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19.05.2017

AI: The Coming Revolution | Connecting with Culture

The worldwide artificial intelligence (AI) revolution is on its way. Once the preserve of science fiction, its impact is likely to be so radical and pervasive it amounts to a new industrial revolution.

Whereas earlier industrial revolutions have been based on mechanisation in textiles, steam power, electricity, steel, and consumer products, the key shift in the AI revolution is towards mechanised autonomy.

As robots become increasingly independent in making decisions, philosophical and ethical issues are surfacing amongst ever widening circles of technologists. To what extent, for instance, can robots become conscious moral agents operating an ethical code?

For people of faith, these questions can appear inappropriate. Human beings may be made in the image of God but no human creation can exercise consciousness, morality and conscience. Just as they cannot be virtuous, they also cannot sin and therefore have no need for redemption.

But serious theological engagement with such issues is yet to get underway. It remains to be seen how useful this engagement will be to public debate and whether it can be sufficiently nuanced and technologically literate to avoid extremes and misconceptions. The way theology tends to engage with contemporary capitalism suggests this will not be easy.

Yet whatever status theology is able to attribute to robots (whether they are called cyborgs, artilects, androids or transhumans) it is the dignity of the human person within its natural environment that will need to remain central. To the extent that AI compromises that dignity is the extent to which people of faith should join the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking in being wary of AI.

It will be important, however, to avoid knee-jerk reactions. It is true, for instance, that the AI revolution will – like all preceding industrial revolutions – bring job losses as existing knowledge and skills are made obsolete. But it will also create jobs, not least in the troubled manufacturing industry, and will help safeguard humans from the dull and repetitive jobs that are a chief cause of unhappiness and stress in the workplace. In helping humans to be more creative and productive, AI will increase human fulfilment.

The challenge for AI producers and consumers is to design and use machines that have greater autonomy for a purpose: to do things better than humans can do in the service of human and environmental flourishing.

Peter Heslam
Dr Peter S Heslam, University of Cambridge and Director of Transforming Business.

Comments

  1. But what jobs will there be for the many? I can’t quite see how it’s supposed to work in terms of providing mass employment.

    By Will Jones - 19th May 2017
  2. If it’s artificial intelligence, then by definition the consciousness is artificial, as is the morality and conscience. Where machine learning takes place and that artificial consciousness, morality or conscience is evolved from the originally programmed code, then there is the potential for computers to take decisions that are in their own best interests and that conflict with human dignity, and may not take appropriate account of all the stakeholders. I guess that could be called “artificial sin”…and so we need to think through the theological implications of this – I for one do not want to have to contemplate “artificial redemption”. Jesus is Lord and inappropriate artificial intelligence constructed by humans is ultimately a product of human sin. So it will be the redeemed humans who will need to work out the solutions to artificial sin, with inspiration and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

    By Chris Gillies - 19th May 2017
  3. The growing consensus is that AI will be bad news for the low skill less educated workforce that would be hard to fit into the higher tech jobs. Google Pascual Restrepo Are robots killing jobs. He is one of the few academics looking at the impact on the workforce. PWC have recently produced a report that says 60% of jobs in transport will go with the advent of autonomous vehicles.

    By David - 19th May 2017
  4. Wrote some thoughts with Richard Littledale here: http://richardlittledale.me.uk/2017/04/06/thou-robot/

    By Luke Radford - 19th May 2017
  5. Humans were made for relationship, firstly to God then to each other. We are at a stage where we are having to teach people how to relate, as technology has invaded our lifestyles in a way that minimises personal interaction. Christians will understand that they cannot be relational with AI, but the danger is that as we use robots, etc there could be the tendency to ‘pretend’ we can interact with them in a human way.
    If the cleverest human minds create clever machines and those machines are somehow merged into a ‘superbrain’ that could be very overwhelming to our limited capacity. But thank God that we have Him, Who will never be able to be compared to ‘superbrains’ for HE is high over all.

    By Linda Hopper - 19th May 2017
  6. Excellent piece
    Theology really needs to engage with the dilemmas of the modern world. It seems to me that historically, as the world has changed theologians, have either failed to engage or sided with the luddites.
    I am not sure about the comment that the dignity of the human must remain central. Humankind is only a small part of the created order……
    Thanks for this thought provoking item.

    By Mick - 19th May 2017
  7. The great danger is that humankind will come to believe that we are god. This technology has the potential to become all encompassing, imagine how powerful it will be when it takes control of the internet for example. Satan will easily persuade people that we are now the rulers of our world and that our accomplishments are so great that they should be worshiped and treated like a deity. Many will be easily seduced down this path just as many are already easily seduced by the desire for possessions. Once again we will hear the words muttered “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”

    By Peter Drake - 20th May 2017
  8. John’s Book of Revelation makes it quite clear in its closing chapters that with the advent of world governance (touched on in several places), there will arise a structure or system capable of controlling people and sub-governments worldwide. It also makes it quite clear that to remain alive and able to trade, everybody will be required to sign up to this arrangement. During that season, all religions and their accoutrements will be removed from the worldwide culture (“there will arise a famine of hearing the words of God” – remember?). It is my view that this closing episode in life on the planet as we know it, would fit precisely with the advent of artificial intelligence as the foundational structure for is operation.

    By John Etherton - 20th May 2017
  9. Good to see LICC engaging with this topic. One example that comes to mind are self driving cars. These are apparently being programmed to try to take responsible decisions in the event of an unavoidable collision and to swerve so as to mimimise injuries to others as well as passengers in the car. Where this becomes more complex is if programming goes on to take account of the age of the potential victims if injuries are unavoidable and we then see the car beginning to take decisions that are hard even for humans to assess in a moral way.

    By Trevor Miles - 20th May 2017
  10. There has been no offer of AI to the masses, only to the diminishing numbers of the super rich who own the technology. All the worst fears of tyranny and subjection are therefore valid. AI needs democratic control – but how?

    By Alan Joinson - 22nd May 2017
  11. The big issue with AI is surely the enormous societal upheaval it will bring. Far more jobs will disappear than will be created. History suggests the elite may decide to dispose of “the unneeded and expensive masses” in horrendous ways, or the masses may overthrow the elites and destroy the technology underpinning the marginalisation of the many. This sounds like a sci-fi novel but I am concerned these are potential scenarios facing us.

    By Richard - 23rd May 2017

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