Article Jan 24, 2018

What is Artificial Intelligence?

“I can’t help you with that right now. But I am always learning”

My family has a digital assistant working in our home that is incredibly smart, never takes a break, and never complains about its job. Recently, we purchased a Google Home mini to integrate with other smart products in our home, and my family has found some fun ways to use it, especially with our toddler.

My son is learning different animal sounds, and his favorite sound to make is “moo.” We discovered that our Google Home will make animal noises on command, and he loves to hear its sounds. A few weeks back, we asked our Google Home to make a number of different animal sounds, and it’s response to one that it couldn’t find struck me. “I can’t help you with that right now. But I am always learning.”

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an emerging field of technology defined as non-biological intelligence, where a machine is programmed to accomplish complex goals. Popularly known examples are Google Home, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa. But there are far more advanced AI systems than these being used in a variety of applications, such as business, medicine, and finance.

Recently, a set of videos went viral on the internet from Google’s DeepMind and Boston Dynamics. These AI based systems were doing things that astonished most viewers and even many in the AI field. From an AI teaching itself how to walk and jump without human intervention to a humanoid robot doing back flips and crossing rough terrain, AI systems have become so advanced that many are starting to wonder what these systems will be able to accomplish in the future as they become smarter and human intervention becomes less necessary. This is not a sci-fi fantasy. It’s reality.

Not just fun and games

The term “artificial intelligence” was coined in the 1956 by John McCarthy, who is considered the father of AI. That year he organized the “The Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence,” which was a gathering of experts for brainstorming about the reality of AI. In the last few years, the complexity of these systems has grown faster than most believed possible.

Google’s DeepMind created an AI system called AlphaGo that recently dethroned the reigning Go champion. Go is an ancient abstract strategy board game that is played on 19x19 inch board with black and white stones. The game was created over 2,500 years ago in China and is still played by over 40 million people in 75 different countries. The game is extremely complex even though it has very simple rules. It is believed that there are at least 2 x 10170² possible moves on the game board which leads most players to use their intuition rather than rote memory to win the game.

Prior AI was developed using “expert systems” that had not been able to take on a challenge like the game of Go based on complexity. These systems dealt with facts rather than ideas. Examples are IBM’s Watson and Deep Blue that played chess. They became “experts” for a given problem but were not able to transcend the task they were designed to accomplish, meaning they could not be applied to other tasks.

The AlphaGo project was formed by Google’s DeepMind around 2014 to research the ability of AI systems to use “deep neural networks” for learning rather than expert systems. This type of machine learning was new to the AI field because it was programmed to function similar to a human brain. In March 2016, AlphaGo beat world champion Lee Sedol 4 to 1 in a 5-game match. AlphaGo surpassed all expectations for AI systems and helped show what the future of AI might hold. The possibilities are seemingly limitless for what AI is able to learn to do.

AI and work?

We might be tempted to think that AI systems are sci-fi fun and games, but AI is so much more. One example is how AI systems are revolutionizing our workforce through various types of automation and data processing that leads many AI researchers, government heads, and industry leaders to question how we have thought about the workforce and the role of computer systems. Many jobs previously thought untouchable by machines are now on the brink of being augmented by or replaced completely by AI in the near future.

AI systems are being used to supplement, and in many cases, take over entire factories. An AI system is able to do the jobs of thousands of factory workers while working 24/7 without breaks. These systems are often overseen by a single operator and a few human workers that clean up after the robots. These AI-based factories are producing higher quality products at rates that far exceed that of their human counterparts and are doing all of this cheaper, making the company more money. Many people have been put out of work because of these advanced systems, and the rate of job replacement is projected to continue exponentially as AI continues to learn and grow ever more complex.

Many researchers and developers now proclaim that we have entered the “second machine age” where machines can rival their human counterparts in many areas never thought possible.

The church must be proactive in learning about Artificial Intelligence, as well as participating in the larger discussion about the future of AI research and development.

Expendable humanity?

While a complete AI takeover of society is not imminent, it is very likely that within the next 20-50 years we will see society completely revolutionized by these systems. From the workforce to healthcare and art, the influence of AI is growing at an exponential rate. The church must be proactive in learning about Artificial Intelligence, as well as participating in the larger discussion about the future of AI research and development.

Large groups of AI researchers and technology giants are now gathering to discuss AI safety research and how we want to implement this technology in the future. Most of these discussions revolve around the concept of human dignity in light of the rise of stronger AI systems. Topics range from upgrading humanity with machine components allowing us to live longer or perform tasks outside of basic human ability and strength, to how an AI system is to be treated by society as these systems are beginning to function more autonomously. What role should AI systems have in government, military, and business applications? Do AI systems live under the same type of morality code that we as humans have as a society? Should these machines be treated similar to humans with basic rights if they are able to outperform humans in many tasks or surpass human knowledge?

The church has the ability to be a part of these discussions much earlier than most ethical issues that we have faced in the past, such as the horror of abortion. In the 1970s, many evangelicals did not speak out against abortion and its legalization, yet now are boldly advocating for pro-life legislation and caring for women in crisis pregnancy situations. Today, instead of being reactive to technological trends, we should seek to be proactive in these discussions, proclaiming that human dignity is not based on what we do but on who we are as created in the image of God. AI systems and machines might one day outperform us in every type of task and maybe even replace us in the workplace, but they will never have a soul and will never be able overtake their creators in terms of dignity and worth.

AI is always learning, the question is, how will we respond?