I’m not a total fan of artificial intelligence. I may be wrong—my intellect does not tower over the rest of humanity—but my older adult warning lights continue to flash: At its foundation, AI is still only an artifice of actual intelligence, perhaps lacking wisdom in its fullest sense.
While we benefit from some applications of AI, self-idolatry may be embedded in other sectors of AI’s premises and promises. Ancient scriptural warnings—see Genesis 11’s Babel Tower story—could still be applicable today. What if we aren’t as smart as we think we are?
Recent events have illustrated how this might be true. The Boeing 737 MAX saga has continued for awhile. From all appearances, this supposedly intelligent flight control program harbored tiny, fatal flaws at its core. (Fixing the problem has turned out to be extraordinarily complicated—integrated flight systems must be able to reckon with a nearly infinite amount of potential scenarios.) I wonder how well programmers—and their bosses—can re-tool an (artificial) intelligence that will remedy all of those risks.
As AI-dependent apps proliferate in the digital universe, some start to crowd into each other. Not just as competitors—how many photo-sharing or food delivery platforms do we really need?—but also as disrupters of increasing segments of contemporary life. (One troubling example: The increasing obsolescence of some occupations.) Some of these programming marvels invite us to turn over our intelligence to algorithms that will supposedly transcend or intensify our innate capabilities.
Does that seem wise? In perhaps too many places in life, it’s becoming more convenient to defer decision-making—a combination of emotion and reason—to the judgments of Big Data interpreters. Statistical probabilities may seem more reliable than the certitude that resides in brains. But how much supposed certainty do any of us need as we decide who to date/marry, which doctors to trust, what career to pursue, which church to join? Does AI strengthen our social intelligence, our moral foundations or our abilities to love and serve others? How does AI allow for our sense of mystery, faith in God’s providence or courageous hope?
Our tower-building Chief Executive has regularly demonstrated how narcissism—self-idolatry by another name—can tangle the workings of our brains. Perhaps this is a warning for any of us: In the places where artificial intelligence enables self-absorption, we may risk the loss of God-created capabilities and spiritual values.
The original problem for the Babylonian tower builders was not flawed design or engineering. Although their intent seems understandable—better buildings—God knew what was really going on. “Soon they will be able to do anything they want” (Genesis 11:6 CEV). That’s another way of naming one’s self as god, or at least god-like—In Judeo-Christian theology, another way of calling out the first (and only) sin!
Thankfully, the realms of artificial intelligence can leave space for humility and discernment on a wider scale. That attitude has been helpful in places where AI does tread carefully, maintaining its usefulness without over-stepping the limits of human rationality or creativity. The world benefits from AI-dependent developments in areas such as energy-efficiency, crime prevention, health and well-being, weather prediction and other scientific explorations.
But in the places where the prevailing ethic is “we can do anything we want”, our culture may be inviting a self-fulfilling punishment of confusion, chaos and collapse. Imagining human capabilities beyond reason or reality, we may be building towers with our names on them.