Lesson 14: The Need for Culture

A number of people have asked the same kind of question my good friend Myron poses in the following paragraph. I’ll try to find an answer.

“I have been wrestling with how to define the culture that is under siege by AI and just what exactly is the threat. It seems to me that culture, broadly defined, reflects the ideas, customs, standards and assumptions commonly shared by a group–family, tribe, nation–passed on to succeeding generations, that provide the framework to a relationship and predictability along a shared spectrum of expectations. A response to a particular stimulus or challenge may not be the most felicitous, but nonetheless predictable along the scale of expectations. AI appears as another complicating factor within a plethora of unpredictable elements in an especially fraught period of our history. Old verities are being challenged, antiquated beliefs are resurgent, behavioral norms are no longer predictable. And now along comes AI. So is it the uncertainty and unpredictability that concerns, even frightens, us?”

I‘d start by agreeing that it is not helpful to accuse artificial intelligence of attacking any of the cultures Myron mentions. It seems more accurate to see it simply as the latest development in science-based technology that has been increasingly used for well over a century to do work once done by cultures.

AI did not suddenly appear on the scene. There has been some form of technical talk throughout the period. The present concern is that many hail it as the perfection of a technical language that will bring us close to using technology as a solution for every one of our problems.

Others, including myself, warn technique might be excellent for solving problems in the material world but hardly a panacea for those in the human community. These demand a culture that provides understandings and standards that contend with life’s inevitable uncertainty and unpredictability. That culture is not an accumulation of information so much as the group’s wisdom that is instilled in its infants and enhanced in its educational system.

Wisdom is lost when we overrely on technique in human relationships. Because technology seeks the most efficient way to solve a problem, it often dismisses cultural values as irrelevant and even obstacles to accomplishing this.

My fear concerning artificial intelligence is that it has brought us to this “especially fraught period of our history” and might not be able to get us out of it. A good half-century ago, our science, technology, and society group forecast a future much like that happening all around us right now. They saw an over-reliance on technology, resulting in the loss of community and, with it, an inability to use ethical and spiritual values. The group felt this was bound to bring deep divisions in a society that forgets how to overcome its differences and foresaw this, making way for autocratic charismatic leaders.

Another danger I sense we face is conceding that the most efficient way to get what you want is to destroy anything standing in the way. That seems to be what we see when a political party operates without a platform by simply using tactics that obstruct the opposition or a business is allowed to do anything to sell its products because it will result in economic growth, or a nation can use genocide to achieve victory in warfare when terrorists hide in populated areas.

I’ll try again to suggest a way out of this next week.

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