Like many of you I am observing the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). And I don’t know whether to try to befriend it, ignore it, or run away fast. I do know, however, AI is not just a benign phantom, and, ready and willing or not, I need to try to live with it. And it already is deeply impacting my daily life in ways I probably cannot even imagine. (At this point in my pondering I easily revert to my increasing default position of gratitude that I am probably too old now to need to care too terribly much! But then there are my lovely, bright grandchildren for whom omnipresent AI will largely define their worlds. So I better try to pay attention!)
As I try to fathom what AI means culturally and to our planet my underlying question is always whether it offers diminishment or empowerment for the welfare and sustainability of our planet, or more importantly, how is AI at work in our personal lives. We read daily about all the incredible capacity AI has for medicine, art, politics, education, and business…the long list goes on. But at what cost? And are we willing to invest and entrust our future to the noblesse oblige of AI when, given apparently unlimited power to define our lives, it will reciprocate with ethical responsibility and enhance our welfare and the common good. Given that no one has much assurance about how benign AI is, or will become, are we simply striking a tragic bargain with a Devil?
A recent piece on Washington public radio, for example, introduced how the WA Dept. of Education is rapidly exploring how to support whole school districts to adapt to the opportunities for AI generated curricula. I was particularly interested in the possibility that each child will have an AI directed tutor to oversee their individualized learning process. After some discussion on the various possibilities being considered the radio interviewer asked an obvious tag-along question: Does this mean teachers will likely be replaced by AI tutors? The honest answer was “Probably yes," but then the interviewee offered assurance is that, so far at least, AI is still subject to its programmers. Somehow that offers inadequate assurance for me when I think of how important my close mentoring and personal relationships with teachers have been in my life and my communities - not to mention how cautious I am about those programmers’ intentions!
Am I just expressing yet another elder's reluctance to accept change? It is true, of course, although I may have only reluctantly accepted many of the dramatic changes in technology within my lifetime - like the marvel of the my way-too-clever, encyclopedic computer - for which I am now deeply grateful. But the technological changes this round come so fast, so clearly most often out of my control. So can I trust that AI, too, will ultimately create a wiser, easier, more fulfilling world? I don’t know.
Two aspects of life, however, give me hope.
A recent college grad friend with a deep background in AI visited us recently. He was impressive both in his deep knowledge of AI and in his equally deep, hopeful spirit that seems, at least, to believe in a positive, AI driven future. I don’t know the extent of folks like him, but it is encouraging to know at least one person who does not share my trepidations, and I want to believe there are many more.
A second sign of hope for me is always in the grace and power of our infinitely interconnected and interdependent web of life on earth and beyond. Our sophisticated human technology may seem to have run ahead of the respect and reverence we must somehow retain, but ultimately there is another level of Wisdom that is so much larger and ultimately more compassionate than we can imagine. However we try to name or experience it - God, Nature, Mystery, Creator, or Love - it will always be beyond us and our technology. OK, that is a faith statement, I know, but I also believe the more we know about cosmology and the wonders and order and purpose in all the wider universe, I will always believe there is also empirical evidence that there is a “force more powerful" that reigns over all. And I believe, with AI or not, our little blue planet is thus ultimately at least in good hands in spite of our species’ impact!