information-processing ability of computers or the image recognition of AI.

Yet AI systems are already beginning to invade the world of the artist, musician, and writer. At the time of writing (2018), one of the first AI artistic compositions is about to be auctioned at Christie’s. David Cope, former music professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz, who writes about AI and music, has developed impressive computer programs to create classical music in the style of any given composer. Audience response has shown that Cope’s music is indistinguishable from Bach, for example.

Cope has developed an even more sophisticated machine learning system called “Annie” that not only writes music but also various kinds of poetry. This is slightly misleading since what such a system produces is generated by Cope plus AI, not by AI alone. As Paul Ford, who attempted to write an article using machine learning, has said: “At least for now computers need people as much as we need them.” The reason is clear: all of these things are being done by unconscious machines that are, in turn, being guided by conscious humans.

God created the man/woman relationship

The Genesis 2 account raises the question of a suitable companion for man. Animals have been human companions from time immemorial, and with advances in medicine resulting in ageing populations, the need for companionship is at an all-time high. That need is being increasingly supplied by lifelike companion robots, and it is spawning a huge industry, particularly in countries like Japan. At the other end of the age scale, robotic ducks have been developed to help children with cancer. Also, healthcare robots that combine AI with voice technology are being developed that will, for instance, remind people to take their medicines at the right time.

However, the biblical account indicates that like-for-like companionship cannot be supplied by a subhuman animal, since there is a category difference between humans and animals – as indicated by the information gap on Day 6 of the creation narrative.

According to the Genesis account, woman, the biblical counterpart of man, is built from man by God. What implications does this have for the way we understand the nature of human- to-human relationships as distinct from interactions with companion robots, robotic pets, robotic house helps, and even life-size robotic dolls? Will they, for instance, even enhanced by AI, one day be capable of responding to the complex blend of emotional, social, cultural, and physical needs of people in a way that satisfies the human need for understanding and compassion? Margaret Boden points out that other human beings, of course, don’t always provide these things either. Yet she goes on to say:

In a nutshell, over-reliance on computer “carers,” none of which can really care, would be a betrayal of the user’s human dignity . . . In the early days of AI, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum made himself very unpopular with his MIT colleagues by saying as much. “To substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding, and love,” he insisted in 1976, is “simply obscene.”

Boden also issues a warning: “The users and designers of AI systems – and of a future society in which AI is rampant – should remember the fundamental difference between human and artificial intelligence: one cares, the other does not.” 

John Lennox

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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