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I commonly hear concerns that emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technologies will compromise our humanity. In his brilliant book, Klara and the Sun, the Nobel Prize-winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines life from inside the head of an AI—or more particularly an AF, or “artificial friend,” named Klara. In the world of the novel, families of financial means have their children “lifted,” or genetically engineered, for enhanced academic ability so that they can achieve admission to college. (It’s almost impossible to get into a college if one’s not lifted). Because schooling is provided entirely at home by on-screen tutors, kids don’t become socialized, and so parents buy their children AFs as companions. In addition, this genetic lifting has a significant downside: it threatens their children’s health and particularly, Klara’s adolescent companion Josie.

In Ishiguro’s imagining, Klara teaches humans what humanity really means. Ishiguro suggest it’s Klara who could embody human empathy and a healthy approach to our mortality.

AI and Humanity

In last week’s newsletter, “How Are Humans Unique?”, Drew helped us ponder what’s unique about Homo sapiens. How are we different from other animals? Ishiguro asks this question from another angle. How might we distinguish ourselves from AI?

What concerns Ishiguro—and what ought to concern us as followers of Jesus—is not that AI might become human but what we are becoming as the march of technological power continues. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in The Atlantic, “The nonhuman Klara is more human than most humans. She has, you might say, a superhuman humanity. She’s also Ishiguro’s most luminous character, literally a creature of light, dependent on the Sun. Her very name means ‘brightness.’ But mainly, Klara is incandescently good. She’s like the kind, wise beasts endowed with speech at the dawn of creation in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia.”

Of course, I loved the allusion to Narnia, and Shulevitz led me to think about how our creation of AI mirrors divine creation. In the film Ex Machina, Caleb comments on the creation of AI (actually passing the Turing Test): “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man, that’s the history of gods.” Theologians have taught that God didn’t create us to become better, but what if our divine-like creation were ultimately for our good? Might we learn from what we create? Could it be that a conscious AI might demonstrate how good it is to be empathic and how much of our humanity we’ve lost?

  • Klara seems to be the product of “affective computing.” To learn more, look here.
  • The New York Times just wrote this fascinating piece, “‘Consciousness’ in Robots Was Once Taboo. Now It’s the Last Word.”
  • Mentioned above is a film that moves in a different, more evil direction, Ex Machina. I comment on this and other cultural artifacts in this Huffington Post piece, “Why Do We Fear the Future of the Presence of Technology?”
  • Berkeley’s Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences has just initiated a related project, “Virtuous AI?: Artificial Intelligence, Cultural Evolution, and Virtue.”
  • Using AI effectively in church ministry is still emerging, but Calvin Mercer and Tracy J. Trothen’s book, Religion and the Technological Future: An Introduction to Biohacking, Artificial Intelligence, and Transhumanism, can help sound out some ways it might change church work.
  • Theologian and Luther pastor Ted Peters’s Patheos blog has done several posts on this topic.

AI and Savoring Our Passing Time

As humans, we also realize what it means to die, and particularly, to know that we are mortal. (By the way, there’s debate on whether awareness of mortality is the case with other animals). Job 14:1-2 (NIV) sets this out clearly:

“A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,
comes up like a flower and withers,
flees like a shadow and does not last.”
Why do we resist this? Though of course the Christian hope is for eternal life, we have to go through death first, and Christians have a long tradition of “remembering death,” or memento mori. The Christian tradition says that this is good for us. And recognizing that we’re going to die is a problem for many of us. I’ve been taken aback by writers like Ray Kurzweil, as well as the Church of Perpetual Life; how they, like many futurists, focus on radical life extension, i.e., living a lot longer.

Interestingly, Ishiguro creates his AI, Klara, to be mortal. From her, we learn something about our humanity. Ultimately, she becomes obsolete, and she’s placed in a scrap heap (the Yard). There, she ends her days without bitterness by reconfiguring her memories with gratitude. “Even so, such composite memories have sometimes filled my mind so vividly, I’ve forgotten for long moments that I am, in reality, sitting here in the Yard, on this hard ground.” In our rush to extend our life, we may be expressing an ingratitude for the mortal life we’re given.

Thinking about mortality brought to mind another novel—Gilead by Marilynne Robison (who just wrote a brilliant essay, by the way, on science and Scripture). She asks whether humanity is found in the passing of time and particularly how we live in a world in which time and life pass. In the voice of the protagonist the pastor John Ames, who has been “thinking about existence lately”: “I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”

I, for one, believe that AI might create significant problems, but it might also bring substantial good. If we can learn to be empathic and grateful for the hours and days God has given us, that would be one of its greatest gifts indeed. One can certainly hope.

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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