Artificial Intelligence

Today’s blog post is a guest piece written by my good friend Alex Ciurana. Highest kudos to him, as this is an excellent read on the ‘other’ Artificial Intelligence (AI) that permeates our society today. Brilliant!

There’s a humorous saying in academics that goes something like this: students today learn less and less about more and more until eventually they know nothing about everything. Or, in specialized fields, they learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.

It seems this maxim likely also holds true when it comes to other arenas of society. We have pundits and armchair philosophers on nearly every matter of modern life. You can hire a life-coach online for fifty dollars an hour, get your daily news from your choice of political slants, and read all about “10 New Sex Positions” in magazines at every grocery store. We are inundated with data from the time we arrive for work to the time we go to bed.

With this barrage of daily data, it’s easy to get lost in the flow of artificial intelligence. Not the sort of AI that we typically think of in a computer eerily capable of learning, but the sort that takes the word at face value in a human context: that there are a great many “experts” out there whose intelligence is contrived, hollow, and often demonstrably false. Such AI is not new. In ancient Athens there were philosophers-for-hire who would argue almost any position, whether the philosopher believed in it or not, felt it to be morally right or not, absurd or sound. These were called sophists. They were the ancient precursor of what we might think of as today’s unscrupulous defense attorneys who often win cases for very guilty clients.

We are perhaps rather enamored with sophistry today. As long as the words are nicely knit together, the suit is pressed, and the tone confident, we rarely check the facts. After all, who has time? Who has time to personally think, ponder, and scrutinize? To be sure, the very reason division of labor, specialization, and expertise exists is because of our lack of time. I do not have the realistic time to become my own dentist, or my own car mechanic, or a great many things that I presently am not. We each have an invested trust in the intelligence of others. This trust allows us the space for our own interests and specialties. Therefore, if that trust is placed in intelligence that is artificial, that trust is misplaced indeed.

A funny thing though about human nature is that we all like to be thought of as knowledgeable, as intelligent. When we talk, we like it when others listen—and we like it even more if they say nice things about what we said. And when we are being listeners, we know it is often easier to say nice things than to respectfully challenge what is said. Yet this is just the sort of environment in which artificiality thrives.

Nowadays it is an increasingly rare skill to respectfully challenge. And when a challenge is made, we often confuse persons for positions; that is, we attack the person of the idea, rather than the idea of the person. Politics, office tensions, relationship scuffles, and TV’s talking heads are rife with personal attack. To respectfully challenge requires some awe of the human faculty to think straight, to feel sympathetically, and to care about truth even more than niceness. The seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”

Artificial intelligence is laziness, for to love truth is the highest of labors. Artificial intelligence is prideful, because it seeks the admiration of others rather than real debate. And artificial intelligence is dangerous when it leads many, who presume it to be expertise, down dubious ideological paths. Ideas are not safe. Even true ideas, correct ideas, are not safe, but they are good. False ideas are neither safe nor good.

When we do not do our best in the way we treat our ideas and the ideas of others, we lower humanity. We are less human when we think less, respectfully challenge less, and absorb without filter, without a healthy skepticism. Let us not lose the reverence for a formal fight, for two minds in opposition on a single issue yet both being open to the possibility of being wrong. We would do well to value our opponents. Often the skilled enemy is worth more than many friends.


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About Alex Ciurana:

Alex Ciurana is a counselor at ANEW Place with graduate degrees in Psychology and Theology. He currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, with his two daughters and two very frisky kittens.