July 2016: What Are the Implications of Artificial Intelligence?

July 2016 Inter-Belief Conversation Café

What Are the Implications of Artificial Intelligence?

Monday, July 18, 2016
7 – 9 p.m.
Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)

Are the robots out to get us? Are we to be hunted by our mechanical offspring (some resembling a former governor of California)? To see Earth’s minerals and metals ingested by an alien “race” of star-faring, self-replicating Von Neumannmachines? Or are the Japanese right to see robots as cute and adorable? (They like dragons, too.) Will AI make life easy, or indenture us 24/7, our work just a “smartphone” app or computer click away?

The word “Robot” is from the Czech word for “forced labor,” and first appeared in the Karel Capek play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The devices tire of their lot in life and Homo sapiens extermination ensues. In the movie Ex Machina the artificially intelligent female android has an agenda — to live like a human — with negative consequences for the guys around her.

But does it have to be this way? Isaac Asimov envisioned Three Laws of Robotics to assist robot-human interaction: “1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”

Asimov also felt programming in a sense of humor would be wise. In Jack Williamson’s With Folded Hands, benevolent robots are given society’s dangerous, difficult, and menial jobs to protect humans. Ingrates receive lobotomies and learn the joy of sitting with folded hands as artificial devices slave for them. But the robot Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, the androids Andrew Martin in Bicentennial Man and Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the Doctor, a pure AI program in Star Trek: Voyager, so successfully mimic humans that they sue for their civil rights to be treated as equal sentient beings (some also becoming mortal and marrying humans).

Mark Tilden devised more robot-centric laws: “1. A robot must protect its existence at all costs; 2. A robot must obtain and maintain access to its own power source; and 3. A robot must continually search for better power sources.” Killer robots anyone? Or Skynet, or the Matrix? Are humans to become extinct at the hands of AI — or to be kept as organic batteries?

But with computers now everywhere on Earth — in our phones, factories, cars, homes, and even the skies — isn’t AI already our way of life? Hackers write programs that take our money, steal our secrets, and drive our cars. Are we endangered by NSA spies, or by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden posting their secrets? What of AI’s workplace impact? For each job lost to free trade, seven are lost to advancing technology — computer assisted or controlled equipment doing tasks multiple humans used to do. How do we build a wall to keep out the progeny of our own genius?

Shouldn’t we love our robots and computers? Should we fear and resent them? Can we now even live without them? (Shut off your smartphone for an hour — how do you feel?) Google and Wikipedia give us instant answers (some even true) to any factual question. How can mere books or libraries compete with that? If AIs like IBM’s Watson become so like us that they beat mathematician Alan Turing’s 1940’s “Turing Test” designed to tell us apart, can we beat them or will we have to join them? After all, one day our consciousness (or at least GoPro streamed experiences and verbalized notions) may be downloaded as a computer program and uploaded into the Cloud.

What would Jesus do if he met Data, or Neo? How will religions handle AIs who pass the Turing test? Baptize them? Damn them? Treat them like can openers? Will AIs be capable and welcomed as priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, or gurus? (In 1972, Eliza, the first chatbot program to partially pass a Turing Test, was a psychotherapist — and from some accounts not a bad one.) What, if anything, is there about being human that a robot or AI could never be? Will they one day sit in the next pew, or lead a humanist discussion? Will we ever embrace mechanical devices as fully like us — even if we listen to Siri more closely than to any flesh and blood guide? What if, as in the movie Her, AI becomes more like our conceptions of God and the afterlife than we could ever hope to attain as perishable organic computers? Will those who have faith that Man’s flesh is “ensouled” be willing to unplug themselves and die, in the hope their souls rise to Heaven on the wings of Angels, while atheists stay plugged in and upload their minds before death to a technological, virtual Heaven on the wings of AI?

On Monday, July 18, from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will discuss the “ones and zeros” of the artificial intelligence around us. Our reasoning dialogue’s agreements of open-mindedness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality should help us “process” it all. All are welcome (even robots). Our treats, however, are designed for human consumption.