Artificial Intelligence is what we call a computer system that is able to perform tasks that normally require human agency. These systems have already had a massive impact on society through social media but are being rapidly updated, and their power and impact are only growing. An AI system can imitate human behavior very closely; it is more efficient at processing and has a vastly larger amount of data to work with than any given human; and it is getting better at all of these things very rapidly. This power poses a whole host of ethical and prudential questions about which I am certainly not well-qualified to write. All I have done is listen to smart people talk about it and spend time thinking about what they said. If you want to learn about these topics from the people who are actually qualified, I would recommend beginning with the work of the Center for Humane Technology. All I hope to do here is to offer the smallest kind of starting place for the plethora of topics and questions being raised by the existence of AI.
I also want to be clear about what I am not talking about here. I am not talking about the scenario where the AI becomes sentient, rebels and takes over the world. That territory is well trod by science fiction, and I don’t have anything to add. I am also not interested in living in existential dread about these machines. There are serious and realistic concerns to be had, but at the end of the day, no matter what comes of AI, there is no reason to lose hope. Jesus Christ will still be Lord.
That said, it seems to me that many questions stem from the crazy and outsized power that AI offers.
Power is inherently dangerous, and the level of power offered by AI is hard for most of us to even imagine. AI is able to treat everything — foreign words, images, visual cues, vital signs etc. — as a language. This makes it capable of reading and translating patterns at a rate human beings alone never will. This allows for the possibility of quickly translating previously unknown ancient texts, creating a vastly more detailed ability to predict and treat illness, or translating the behavior of animals. However, it also allows the user to be able to literally speak with someone else’s voice, and puts the ability to read and image thoughts on the horizon.
We are already more than 10 years into one such use: the algorithms that organize our social media news feeds. The algorithm is set to give you whatever content will keep you engaged on your screen the longest because that is the most effective business model. It can sort through vast amounts of data and give you incredibly well targeted content. This relatively simple algorithm, set to a relatively benign goal, has demonstrably led to a vast array of serious unintended consequences.
To scale up this danger with the rapid growth of AI capabilities is mind-boggling. This is only one of many serious threats posed by the level of power AI offers. Perhaps the simplest form of the question is: what guardrails do we need to deal with the dangers AI poses? It’s not up to most of us to figure out what those guardrails look like in tech design and legislation, but it is important to understand the capabilities of AI and the risks that power introduces, because those things are already shaping our world.
One important category of outsized power is the ability of Artificial Intelligence to actually imitate humans and occupy spaces previously held by them. We have had some version of this for years in various business areas — customer service chat boxes and self-checkout lanes, for example. While this brings up the important slate of questions regarding job protections, it also extends into areas like art and relationships. We have seen Chat GPT allow us to generate appealing images and writing with a simple prompt — soon this will become movies and shows that are automatically generated for your interests. Even more fundamentally, we are now being given the option to have “relationships” with AI as a substitute for relationships with humans. AI Chatbots have begun to be integrated into social media apps, where they can become a lifelike and always-available replacement for talking to a person. These close imitations of humanity, in art and in relation-like technologies, are a dark but convenient alternative to all the wild unpredictability that comes with interacting with humans. A big picture question to be asked here is, if we could be assured that livelihoods could be protected (i.e. answer the questions of job protection), what things are we OK with having done by machine (cancer research, for example) and what things inherently need to be done by humans (such as having intimate relationships)?
Artificial Intelligence poses real and serious risks, and it is important for us to be informed and thoughtful about this reality that is already having such a large impact. I have barely begun to scratch the surface here and I highly recommend learning more. It is also important to remember that not all the consequences are bad. There are many areas where this escalated efficiency, if handled thoughtfully and responsibly, can be used for good and in service of human flourishing. There are areas where AI may push us back toward the physical world: there are professors now who are asking for hand-written papers in an effort to keep assignments from being written by ChatGPT. It is also confronting us with the necessity of philosophical questions like “what does it mean to be human?”
It is important to understand this world we live in, but it is also important that we do not individually take on the weight of that world. God is the only one who can handle the whole picture of history, and he gives each of us only a tiny fraction on which he wants us to collaborate with him. Saying yes to the corner of reality entrusted to us is the way to his victory.
Aza Raskin is one of the founders of the Center for Humane Technology. When asked if he is optimistic or pessimistic about how our society will handle the risks of these technologies he says, “I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic; instead, I make room for hope.”