Lesson 9: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence

collaborationMy limited knowledge of artificial intelligence is pretty much based on conversations with a computer engineer friend 30 years ago. He described his work as developing software to make a machine think like a human.

I’m not sure he ever totally agreed with me, but after a while, I suggested he had reversed his task. He had begun changing his picture of the human brain’s operation, so it was like that of his mechanical computer. He was assuming human thought conformed to the workings of his computer.

Whenever I read something written by artificial intelligence, I think of those conversations. I am amazed at the marvelous product . The computer processes huge amounts of data far, far more efficiently than humans can.

At the same time, I am aware it is subject to the limitations of the machine. The form of the tools we use predetermines what we produce. In his case, a computer can be programmed to solve practical problems. However, its workings apply to quantity- not quality, information- not wisdom, analysis- not creativity.

Artificial intelligence is exactly that… artificial. It does not really duplicate human experience. It analyzes information about experiences, but does not live them. It does not experience beauty, but analyzes what people report of their aesthetic experiences. It does not experience goodness but analyzes what people say about their moral experiences.

It is not intelligence in terms of the common sense that determines how we make many decisions . Nor is it culture that does deal primarily with wisdom, quality, creativity, beauty, and goodness.

You could see this last week when I reported artificial intelligence’s answer to “Why is the church in decline?” and “What must the church do to become relevant again?”

People’s response was almost always wonder at the comprehensive answers. They remarked how helpful they are, especially if they agreed with their perspective.

The computer read the questions as posing a practical problem that it could answer. It heard concern about why attendance is going down and why more people aren’t interested in the church. it answered repeatedly: ”The challenge for the church is to change so that she is relevant to the needs of society.”

Quite frankly, the answer could apply to a question about why any social institution is in decline. People do not regard it as relevant to their lives, so it must listen, engage, and address needs.

But what if you read the questions in terms of spiritual matters? Many feel the decline is about not being faithful to the gospel message. I don’t think the machine could handle that.

The challenge then goes in the opposite direction. The church calls the society to change as the gospel message is about transforming hearts and minds.The crucifixion of Jesus confronts the ways of human nature. The prophetic function of the church does not seek to be relevant with what is going on . This might be a Bonhoeffer moment when we don’t adapt to society, but challenge it.

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5 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Joe MacDowell says:

    I have some comments on material I’ve found from a well publicized article ” Will AI Transform Religion?” by Arif Khan, UK. Highly recommended if you haven’t read it. Several interesting comments from his article:

    1. There is no ubiquitous AI that can combine multi-disciplinary knowledge into a single consolidated view of the world. Humans, however, are excellent at doing this”.

    2. AI has no internal representation or understanding of the text it is responding with.

    3.There is no hope for AI..”to unravel the meaning of life itself.”

    Applying AI to getting more people in church might reasonably also apply to getting them into the local baseball stadium. The response to “becoming relevant again” was more interesting, and IMO, contained a good summary of what human authors have written. Not having any understanding of what it writes (#2 above), one must assume the data collection and summaries, focused on key words in the inquiry, can only report what it finds, not what it thinks. However it can do so with amazing speed!

    (AI is amoral. Don’t ask “how can I make money quickly?”)

    **I would like to ask AI to reconcile the books of James and Romans.

    You really sparked my interest. Thanks,

  2. paul wildman says:

    Pastor and Joe thanks.

    Joe I agree with your 1, 2 and 3 thank you.

    However nothing that is historically situated in amoral, including even the laws of physics certainly not culture. AI is a fabrication of culture and thus not amoral. To say AI is amoral is an indication, imo of just how ‘naturalised’ and ‘desensitised’ AI has become in our Technocratic society.

    A gun is not amoral just as a car or a tree is not amoral.

    We must not let the technocrats off so lightly.

    cheers ciao paul

    • Thanks for your comments Paul
      I view AI as in #2 above, lacking any investment or understanding of its inquiry responses. Is a tree or a car amoral? IMO there is no morality in inanimate objects. Years ago we heard the phrase “Its a sin to build a bomb”. In distinguishing between the object and the user we come face to face with AI. AI can mimic accurately the credentials allowing fraudulent behavior by humans. Is AI immoral, a “sin”?
      I don’t know, and I further fear the genie is out of the Bottle.

  3. Ira Gensemer says:

    I do not think everyone is talking about the same thing. My thinking is that AI has been around for some time in some way but is becoming more advanced particularly now that so much data can be digitized. Back in 1955 while in the military I was introduced to something called machine records. Main frames were just being produced. Never thought of it as AI but it could be thought of that way. The approach of the engineer is different from what most of the hype is all about. Duplicating the human brain is, in my mind, something more complicated. I will not go there except to say that some think the operation of the brain is relatively “simple”, but the environment makes it appear more complicated. The research question about church attendance is an appropriate use of AI as I understand it.

  4. Rita Yeasted says:

    ritz, I have been discussing AI with my College Reading class for the past week and a half. I used some of the excellent YouTube entries out there (free) and we have had fascinating discussions. Today I showed this film, “The History of AI from Its Beginnings to Breakthroughs.” I would recommend that you watch it. It’s not long, and it’s quite well done. What will strike you (as it did me, as we share a close age) is that we were there at the beginning of this. Most of the advances have come in the last 20 years. I looked at my class, many from foreign countries, and asked, “Who of you have not reached 20 years?” Almost every hand went up. In short, these kids have lived with AI since they were toddlers. It is not an “Oh, Wow,” as it is and should be, for us. It just IS. The film shows the incredible, and I use that word deliberately, the speed at which the data is being gathered to feed “artificial intelligence.” Nobody knows the future, not even the Godfather (another great 60 Minutes interview I showed on YouTube). Next week they have to list all the pros and cons they have learned about AI and then develop a paper on which side they lean. These are students who still need to take College Composition, but I am getting them ready to write an academic paper. I am glad I have lived in an age before computers, before smartphones, and before AI took over our lives. As good as it is getting, it can now “think like a human,” and (God forbid) even outthink us, more every day. Here are the two links I used. They are thought-provoking. Love, Rita



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