Artificial intelligence scares us — but it can help us realise what it means to be human

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By Tim Wyatt

Religion’s most important contribution to the developing field of artificial intelligence could be to shoot down grandiose dreams of super-intelligent robots walking among us or humans transcending their bodies.

That was the view of a panel of academics and who discussed the interface between faith and AI during a Religion Media Centre briefing on Tuesday.

Religious leaders’ interventions often revolve around the ethics of far-fetched narratives common to science fiction: autonomous cyborgs indistinguishable from humans or all-knowing artificial intelligence that could take over the universe.

But in truth, these imaginings bear little resemblance to the reality of AI research today, said Neil Lawrence, the DeepMind professor of machine learning at Cambridge University.

The more fruitful interface between AI and religion should be directed at what is actually happening today, where machine learning software, vast data capture and so-called “surveillance capitalism” are reshaping society before our eyes.

“Artificial superintelligence and even artificial general intelligence are a bit of a chimera,” agreed Nathan Mladin, a senior researcher at the faith think tank Theos. “That fascinates us, but I think can distract us from the more pressing questions around the use of data, the use of very manipulative, addictive technologies and surveillance capitalism.”

Humans could not resist anthropomorphising the AI systems they have built and projecting human-ness onto them, but this was a mistake, Professor Lawrence said. “It’s highly problematic, because at the moment AI is exploiting that weakness in us. And it’s exploiting us to make us do things that are not in our interests, that are in the interests of the advertisers, or those that are trying to manipulate society or damage democracy.

“Religious leaders have a lot of the tools to communicate this to congregations to people to empower themselves.”

Laura Janner-Klausner, the former senior rabbi to Reform Judaism, said it was vital that religious leaders were also working with tech companies and sitting on boards to develop codes of ethics, “not because we are special or have some fantastic relationship with the Almighty, but because we are community leaders”.

But others argued there was a distinctive and unique contribution people of faith could have in these debates. Mr Mladin said the development of AI was bringing a fresh urgency to the question of what it meant to be human, something religious traditions had already spent millennia pondering.

“It does matter where we locate our human uniqueness. If we locate it in a particular faculty or a particular capability, then those are increasingly being challenged.” If “calculative intelligence” was the defining mark of humanity, as seemed the presumption of many secular thinkers, then there is a problem looming as computers will swiftly overtake humans in this regard, he added.

“But if we are essentially fundamentally related and recipients of divine love and capable of reciprocating with love — that would be the uniqueness. And I don’t see any way in which any kind of technological advancement can threaten that.”

Nicoleta Acatrinei, a theologian and economist research scholar in AI and faith and Princeton University, said from the Judaeo-Christian perspective humanness was grounded in free will and the capacity to choose.

Therefore, religion could steer the AI debate into one fundamentally about anthropology: “I think we have to be clear, first of all, what kind of human beings we want in the future, what kind of society we want to build. And after we think backwards and say, ‘This is the role we want to give to AI’,” she argued.

Yaqub Chaudhary, an independent scholar who focuses on Islam and AI, said the Muslim tradition also offered a counterpoint to what he described as the “mechanisation of the understanding of the human mind”.

“There is a unity with human nature, which links human beings with God and the rest of the cosmos,” he explained. Islamic practice was inherently bodily and temporal, inevitably in opposition with the transhumanism espoused by the more radical parts of the AI movement. For instance, the reciting of the five daily prayers at times governed by the sun, or the holy month of Ramadan which was determined by the moon.

Professor Lawrence said he was an atheist, but he believed religion had a vital role to play in puncturing the naïvety of some in the AI world.

Abrahamic faiths, he argued, had a spirituality centred on human weakness, our vulnerabilities and inability to sustain ourselves for ever.

“So, when we talk about transhumanism and the notion that we can simply upload ourselves and thereby become gods, you’re starting to see something which is very akin to Greek mythology, to the old religion, what I sometimes think of as like cartoon religion,” he said.

Modern religion, however, forced introspection, having considered these ideas for centuries already and moved on from the “odd desire among the non-religious to reach for these glories of heaven through technology”.

“AI alongside religion looks really, really interesting, because you can accelerate out of these naïve and fairly stupid ideas, because you can say, well, actually culture has done them has done them in the context of God.”

When it came to the sharp end of today’s AI challenges, people of faith had much to offer, Rabbi Janner-Klausner added. Religions have been the victims of surveillance and exploitation many times, and should offer their long years of wisdom in critically examining the shiny but potentially sinister potential of AI.

Some fear a neo-Luddism could lead the religious to reject the coming technological revolution, but Mr Mladin said this would be an “be an abdication of responsibility”. “If people of faith have any value in society, we have a value in in trying to make it fair,” he argued, as well as consciously cultivating strong bonds of genuine community as a bulwark against the shallow atomisation of digital technology.

Ms Acatrinei agreed, noting that 85 per cent of the world’s population considered itself religious, which gave religious leaders an almost unparalleled power to shape our ordinary people respond to AI.

“This has to be a common project — people of religion will have to live with AI, and AI is living with people with religion anyway.”

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