December 13, 2017

Marilyn Rodrigues: Keep your eye on AI for your kids’ sake

Elon Musk (left) speaks with Enda Kenny at The Summit 2013 in Dublin, Ireland. Source: Heisenberg Media/Wikimedia Commons

Elon Musk, the guy partly responsible for bringing online commerce, electric cars, and private space-flights to the world, was in Australia recently. I wouldn’t normally notice, but for an apparently successful and erudite business leader he has been so over-the-top in his warnings about the potential for new forms of artificial intelligence (AI) to out-think and destroy the human race that his message finally cut through and I had a look into it.

Now the issue’s on my radar, and should be on yours too. And I know there is so much going on that we need to care about, but honestly, this could sneak up on us and send the other important concerns about raising our kids into hyper-drive. We need to keep an eye on it while devoting ourselves to what Jesus said is ‘the one thing necessary’.

Musk has been criticised for his Chicken Little routine, but he generally responds by saying he knows more about AI’s capacity for evil than his critics do, which is probably true, since he’s also the co-founder of two AI research companies.

Call me cynical but it doesn’t surprise me that someone so dire on the potential dangers of AI happens to be also working on a radical solution: to maintain human control over AI forms by merging our brains with ‘theirs’, possibly via an implant or ‘neural lace’.

It sounds too Hollywood to be serious, but after learning a bit about the very serious race to develop cyber-humans through what’s called a brain-machine interface (BMI), I’ve lost some sleep as well.

A brain-controlled, prosthetic arm. Source: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons

The proposed solution ultimately hoped for – Human 2.0 basically – is arguably scarier than the supposed problem.

Even the ABC presenter Stan Grant has been musing about whether this momentum-gathering research direction is a sign that we’re approaching the stickiest time in the history of the human race.

According to his biography by Ashlee Vance, Musk’s ultimate mission in life is to “strive for greater collective enlightenment”.

Michael Cook, the editor of MercatorNet, has already deftly outlined the roots of the efforts to create a human/computer hybrid in a transhumanist view of life.

An essentially atheistic view, transhumanism arises from the desire to liberate oneself from the difficult aspects of the human condition – including disease, disability, and death.

Look into it and see if you agree that some attempts at BMI technology are reticent of the Tower of Babel story, unfolding in our times; a new version of that old dream to corral the human race (or a portion of it) into an effort to pierce the heavens and become like God – on our own terms.

New BMIs would come first as an answer to some types of disabilities, and already we have people testing prosthetic limbs that can be moved with their thoughts alone. But it would be naïve to think their application would end there. It would quickly be offered as a life-enhancing option for the rich, catering for whatever tastes and purposes the market can supply and demand. Then we will all be living with them, for better or worse and whether we like it or not.

Think of mobile internet and the smartphone, and the ways these have swiftly influenced how we live, and move, and have our being. A ‘Human 2.0’ brain implant won’t be a far stretch for many. Most of us are used to our digital devices being an extension of, and embedded in, our lives.

The Church has always had its finger on the pulse of science and technology. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has observed that with artificial intelligence and robotics humanity is creating a new cognitive environment for the first time in history:

A crucial question is how to enhance the productive interactions between humans and artificial intelligence (AI). As such interactions reach new orders of complexity, many researchers and philosophers feel that the outcome may defy our understanding and produce radical changes in our personal and social life in the near future.

Pope Francis constantly reiterates, including in Laudato Si and his TED talk to scientists last year, that science and technology must further the good of everyone, and not in a way that excludes or oppresses the poor and harms the planet.

His urgings are particularly salient for BMIs. If they become a way of life sometime during this century, as some hope, each of us will have to be careful to preserve the best of our humanity because they could amplify our best and our worst qualities.

One consequence for Catholics could be a world in which we can upload plenty of ‘prayer plugins’ so need never be late for Mass or miss saying a rosary, but on the new mental superhighway find it increasingly difficult to connect with the quiet, interior voice of God, and with people who don’t have the same conveniences.

Of course we know that God has everything in hand and probably won’t allow us to turn ourselves into a Borg collective, but we also have our roles to play. As parents it’s our duty to prepare our children for whatever life throws at them, first of all by being people of prayer and discernment ourselves.

We need to inoculate our kids against being too infected by an attitude that the natural world – including our own bodies – is something we can use as we wish as long as we want to badly enough, and that doing so need not affect anyone but ourselves.

We need to cultivate their sensitivity to language and how it can be used to restrict free thought or opposition. They need to be able to tell when heralded ‘progress’ is actually a regress, and when something touted ‘safe’ is actually most unsafe.

They need to be grateful that technological and scientific development comes through human intelligence, which is a gift of God. It can be used for moral good, but is not of itself a moral good and can easily become a false god that enslaves us with our own permission.

Also, we cannot transcend or eliminate the human condition, and we shouldn’t want to. God made us, and it is in the weakness of our humanity that Jesus Christ comes to us and that we are able to turn to each other. That’s why Pope Francis is calling for a ‘revolution of tenderness’ to rise alongside the technological and social revolutions we are living through.

The only way to help our children to be formed in freedom and to be clear in vision is through daily contact with truth. We have to encourage them, in many ways, to deepen their relationship with nature, deepen their relationships with other people, and with Christ.

They need to find their deepest joy in their need for God, and value this over their need for solutions for their problems, however great. And we do, too.

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