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Artificial Intelligence Taking Over Humanity? Why Catholics Have Nothing to Fear

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Eugene Gan - published on 12/11/14

Computers are neither our enemy nor our ideal.

What’s the meaning of life? Some Siri responses:
“Life: a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings. I guess that includes me.”
“I don’t know. But I think there’s an app for that.”
“All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.”

The Internet is abuzz with the news that well-known theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is fearful that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could bring about humankind’s ultimate downfall. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he told the BBC. Hawking, who suffers from the motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), made that comment during an interview in which he was asked about his new communication system that was jointly developed by Intel and SwiftKey. While pleased that his latest speech–aid employs a form of AI that learns his personal speech patterns and can predict and suggest words he might want to use next, Hawking expressed grave concerns for the future of humanity in the face of AI systems that can learn, adapt, and develop into complex thinking systems that would surpass us. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate," he said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Hawking isn’t alone with this vision of our future. CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, likewise declared rampant AI to be the "biggest existential threat" facing mankind. And if our media is a reflection of our culture’s hopes and fears, then going by the trend of news highlights and blockbuster movies that fan the flames of these same worries, we shouldn’t be surprised that the public at large has similar fears too. There’s Transcendence, Chappie, Ex Machina, and the upcoming Marvel’s Avengers: The Age of Ultron. There’s Google’s self-driving cars, IBM’s Watson beating Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, and Deep Blue toppling reigning chess champ Garry Kasparov at his own game. There are the venerable examples: Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (remember little Pinocchio-inspired-robot-boy yearning so desperately to be loved by his human mother?), the Terminator franchise (will real-life Amazon’s Drones morph into hunter-killer aerial gunships?), 2004’s Battlestar Galactica TV series (Cylon God???), and Blade Runner (geeks among us go weak at the knees recalling Rutger Hauer’s famous “Tears in the Rain” soliloquy), based on Philip K Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” In all these, the theme is similar: humans pitted against AI threats, with puny human beings not doing too well. And yes, Wall*e counts too since AI systems that so pamper us till we’re obese and no longer communicating face to face constitutes “humans not doing too well.” No wonder we’re depressed.  

But take heart: Hawking – and others – are making some fundamentally erroneous assumptions about the human condition. For starters, the word “intelligence” as they use it, is very narrowly defined. It doesn’t consider the gift of grace that enlightens the intellect, or the reality of our soul as “the subject of human consciousness and freedom” (Catechism of the Catholic Church glossary). For the record, the soul is not “produced” by a child’s parents. Only God can create an immaterial, immortal soul (Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 366). Webster’s “the ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations” and Google’s “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills” are representative definitions of the cultural attitude regarding intelligence, but these fail to highlight the importance of experience, memory, wisdom, exercise of free will, motivation, and even concupiscence, among other qualities, in our acquisition and application of knowledge and skills.

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