AI, humanity and the unveiling mirror

Artificial intelligence reflects our imperfections, but that is not the whole story, writes Katy Shevel.

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Decades before the advent of Siri and ChatGPT, “The Twilight Zone” predicted our true fears behind artificial intelligence.

In 1963, an episode aired in black-and-white called Uncle Simon. Simon and his niece Barbara have a fraught relationship. Uncle Simon ridicules and insults Barbara daily, making incessant demands. Barbara eagerly awaits the day of Simon’s last breath so she can collect her uncle’s inheritance.

When that day finally arrives, Simon leaves a sneaky provision for his niece in his will. To inherit her uncle’s estate, Barbara must take responsibility for Simon’s latest secret experiment: a robot hidden away in the basement that springs to life once it is discovered.

At first, life with her uncle’s automaton does not seem so bad. As the days pass by, the robot learns more and begins to behave strangely. Barbara becomes fearful and suspicious. Soon, the robot begins spewing insults at her, demanding hot chocolate, and ordering her around day and night — just like Uncle Simon.

Uncle Simon’s robot evolved to become all that he was: believing what he did, behaving like he did, and reasoning like he did. As “The Twilight Zone” viewers discovered, confronting a human being in the form of an unbiased computer is both amazing and terrifying to behold. Intelligent machines show us who we really are.

Intelligent machines show us who we really are.

Artificial intelligence shows both the best and worst of us. As the Presbyterian Outlook’s Editor Teri McDowell Ott observes, artificial intelligence effectually “reflects us.” It exposes our shortcomings and our faults. AI learns just as much from our virtues as our vices. It reveals our ignorance and deficiencies. We are coexisting with intelligent machines in our homes, which remind us daily of all that we don’t know. Once I asked Alexa what the meaning of life was, and she just replied vaguely: “There’s an app for that.”

Our future with intelligent machines is far from perfect. We haven’t solved the world’s problems with artificial intelligence — instead we keep unintentionally exposing the flaws within ourselves. Microsoft designed an AI chatbot to learn from social media conversations with humans. In under 24 hours, Twitter users successfully taught the bot to post offensive content, including racist and sexist tweets. A sheriff’s office in Pasco County, Florida, hoped to prevent crime by using an AI algorithm to generate lists of people deemed “likely” to break the law. The names on the lists are monitored and targeted by police, leading to claims of police bias and harassment across the county.

If artificial intelligence learns from us, then it will continue to reflect our flaws to us. So perhaps the space where the spiritual path and intelligent machinery intersect is simply the place where we are forced, once and for all, to admit that our vision is not enough. To quote the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians, “For now, we are seeing in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We don’t see everything. We don’t know everything. We are biased. We are broken. We are not enough.

When we arrive in this sobering place, faith gives us hope. Once we admit the raw and unflattering truth of who we really are – flaws and all – we are drawn outwards, beyond what we can see. This is where we encounter the fullness of God, and all that God has done for us. The scales fall off our eyes: “I was blind but now I see…” When we encounter the “amazing grace” of God, we can look beyond condemnation, imperfections and pride. We can see that God beholds us with divine mercy, grace and steadfast love.

Artificial intelligence reflects our imperfections, but that is not the whole story.

Artificial intelligence reflects our imperfections, but that is not the whole story. God sees us: who we were created to be, who we have been called to be, and who we will be eternally with God forevermore.

The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here