Article Jun 11, 2018

Why artificial intelligence can be a threat to human dignity

About a month ago, Google announced a groundbreaking technology that it hopes will revolutionize the way humans interact with computers. Google Duplex was debuted at the Google I/O Developer Conference on May 8th in Mountain View, California. Duplex is a piece of artificial intelligence that can make phone calls for you. Google plans to release this technology to the public later this summer as a part of their popular Google Assistant platform. While this technology has incredible potential for customers and businesses, it also has a number of underlying social and ethical issues that we need to be thinking about as we soon engage with it ourselves.

An improved digital assistant

During the I/O presentation, Google Duplex called to book a woman’s salon appointment and a restaurant reservation for four without any human intervention on the user’s side. After the call, it sends a push notification to let you know that it has completed its task. Remarkably, Duplex sounded almost identical to a human being. The employees on the other end of the calls had no idea they were communicating with a computer. The AI system incorporates various “umms,” “ahhs,” and pauses to sound more natural. Duplex also has the ability to change the voice it uses depending on the user’s preference.

The rise of AI-based technology like Google Duplex is one of the most subtle threats to human dignity to come in our lifetime.

At its core, Duplex is a piece of artificial intelligence (AI) that is based on a recurrent neural network (RNN), where the system employs the newest type of machine learning that is able to understand what is being said, interact with the other caller in real time, pace itself, account for variables or misunderstandings, and then speak in a natural way that is virtually indistinguishable from another human in the context of a phone call. The system was able to learn these methods of communications from a set of recorded calls given to it by the developers. It processed these calls, learned from them, then it made practice phone calls with human supervision and was able to learn from its mistakes. Soon after these calls, it had no need for human supervision and was able to function on its own with a high level of precision and accuracy.

It is easy to see why Google and many outsiders are excited about this type of technology—it can automate and complete fairly complex tasks on behalf of end-users, as well as save businesses countless hours tending to calls for abnormal hours of operation. But the fallout of the announcement has been a little stronger than many at Google expected.

Many technologists and journalists covering the event expressed worry and concern about the ethical and social implications surrounding the technology, ranging from the recording of conversations without the knowledge of the human on the other end to the erosion of authenticity and trust in the age of fake news. How will we know if we are talking to a real human, or just another machine?

Bettering humanity?

One of the biggest concerns that surfaced was about how humans this technology seemed in its interactions. It could mimic us in speech and fool the employees. Technology has increasingly been able to perform tasks quicker, more efficiently, and more precise than humans, but until now, these machines were very robotic in their interactions.

Is it true that Google is trying to mimic or degrade humanity? Is Google simply trying to further erode trust and authenticity in our society? I don’t believe so, but this technology does leave some open questions about how it will be used and deployed. Throughout the presentation, and even in the post-announcement article on the Google AI blog, it seems that Google is seeking to develop a product that they believe will be lucrative for their business, all the while aiding and bettering human interactions with computers.

Potential fallout

In this age of AI, humanity is now creating technology that is able to assist or outright replace us by communicating just like us on our behalf. It leads many to question what it truly means to be human and what might happen if these machines are able to outperform us in more and more areas of life. These advanced forms of AI have already led to job loss through automation. Yet, we are now seeing the loss of jobs that have been immune to the effects of technology because of the need for social engagement and emotional intelligence. AI systems are not to the point where they are able to function with independence in most areas of life, but many predict that development is on the horizon.

Another potential issue is that this technology could contribute to the growing mistrust in our society. We already struggle to know if the news we hear or read is actually true. Now, it appears that we won't even be sure if we are really interacting with another human or simply a machine programmed to imitate one.

We don’t know exactly how this technology will be used, but we can already see the downfalls. This is a growing concern among many in the AI field, as well as technologists at large. Even many employees at Google, including top engineers, expressed fear about how another AI-based project from Google could be misused in terms of autonomous warfare.

A threat to dignity

The tools that we have created are becoming smarter, faster, and more adept at interacting for us. This shift has the potential to improve our lives by allowing us to focus on more complex tasks, but I believe this shift is more dangerous than many might think. The rise of AI-based technology like Google Duplex is one of the most subtle threats to human dignity to come in our lifetime. It feeds into the popular notion that our dignity and worth is solely dependent on our usefulness to society rather than bestowed on us in creation by God.

AI can also be used in ways that devalue human life and the deterioration of human flourishing because they can function as a substitute for us. It is already being implemented in many sectors of private and public life, including medicine, manufacturing, finance, and warfare. Yet, for all all the potential benefits, real dangers exist, and we must be aware of how it will affect our society.

As Christians, we know that God defines our worth and dignity, regardless of what we can do. In reality, we have nothing to offer God or others (Isaiah 64:5-7). Still, because of love (John 3:16), God chose to send his Son to earth to redeem us and give us everlasting life with him. And we must be the ones at the forefront of the movement proclaiming that true worth and dignity are not found in silicon chips or data sets, but in the heartbeat of those uniquely created in the likeness of our God.