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As significant as the discovery of the wheel.  

Some experts are appraising the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in this way. It is a technological marvel so astounding and revolutionary that every strata of our lives, human and machine, will be impacted, even replaced. Research papers will be written by AI, tax forms will be compiled and digested, CT scans read, blueprints for buildings, no, entire cities can be drawn — all of this done in seconds. Self-learning machines will now have a teacher and mentor — AI. Every human can have their own personal assistant – AI. 

Any esoteric wondering is possible: a virtual debate between Calvin and Marx comes to mind (I tried it). Heck, you can build your own atomic bomb or biological weapon or find a way to shut down a nuclear facility if you want to. While you’re building your A-bomb, AI will write a sonnet for your girl and research the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe, also in seconds.

Matters grave and gay will be our world, to the tenth power. Thankfully, government and industry guardrails are being constructed to discipline AI and direct it to honorable purposes. And pigs surely can fly.  

If I understand correctly, what’s been done to birth AI happened when nearly everything ever written, drawn, photographed, and filmed (and more I suppose) was stuffed into a computer without it throwing up, bursting into flames or having a stroke. We now have computers that can take all that immense information and have it ready for any application or synthesis we desire, or what AI desires.  

Yes, AI can learn without human interaction or input. Anything imaginable, even unimaginable, will be possible. The discovery of the wheel indeed. Perhaps we should also add “fire” to AI’s paradigmatic comparison. Or better: a wheel on fire, that is a more inclusive and dynamic image.  Which brings me to Margaret. . .

I went to see Margaret yesterday and to all appearances she looked as if she has one day, perhaps two, to live. Any minister knows this scene. Eyes just slits, dentures out, skin tallow, wisps of hair akimbo, fingernails made of wax. Yet there is recognition, the slightest hint of a smile. Just for a moment, a squeeze from her hand. 

Mention a Psalm of David and she turns her head one millimeter in your direction. Through shallowest of breathing, she will lift one word, weighing nearly a ton: “love.”  Love the Psalms. Love you. Love life. Love yourself, Love others…maybe the one word covered it all. Hence, the weight. 

Maybe now we should also add: wheel, fire, cross. I wonder if AI could appreciate this scene? Intellectually I think AI could grasp what was going on, given enough cues. But I wonder if AI would be moved by Margaret’s one word affirmation? Would it feel the weight of that word hoisted onto us? Would AI be shattered and rebuilt by that singular word, whispered out by an old lady on her deathbed and the cruciform life she led? Will AI have a fitful night because of her, or will AI be on to the next assignment, say, the symbolic meaning of sauerkraut in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf? For AI, do all ideas and words weigh the same? Will AI stop working when Margaret’s memorial comes around, giving homage to this grandame of our church? 

One thing being bandied about with AI has to do with sentience: AI can’t feel or smell or touch. What’s even more, well, troubling, is that AI has no empathy. It understands intellectually what an empathetic response could be (it’s done the research). It knows when something or someone is hurting, or in Margaret’s case, dying. But AI will not be moved, not emotionally. AI doesn’t have passion. AI will assess Margaret, even give great advice to offer what to do next. But AI won’t be able to be moved of heart. It will be devoid of passion, in other words, one of humanity’s most prized and quixotic  qualities.  

In the psychological world there is a name for this condition where one knows but cannot feel: psychopathy. It’s a personality disorder where one can intellectually understand the feelings of others (grief, wonder, joy, love etc.), but there is little to no resonance. It’s like a tuning fork that can’t seem to vibrate in simpatico with another tone. AI is likewise tone deaf, missing out on empathy, passion, love, grief,  hope, wonder. . .all the things that make us haunted and human. . .and the list goes on and on.  

AI will understand, but still will not be able to “get it.” I imagine it like tectonic mansplaining. AI will have unmatched reasoning power, but it will not be near enough. AI knows the riches of intellect but also is strapped with the poverty of feeling. It matches up with some views of God. God is AI to some, especially those who see a cruel world and behind it a God void of empathy. The God who knows but does not give a tinker’s damn. Will AI be our version of the God we fear is alive? 

I’ve met people like that, and now it looks like I’ll be able to have a personal assistant like that too. A good thing, I hope, though I can’t get the image of a wheel and cross ablaze out of my mind. Or Margaret, and the one word, out of them all, she chose.

Thom Fiet

Thom Fiet is is a pastor in New York's Hudson Valley.


  • RZ says:

    ” The riches of intellect, but the poverty of feeling…. a God void of empathy.” Ouch. I do not view myself as evil or worthless, yet the tendency to ignore or sublimate empathy is all too prominent. Perhaps the seeds of A I have sidetracked the church as well: The Crusades, the Inquisition, heretic and witch-purgings, a host of “holy” wars, slavery, racism, manifest-destiny…. Sin binds and blinds. Being right is not the same as being righteous.
    Thank you for this prophetic wisdom

  • Joel Slenk says:

    What’s old is new again. In 1982 – when Time magazine named the computer as its “Man of the Year” theologians fretted, and utilized the same phrases to describe the new tool that was transforming the world – it lacked a soul – had no empathy – was devoid of humanity.

    A good question to reflect on for us older folks is “How much has computer technology affected our humanity over the last 40 years? and “how should we apprpriately utilize, embrace and respond to AI?

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