AI: Reflection, evolution, transformation

In my experience, teaching others is one of the best ways to learn, writes Teri McDowell Ott. With that in mind, what can we learn as we teach AI?

“For anybody who could use a break.”

This is Becky Chambers’ dedication in her optimistic book of speculative fiction, Psalm for the Wild Built. In the book, humans have moved away from previously destructive behavior — wars, domination, environmental degradation — and learned to live in harmony with nature, reversing the climate crisis, and reorganizing society around principles of compassion, kindness and respect for all forms of life. Humans don’t live in luxury in this future world, but they do live in peace. They have learned from past mistakes and done the work to repair historical harms. What would such a world look like? I certainly want to know. Don’t you?

In Chambers’ fictional world, the catalyst for this change in human behavior was inspired by robots — aka, artificial intelligence. Psalm for the Wild Built is set decades after robots woke to sentience and went on strike. They wanted to be set free from the factory lines and labor for which they were created. Humans had recognized the evil of enslavement, honored the robots’ new agency and set them free, and the robots vanished into the wilderness to learn about themselves and the world beyond human design.

Our March issue of the Presbyterian Outlook focuses on artificial intelligence and the questions, ethical concerns, fears and opportunities this evolution in technology has inspired. As many contributors to this issue highlight, AI itself is not new. (Hello, Siri. Hello, Alexa. Hello, creepy grocery store bot. “CLEAN UP ON AISLE THREE!”) But recent advancements, and new, more powerful tools like ChatGPT, have stirred ethical concerns of AI’s use and misuse — and the need to think carefully about how we move forward while considering “intelligence” that largely regurgitates what humans have created, without crediting the sources or paying for it.

What fascinates me about AI is that it reflects us. It evolves from the baseline set by our intelligence, our values, our ethics, our beliefs, our philosophy and theology. Our fear of AI might more accurately described as a fear of us, who we humans are, who we have become, and who we might be in the future. Certainly, there is reason to be afraid. The tragedies and terrors recapped every night on the news feel like signs of the apocalypse. In a world of artificial creators working with the raw materials we’re offering, what does our future look like? More starkly, do we even have a future?

I take solace from people like Becky Chambers, who is determined to envision and build a future where humans have learned hard lessons and have evolved to embrace world-building work that is more compassionate, just and equitable. Chambers’ fictional world makes me want to take advantage of this moment, to examine our fears and think carefully and ethically about what we want from artificial intelligence and ourselves.

In my experience, teaching others is one of the best ways to learn. As we teach artificial intelligence, inputting all our human data, the data reflected to us can clarify who we are today. But we can also get clear on who we want to be — and what we want for our future. We can ask and answer questions like: In a world addicted to violence, what can I do today to promote a future of peace? In a political moment marked by incivility, disrespect and division, how can I embody Christ’s path of love, care and compassion? Amid environmental chaos and crisis, what can I do to attune myself to the natural world and honor the dignity of all creation?

“For anybody who could use a break.” Chambers’ dedication includes me, for sure. I need a break from the terrifying tragedies of our current reality. But, more so, I need a break that helps me, you, us, envision a new, more hopeful future. I pray you’ll join me in this faithful conversation and this sacred work.