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LINDA KINSTLER IS a doctoral candidate in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. And in The New York Times, July 18, 2021, she asks, more than rhetorically, “Can Silicon Valley Find God?” Here are tidbits gleaned from this thoughtful article.
Background. Kinstler writes, “A.I. [Artificial Intelligence] is already embedded in our everyday lives: It influences which streets we walk down, which clothes we buy, which articles we read, who we date and where and how we choose to live. It is ubiquitous, yet it remains obscured, invoked all too often as an otherworldly, almost godlike invention, rather than the product of an iterative series of mathematical equations.”
It’s Only Math. Kinstler quotes a tech worker: “It’s just a lot, a lot of math.” She adds, “It is intelligence by brute force, and yet it is spoken of as if it were semidivine.”
Is It? Kinstler cites an ex-Oracle product manager, now a pastor. He compares his “Turn on the light” Amazon Echo command to God’s first spoken command—‘Let there be light and there was light.’ “Is that a good thing?,” he asks, “Is that a bad thing? Is it completely neutral? I don’t know.”
Kinstler writes, “While turning on the light may be among the more benign powers that artificial intelligence algorithms possess, the questions become far weightier when similar machines are used to determine whom to give a loan, or who to surveil.”
Apple and Genesis. Kinstler relates an interesting tale. In 1977, when Apple unveiled its logo, some took it as a reference to the Garden of Eden, forbidden fruit, sin and knowledge.
There’s the obvious bite/byte connection. And Kinstler adds, “The apple is supposed to be a reference to the one that helped Isaac Newton establish the law of gravity; the bite was added to distinguish it from a cherry. Today, a sprawling orchard adorns the center of the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.; I’ve been told employees are encouraged not to pick its fruit.”
A.I. and Faith. Kinstler describes a group called “A.I. and Faith.” Started by a retired risk-management lawyer named David Brenner, the group is an interfaith coalition of tech executives, A.I. researchers, theologians, ethicists, clergy members. and engineers, all of whom, as Mr. Brenner put it, want to “help people of faith contribute to the conversation around ethics in artificial intelligence in a sophisticated way.”
Corporate Ethics. Corporations, Kinstler observes, may have ethics officers. But often, she finds, these corporations try to devise ethics “mostly in isolation from the people who’ve been asking these questions for 4000 years.”
Kinstler says, “The goal of A.I. and Faith and like-minded groups I came across in Toronto, San Francisco, London and elsewhere is to inject a kind of humility and historicity into an industry that has often rejected them both.”
An Isaac Asimov Tale. Kinstler shares, “One of the most influential science fiction stories, ‘The Last Question’ by Isaac Asimov, dramatizes the uncanny relationship between the digital and the divine…. A group of scientists create an A.I. system and ask it, ‘Is there a god?’ The A.I. spits out an answer: ‘Insufficient computing power to determine an answer.’ They add more computing power and ask again, ‘Is there a god?’ They get the same answer. Then they redouble their efforts and spend years and years improving the A.I.’s capacity. Then they ask again, ‘Is there a god?’ The A.I. responds, ‘There is now.’ ”
Concluding Comments. Kinstler writes, “As we confront the question of what makes us human, let us not disregard the religions and spiritualities that make up our oldest kinds of knowledge. Whether we agree with them or not, they are our shared inheritance, part of the past, present and future of humankind.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021