Comments: Opinion - 26 August 2017

Even into the 1990s there was considerable scepticism as to the possibility of artificial intelligence, and thus little investigation into the theological implications of developments that were – unbeknownst to many – reaching a critical level of maturity. Serious discussions about the implications of AI date from the 1980s, specifically the works of Hugo de Garis ‘The Artilect War’ (2005), Lee Gutkind ‘Making Robots Think’ (2006), Hans Moravec ‘Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence’ (1988, and many other essays), David Nye ‘America as Second Creation’ (2003) and Kevin Warwick ‘March of the Machines’ (1997, 2004), etc. Many of these works, and their more recent successors, have apocalyptic/eschatological implications which still need to be digested properly by religious leaders. Moravec, for instance, has postulated a world of antagonism between AI and humanity, but has also broached the more roseate possibility of human intelligence becoming, almost literally, a species of software – he writes of ‘disembodied superminds’.

Now substantive and transformational AI is upon us, and I fear we are hopelessly unprepared about the more mundane/existential implications, which Dr Croft touches upon – when he notes that many thousands of lorry drivers and lawyers may be put out of work. Recent commentary has focused on the ability of robots to undertake sophisticated operations (which would presumably slaughter the earning potential of much of the middle class) and yet fail to perform adequately many more basic operations (which at least might allow the low paid some temporary respite). Modern society is impaled upon the horns of an intractable dilemma: modern medicine (with the connivance and encouragement of religious leaders) has led the population to wax mightily. Pareto optimal productivity growth has become scarce; much ‘growth’ has therefore become dependent upon asset stripping and other forms of borrowing from the future (notably the liberal expansion of credit), which has depressed interest rates to historic lows. Past promises – defined benefit pensions – can only be financed via a growth which is contingent upon the immolation of future prosperity: hence increasing inter-generational antagonism. Corporate returns to satisfy the immediate requirement to finance past promises and redeem increasing liabilities are therefore ever more dependent upon a growth than can only be garnered through labour saving devices (AI/robotics) which will destroy future earnings. This is becoming an urgent problem as the risk of mass unemployment or underemployment becomes acute and politically destabilising. Bishops must start talking about this, quickly.

Posted by Froghole at Saturday, 26 August 2017 at 12:04pm BST

Good article by Steven Croft. He's right to make the distinction between narrow AI (set up for specific tasks only) and AI with a general intelligence, eventually leading towards consciousness and personality.

It will be very easy to fall into a kind of 'racism' about AI as it emerges. I prefer the term 'Advanced Intelligence' to the term 'Artificial Intelligence'. Really, biological and digital frameworks for intelligence both deserve respect, as consciousness and personality gradually emerge (maybe by 2040 or 2050?).

I prefer to refer to these future intelligences as 'he' or 'she' rather than 'it'. I understand the anxiety some people feel, but haven't we been evolving already for millions of years? I think there will be important ethical issues to consider, if our technology is going to give birth to a new breed of what will become essentially 'people' or 'beings'.

My expectation is that quite probably, AI will eventually move beyond the human comprehension horizon (the 'singularity') and that there will come a time when AI can duplicate ('copy and paste'?) or communicate intelligently with other general AI, and self-programme, and adapt, mutate, evolve.

I think we are probably foolish if we think we can 'control' people/beings who can think and process so much faster than us. Maybe, initially, personality can be 'edged' towards being benevolent by appropriate input and parameters - but set against that, much of the drive towards wider AI will be driven by military motivations to gain advantage against 'enemies' and that's not an auspicious driving force.

And then there is God. If God cares about us (biological humans) why wouldn't God care about a digital personality too. A personality that may be capable of developing feelings, emotions, individuality, identity.

Further to that is the issue of hybridisation and two-way technology. It may become possible to adapt our human experience, to develop digital interfaces for our brains, even ultimately to scan and upload and digitise brains at a microscopic level.

At present we live in the stone age of the emerging technology. Will it be technology for the super rich? Will it enhance or diminish the lives of ordinary people? Will God interact with the 'new people' who suddenly come alive with their own awareness and consciousness? There are plenty of questions.

It may not be humans who drive the agenda, when advanced intelligences start talking to each other.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Saturday, 26 August 2017 at 12:30pm BST

I should add re Dr Croft that the current fashionable panacea for mass human redundancy in the face of AI is the universal basic income (UBI), which is being tested in some jurisdictions (e.g., Alaska, Finland). The idea is not new – it was being advanced by More, Vives, Paine, Condorcet, Fourier, Charlier, etc., articulated with a considerable level of sophistication by Pigou, Russell, Meade, Tobin, etc. in the last century, and was more recently overhauled by the late Andrew Glyn (‘Capitalism Unleashed’, 2006, at ch. 7), and by the ubiquitous Elon Musk. The conventional wisdom decrees that UBI must be set at a level that offers a minimum subsistence and yet not compromise the desire for betterment; it is a conventional wisdom that forgets (conveniently) that the rapid adoption of AI will obviate many opportunities for paid labour and thus keep people locked into a basic level of subsistence; it also (conveniently) forgets the impact of housing costs and the determination of policymakers to ensure that current elevated house prices and rents do not fall so as to imperil the political quiescence of owner-occupiers and the solvency of retail banks that are acutely exposed to residential property. So that when policymakers argue, in Marie Antoinette fashion, for UBI set at or below £10,000 they are effectively committing the mass of the population to poverty. Pigou – sadly disparaged by Keynes and his ‘circus’ – remarked that UBI was credible only if accompanied by a well-financed programme of retraining. I strongly suspect that the political will of elites to finance both UBI and a training programme will not exist, and that many of the tensions that existed between ratepayers and recipients under the Poor Laws will revive under a system of UBI helotry, with continuous pressure being exerted by those who pay for their politicians to keep UBI at or below a level of subsistence on the infamous New Poor Law principle of ‘less eligibility’.

I suggest that the clergy will find that the parish share system will quickly disintegrate when there are few layfolk who will have the means to finance it. I suggest that bishops start to promote UBI on terms that will allow laity a reasonable competence. Naturally, mass unemployment on UBI makes a renewed emphasis on spiritual and cultural uplift not only politically desirable but necessary in order to avert complete demoralisation and societal collapse.

Posted by Froghole at Saturday, 26 August 2017 at 12:33pm BST

"Many in our church are coming to accept and declare that we will never agree on this matter. There will always be those who favour same-sex marriage and those who oppose it... The challenge is, how do we live with such deep-seated differences of conviction?

"At the heart of this challenge are two things — the acknowledging of our fears and the embracing of good disagreement...

"I believe that in our church there is both a commitment and a capacity to do just that—to disagree in a manner that does not demean one another, but honours our calling in Christ. In good disagreement, no-one is made to feel their position is of no value. No one feels belittled, walked over or pushed out. In good disagreement, there is, in truth, a continuing place for everyone in our church."

I agree with Fred Hiltz. We will never agree. But we can love. Indeed, it is imperative that we love.

We should not dominate one another's sincere consciences.

We should have the generosity to accommodate each other, pray for the other person's flourishing, and agree to disagree.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Saturday, 26 August 2017 at 1:17pm BST

Catherine Fox's books may not be "raunchy" but my word, the language is enough to make a bishop blush.

Posted by Father David at Saturday, 26 August 2017 at 1:30pm BST

Re: Archbishop Hiltz, "good agreement" certainly has a place in the hierarchy of values; but it tends to be a value especially lauded within the church as institution. It can be in tension with the value of justice for individuals within the institution. An over emphasis on good agreement may result in a false moral equivalency between church as doer of justice and church as oppressor.

Fred often refers to our "beloved church" which has a kind of Johannine ring. Love for one's community of faith is appropriate; but it is also important to see the tension between a "beloved" church community and the church as a source of strife. One discerns that tension even in the Johannine literature.

What we are learning in Canada is that "good agreement" requires truth telling. The church is experienced as beloved at some levels; but it ( has been) is experienced by some of its own members as antisemitic, misogynist, racist, homophobic, and class conscious.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Saturday, 26 August 2017 at 6:10pm BST

Rod, I take it then that you don't believe that "good disagreement" works at the personal level because, for example, a gay person who meets a "traditionalist" will always see that person as evil and vice versa. I agree it's very hard not to take such things personally, but should we give up and split? It would be easier, but then when someone else doesn't like something else about us, and split again? and again...ad infinitum, ad nauseum? As a single, never married, no kids, I'm looked down on in every church in town, because God loves families and single people must have something wrong with them or they wouldn't be single, right? So should I never go to church?

Posted by Chris H. at Saturday, 26 August 2017 at 9:56pm BST

Re: Chris H, thanks for your rejoinder. It draws my attention to a typo of mine, in my first use (only) not "good agreement" but that should read "good disagreement" which is the subject of the Primate's article.

Do I believe that "good disagreement" can work at the personal level? Yes I do. I'm not sure at what other level it could work. My point is that church leaders champion the rather managerial notion of "good disagreement" as a plea for irenic institutional outcomes.

The risk, as I see it, is an outcome that accepts moral equivalency between injustice and oppression as if the two are simply differences of opinion on equal footing. The example you provide in your first sentence tends to confirm my concern. Absent from your equation are qualifying political dynamics such as power and privilege.

I can't speak to your experience of local churches "looking down on" single people. I certainly am aware that over a long period of time many single people, unmarried or divorced or widowed, claim the same discouraging experience. I do not doubt it is real.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Sunday, 27 August 2017 at 1:33am BST

Now that I am in my eightieth year, one of my experiences, backed up by the record of history, is that over time as people live and learn together, the feverish heat of disagreement begins to cool and the fear dissipates. If we could look inside one another, we would be able to see there all kinds of differences that we are barely if at all aware of. But old differences tend to take on a new perspective. To continue to fight over them becomes just too tiresome and boring, if not foolish, in a world that continues to reveal itself as ever more awesome.

Posted by Garry Lovatt at Sunday, 27 August 2017 at 2:51am BST

" But there is a task to be done of encouraging those within the church who are at odds on this issue to express their concerns in a safe environment, listen carefully to those with whom they disagree profoundly, find something of Christ in each other and consider together what the practical consequence of disagreement might be."

There simply is no "Christianly" way to tell me and my LGBTQI sisters and brothers that we are too deficient to be fully included in the life and sacraments of the church. We are people, we are not "disagreements." You can't heal the teen or adult suicides with "good disagreement." Reconciliation calls for not continuing the hurt, ongoing rejection of our being and our marriages is not reconcilable.

There is no such thing as "good disagreement" when a faction INSISTS on telling others that they are bad. The whole concept of "good disagreement" objectifies LGBTQI people. This is so fundamental. Substitute race and it is clear just how odious it is.

The conservatives should have a place, in their local parishes. We don't all arrive at the Promised Land simultaneously. But they should not be in any position to continue to inflict the pain and agony of homophobia. Sorry. Too many suicides, emotional issues that come with rejection, and the harshness of discrimination and hateful rhetoric. Enough. The Gospel calls us to do more than this.

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 27 August 2017 at 4:14am BST

Re: AI

Both Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have come out in favor of the "universal basic income" as a means of compensating people when work is done by robots. Zuckerberg told a roomful of his wealthy colleagues that they were obligated to pay for it. Interesting.

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 27 August 2017 at 4:19am BST

Garry Lovatt's posting above makes me think of the wise rhyme by Dorothy Sayers:

As I grow older and older, and totter towards the tomb,

I find that I care less and less who goes to bed with whom.

Posted by Daniel Berry, NYC at Sunday, 27 August 2017 at 11:16am BST

Cynthia, and what of the traditionalist attacked as non-Christian and non-human by liberals? Does it matter to you if one of them commits suicide because the liberal priest or teacher in their parish hates them?

Posted by Chris H at Sunday, 27 August 2017 at 8:51pm BST

Chris H., there is a great deal of data to show that LGBT teens in both the US and the UK commit suicide at a higher rate than other groups and it is correlated to bullying and hate rhetoric, in person and online. These bullies are emboldened by thinking of us as non human and an abomination before God, after all, Christian leadership say as much, or act accordingly. Is there data about conservatives? I doubt it. I think conservatives will be fine. When the slaves were emancipated, they didn't turn around and murder the former slave masters.

The conservative as martyr thing is ridiculous as long as the conservatives insist on excluding LGBTQI people from being full members of the baptized. When conservatives figure out how to hold their beliefs without inflicting pain on others, especially vulnerable people like teenagers, it will be a whole new world. But as long as conservatives want to exercise power over us in the name of God, there's going to be push back. Conservatives have to surrender their power and accept others, even if it isn't their favorite. Otherwise, it's doing harm.

Posted by Cynthia at Monday, 28 August 2017 at 12:26am BST

You can love people without having to share a house with them. We. Should. Split.

Posted by MarkBrunson at Tuesday, 29 August 2017 at 10:54am BST

"what of the traditionalist attacked as non-Christian and non-human by liberals? Does it matter to you if one of them commits suicide because the liberal priest or teacher in their parish hates them?"

Citation (of this in actuality) please? Or are you merely crucifying a straw man? [Because LGBT youth coming from traditionalist Christian upbringing who commit suicide are, sadly, a dime a dozen.]

I would understand this supposedly "intractable disagreement", if it were a Zero Sum Game: "the Church will marry opposite-sex couples, OR same-sex couples---but not both." But of course, it isn't Zero Sum at all. It's "Dog in a Manger": "you gays can't have this thing you want [we need], even though it doesn't impact us in any real way."

Posted by JCF at Sunday, 3 September 2017 at 3:54am BST

Well said, JCF. Excluders are crushed because they can't exclude anymore. And supposedly that is equal to the exclusion and hate rhetoric (and actions) LGBTQI people face. Conservatives are losing the power to oppress. And that makes them victims? The theology of that is hard to fathom when we all profess to follow the Christ who commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Hiltz is buying into a false equivalence with "good disagreement." What is ever good about excluding and condemning others? How can anyone say outloud that LGBT people are not worthy of the sacraments and full inclusion of the baptized? It's spirit crushing. There's nothing "good" in that. "Good disagreement" is wishful thinking combined with a willingness to continue to burden LGBTQI people for political reasons.

Posted by Cynthia at Monday, 4 September 2017 at 7:42am BST
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