Artificial De-Intelligence

“Come with me if you want to live.” A famous line from one of my favorite franchises growing up. Terminator brought the fear of artificial intelligence taking over the world into the mainstream. It became so ubiquitous with the thought that even broaching the topic will bring the obligatory “Skynet!” response. If you have followed any media in recent years, you have likely seen a few stories [1][1][1] Check out Elon Musk, Steven Hawking, and Bill Gates on the topic or for a funnier take look at Flight of the Conchords take; warning there are some curse words in that last one about popular science and tech minds decrying the danger of artificial intelligence. Recently I watched a video that has me thinking about completely unintentional consequences when it comes to AI which may be more scary and no one is talking about them.

The video I watched was talking about how the popular app Face App works. If you haven’t heard of this app, you have still likely seen the results. This is the app that ages a picture of you so you can post it on social media and have a good laugh. The app works using an AI the developers built and trained on human facial aging by feeding it with thousands of images of elderly humans. The AI scanned these images and found patterns to how wrinkles develop and how to map them on to a new face. As much as I heard about Face App in the days before I watched this video, I never once heard a news story mention AI.

Once I realized how AI was the underpinning of this goofy app I began to think about how many other apps I use rely on artificial intelligence. Google, Facebook, calendar apps, word processing programs, email apps and many more use AI to create a more convenient and simple user experience. I now realize that AI is a force underlying modern society like an ocean current you can’t see from the surface. In many of our science fiction depictions of the future, this kind of passive AI is imagined to grow.

How will this artificial intelligence impact humanity and what does it have to do with ministry? I think I have already begun to experience the effects of this kind of AI. As my life has grown more complex, I have relied more and more on AI to help me out. One result of this reliance I have felt is on my memory. If I don’t use Siri to remind me of something, I just won’t remember it. Shane Hipps talks about how the technology of the past has already had deep impacts on what it means to be human in his book Flickering Pixels. He argues that every technological invention has deeply impacted how humans perceive the world and interact with each other. As an example he references the invention of the printing press: Not only did it pave the way for the Protestant Reformation by bringing a study of Paul’s letters back to the people, but it also made each person much more individualistic as they had the power of information at their fingertips.

As a Pastor in the 21st century, I can see artificial intelligence drastically changing the way we interact with our world and one another. This does not mean that we will have an all knowing computer launch a war of genocide against the human race, but that we may all lose some part of what it means to be human when we allow machines to accomplish the mundane tasks of life for us. How will our memories hold up? What will the impact be on our creativity if we are not flexing our brain on simple tasks? I don’t like the changes I already see in myself—but maybe that is because I am stuck in the transition rather than being raised in the age of AI. After all, I don’t complain about not being able to remember long passages of oral tradition like those before the printing press often did.

I think this is an interesting topic for Christians to ponder. How can we both recognize the change to humanity this new technological revolution will bring and provide ways to protect humanity against those “unintentional consequences” which might come along with it? I would love to hear your comments down below.

 

Footnotes

[1] Check out Elon Musk, Steven Hawking, and Bill Gates on the topic or for a funnier take look at Flight of the Conchords take; warning there are some curse words in that last one

2 thoughts on “Artificial De-Intelligence

  1. There’s a fascinating application of this in the design world, summed up with a term coined by James Bridle: the New Aesthetic. It describes the “unintentional consequences” of the visual language of digital technology, bleeding over into the physical world—but is best explained through the examples he collects on his blog.

    Bridle never presents a moral position on the consequences and acts purely as an impartial anthropologist collecting these artifacts. You ask “how do we recognize the change” and I think this is the all-important first step: by bringing these effects into the foreground, we can have a better understanding of causes lurking in the background.

    And how does this impact Christianity (or any religion in general?) There’s a perception of religion as being the Luddite that has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the new technological age. Do we run the risk of falling behind and creating a gap so wide there’s no possibility of ever closing it?

    We have ad-tracking scripts that are designed to influence our shopping habits, YouTube algorithms designed to keep your attention that unintentionally influence our political allegiance (and even drive some to extremism)—so are there right now in our digital lives, programmatic forces working that are shaping our religious beliefs?

    As for how we’d “protect against” this, as you ask, I can offer a practical example: Reddit as a whole can have a sort of “hive-mind”—because of Reddit’s voting system that determines the popularity (and therefore visibility) of content, any opinion that contradicts the norm ends up buried, and already commonly-held beliefs have a feedback loop growing in popularity. Reddit has their own artificial intelligence algorithm that determines what the “best” content is (how the site by default presents content) will give any new user the perception that the community is overall very atheist. That is until a subreddit /r/dankchristianmemes was created by a Reddit user. The subreddit exists to share images “that infuse the teachings of Christianity, Jesus and The Bible into pre-existing templates of popular memes.” (Know Your Meme) The humorous and almost self-deprecating approach fit in with the overall Reddit community and allowed the content to flourish within Reddit’s AI content algorithms—and have even since spread to other social media platforms. It took someone understanding the new visual language of digital technology to create space for Christianity fit.

    1. You hit on something huge in your last observation, “It took someone understanding the new visual language of digital technology to create space for Christianity fit.” I think my intention in even writing this blog was to ponder something that is still “future” rather than reacting to something that is already the “norm” in popular culture. My observations about AI may already be more bygone than I realize but my attempt is to get us to think about what is to come and both the opportunities and challenges we may face because of those things.

      Can the Church use AI for the gospel? I think that we are already asking this when we use automated processes to help us communicate to our congregation. On this site, if you sign up for my Newsletter you will get a weekly aggregate of the blogs I post in an email form. I don’t do anything to make this happen, it is led by automated processes. This is not quite AI but I can see a very near future when we can use AI to more thoughtfully aggregate content for communication to our communities. I can also see a time where AI assistants are so good they help pastors focus less on administrative tasks and more on discipleship and pastoral care.

      The challenge lays mostly in being aware of how technology has already served to isolate us and leave us starving for human interaction without even knowing it. We have epidemics of depression, anxiety, suicides, and drug overdoses. Many of the researchers trying to figure out what is going on admit that social media seems to play into the equation.

      I am still pondering the implications of the future of AI and humanity. What are some of the opportunities you can foresee and what are some of the challenges. I’d love some more conversation partners to think it through.

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