Alienating Intelligence by Julie A. Ferraro

My father was a voracious reader of science fiction. When he died in 1999, he had a considerable collection of paperbacks from authors like E. E. “Doc” Smith, Isaac Asimov, and others.

More into mysteries, I didn’t avail myself of those volumes—except for the occasional crossover, like Asimov’s Robots of Dawn. Another book that piqued my interest was titled Valentina, by Joseph H. Delaney and Marc Stiegler, published in 1984.

As a minor computer geek, the plot outlined on those pages gave me pause: a computer created to have a personality, to grow and learn—a precursor to what the world is facing today. Add to that Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—the book and the film, with Hal 9000 refusing to relinquish control of the space ship—and I shiver at the thought.

Artificial intelligence.

In the decades since those authors shared their imaginative visions, I’ve watched technology explode—and humanity accept much of it without a qualm. It continues to puzzle me why people would trust control of their lights, thermostat, and appliances to silicon chips that respond to spoken commands (and record conversations without permission).

Even the little robotic vacuum that roams around the house, eliminating the need to sweep or mop, gives me the willies.

The implications of all this automation transcends the dangers of misuse or malfunctions. It involves the spiritual, physical and mental well-being of every creature on the planet.

When a person prefers to talk to a small cone-shaped fixture, instructing it to switch on the oven so dinner will cook, or activate a mechanism that will draw the curtains after sunset, what has become of us? The invention of the remote control for televisions eliminated the requirement of getting off the sofa to change channels, and it’s escalated from there.

AI is impacting the collective health of the species. The ability to settle in a recliner after a day’s work, and not move again until it’s time to go to bed, drains strength from the muscles, atrophies the brain, and numbs the senses.

To those who say the invention of “intelligent” technology is a convenience, and hard-working individuals deserve a bit of help around the house or office, I don’t deny the fact that this is being typed on a computer connected to the internet. But no one will ever find me placing an order for a “whole home” system that could, with a random pulse of excess electricity, turn my living quarters into a chamber of horrors.

The purpose, ultimately, of technology in making life easier is to free people to spend time with each other, to dedicate their time and talents to helping others. While the dishwasher cleans the pots, pans, and bowls, for instance, couldn’t that hour be used to comfort an ailing friend, or playing a board game with the family (instead of scrolling through apps on a cell phone)?

Made in the divine image, it’s important to remember that we are social beings, meant to share life with others: family, friends, neighbors. AI has the very real potential to alienate us from each other, to make humanity slaves to technology, and not the other way around.

I’m not the sort to ever believe that my words—or the objections of those far more educated than I—will stop the progress already begun with introducing AI into every facet of daily life. But for those who still grasp that there’s more to human existence than making the onerous duties as easy as possible, perhaps the advice—the warning—to think before entrusting ordinary tasks to (expensive and unsecure) devices powered by motherboards and memory cards will be taken to heart.

We have been given the earth and its bounty, but that means using it wisely. AI won’t, ultimately, facilitate that mandate, it will only spoil things for all. The rich will grow wealthier, and the poor will suffer more—not only in third-world countries, but in our own backyards.

The need to exercise while enjoying nature, not on some computerized equipment with a screen that simulates the countryside, is essential. Being attentive to our spiritual journey, which means lifting our eyes from the cell phone screen to the mountains “from whence cometh our help,” and seeing those who need our assistance, is vital.

As for mental health, AI will be no substitute for enjoying the company of others at a picnic, going fishing or bird-watching, or talking frankly with friends about challenges, joys, sorrows. The priority for anyone claiming to be Christian is service to others, not subservience to AI. ♦

Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Idaho. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.

Image: Marco Verduzco | Unsplash
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