From the November/December 2021 issue of Discern Magazine

Dangers of Artificial Intelligence

It’s the stuff of science fiction, but some scientists foresee real danger as we create AI systems that exceed our own abilities. What is the future of humanity?

Human intelligence has shaped our world. We have expanded our horizons and abilities in thousands of ways, and now we seem to stand on the brink of creating artificial intelligence that can exceed us in nearly every way.

What could go wrong?

The real question may not be whether we can actually build machines with humanlike intelligence and consciousness. A more urgent question is: Can our incredible advances in technology be matched by advances in wisdom and ethical behavior? Will we all, and our computers and robots and other AI tools, act for the betterment of humanity?

The lessons of history are not hopeful. Major advances in technology have nearly always been accompanied by new dangers and more challenging ethical dilemmas. (For examples, see our article “Weapons of Mass Destruction and Bible Prophecy.”)

To understand the implications of the AI field, first we must answer: What is artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence definition

Professor B.J. Copeland, author of Artificial Intelligence, wrote:

“Artificial intelligence (AI), the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings. The term is frequently applied to the project of developing systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from past experience” (Britannica.com).

IBM’s introduction to artificial intelligence draws from Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig’s AI textbook, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. They delve into four potential goals or definitions of AI:

“Human approach:

  • Systems that think like humans
  • Systems that act like humans

“Ideal approach:

  • Systems that think rationally
  • Systems that act rationally.”

Sadly, these approaches are not the same. Human thinking and actions are often irrational and harmful, even when we don’t realize it.

Weak AI and strong AI

IBM also differentiates weak AI (more accurately, artificial narrow intelligence used to do specific tasks, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, IBM Watson and autonomous vehicles) from strong AI.

“Strong AI is made up of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI). Artificial general intelligence (AGI), or general AI, is a theoretical form of AI where a machine would have an intelligence equaled to humans; it would have a self-aware consciousness that has the ability to solve problems, learn, and plan for the future. Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI)—also known as superintelligence—would surpass the intelligence and ability of the human brain. While strong AI is still entirely theoretical with no practical examples in use today, that doesn’t mean AI researchers aren’t also exploring its development. In the meantime, the best examples of ASI might be from science fiction, such as HAL, the superhuman, rogue computer assistant in 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Artificial intelligence taking over?

AI seems to be everywhere in the media and popular culture. But will it really take over? Would we let it?

Jennifer Karppinen of the Future Today Institute noted that humans have varied levels of trust in AI:

“According to a recent survey, more than half of Europeans are ready to replace their lawmakers with artificial intelligence. There wasn’t consensus around the idea however, with younger respondents more likely to support it than older generations, and respondents in countries like the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany skeptical whether handing political power to machines would improve the situation. Not surprisingly, considering the country’s leadership in AI, the majority of those surveyed in China were supportive of the idea, while most Americans were not on board.”

Of course, such an AI government scenario is completely hypothetical at the moment. Yet we are entrusting more and more consequential decisions to artificial narrow intelligence, which it turns out is far from weak. Would we not cross the invisible barrier to empowering strong AI if it were developed?

However, the question remains, Is strong AI really near? Possibly, though new technologies generally go through a cycle, and Lex Fridman proposed in an MIT lecture in 2019 that we are at the peak of inflated expectations. So, in his view, we are approaching the trough of disillusionment.

AI dangers

Still, some futurists see artificial intelligence as inevitable and as the greatest risk to human survival.

Toby Ord is a senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University. He wrote The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity as part of his research into risks that threaten human extinction.

In The Precipice he presents the natural risks (such as asteroids, comets and supervolcanoes) and the risks related to human activity (such as nuclear weapons, environmental damage, pandemics and especially AI). He concludes that “the natural risks are dwarfed by those of our own creation,” which he sees as about 1,000 times as great (2020, p. 87).

He sees AI as the most potentially dangerous of all. With today’s flurry of research and investment in artificial intelligence, he writes, “It is a time of great promise but also one of great ethical challenges. There are serious concerns about AI entrenching social discrimination, producing mass unemployment, supporting oppressive surveillance, and violating the norms of war” (p. 141).

But worse, he sees AI as posing existential risks to humanity. “The most plausible existential risk would come from success in AI researchers’ grand ambition of creating agents with a general intelligence that surpasses our own” (p. 141).

Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with enormous opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”This is the stuff of science fiction, but Toby Ord explains that many experts see it as the logical outcome of the current developments in the field.

“In the existing paradigm, sufficiently intelligent agents would end up with instrumental goals to deceive and overpower us. And if their intelligence were to greatly exceed our own, we shouldn’t expect it to be humanity who wins the conflict and retains control of our future” (p. 146).

Whether this is far-fetched or far-off remains to be seen. But serious scientists have concerns about this and other human-caused threats to our existence.

Autonomous weapons, AI surveillance and current risks

Though strong AI might be in the future, current AI technologies have their own risks. Consider two applications of AI:

Autonomous weapons (such as autonomous drones and killer robots): “Described as the third revolution in warfare after gunpowder and nuclear weapons, lethal autonomous weapons (AWS) are weapon systems that can identify, select and engage a target without meaningful human control . . .

“Over 4500 AI and Robotics researchers, 250 organizations, 30 nations and the Secretary General of the UN have called for [a] legally-binding treaty banning lethal AWS. They have been met with resistance from countries developing lethal AWS, fearing the loss of strategic superiority” (Future of Life Institute).

Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with enormous opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.

AI surveillance: “AI surveillance tools in various forms are spreading globally, from facial recognition and early outbreak detection to predictive policing and gait recognition. Despite different legal restrictions, authoritarian and democratic states alike are increasingly employing these instruments to track, surveil, anticipate, and even grade the behavior of their own citizens. The application of these AI surveillance tools is a very important cornerstone of an emerging trend towards digital authoritarianism” (Atlantic Council).

Read more about the ominous real-world application of this technology in our article “Big Data Meets Big Brother in China.”

Thinking humanly

More fundamentally, what about the risks in teaching machines to think like we do? As the title of an article by Natalie Wolchover puts it, “Artificial Intelligence Will Do What We Ask. That’s a Problem.”

She cited examples of social media AI that reinforce our preferences to the point they can help “polarize and radicalize people.” She also asked some pointed questions about the dangers of thinking humanly:

“What about the preferences of bad people? What’s to stop a robot from working to satisfy its evil owner’s nefarious ends? AI systems tend to find ways around prohibitions just as wealthy people find loopholes in tax laws, so simply forbidding them from committing crimes probably won’t be successful.

“Or, to get even darker: What if we all are kind of bad?”

The prophet Jeremiah quoted God’s dire assessment of the human heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). From the beginning, humanity has chosen a mixture of good and evil (Genesis 2:17; 3:4-6), and it seems the evil is always lurking, ready to sabotage the good.

Human creativity amplifies human abilities and dangers

Humanity’s curiosity, our drive for advancement, for profit, for power, for security—these all have motivated us in our efforts to amplify our abilities. Throughout history, our weapons, our tools and our ability to control our environment have improved. In recent years, our science and technology have advanced exponentially.

But the advances have often added to the dangers and the ethical dilemmas facing humanity. Our ability to govern ourselves and our technologies lags far behind our material advances.

Nothing will be withheld from them

The dangers in humanity’s rush to control and improve our environment have a long history. Often our hubris outstrips our wisdom. Our unbridled creativity pushes the envelope of what we can do long before we grapple with what we should do.

At an earlier hinge point in history, God intervened to slow man’s race toward self-destruction. At the Tower of Babel, God diagnosed the danger: “Now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (Genesis 11:6). God divided their languages as a brake on those developments.

These solutions cannot be discovered or implemented by artificial intelligence. In fact, they are beyond human intelligence as well, because they are spiritual in nature.Now humanity has achieved new heights in knowledge and creativity. We are again on the brink of awesome developments, perhaps including artificial general intelligence. But though our creativity is strong, our ethics are weak. There is no accepted guidebook to navigate the proliferating ethical dilemmas. Now our lack of control of our self-destructive impulses puts us on the precipice of extinction.

As Jesus warned, “Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved” (Matthew 24:22).

Knowledge, understanding and wisdom

Human intelligence is great at gathering knowledge, good at coming to some level of understanding, but not so good at developing the wisdom that counts.

Toby Ord contrasts mankind’s technological prowess and power with our wisdom:

“Fueled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves—severing our entire future and everything we could become. Yet humanity’s wisdom has grown only falteringly, if at all, and lags dangerously behind. Humanity lacks the maturity, coordination and foresight necessary to avoid making mistakes from which we could never recover. As the gap between our power and our wisdom grows, our future is subject to an ever-increasing level of risk” (The Precipice, p. 3).

No matter how fast or knowledgeable our AI technology becomes, it will also suffer from a lack of the essential, nonphysical “wisdom that is from above” (James 3:17).

The Bible describes the ultimate source of this wisdom—the wisdom that produces good results on a worldwide and an eternal scale.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments” (Psalm 111:10).

Such reverence of the Creator is not an irrational fear but a logical acknowledgement of God’s superiority. The One who made us truly knows what is best for us. His laws define the way that works and will bring peace, security, joy and happiness forever.

God has the answers to our ethical dilemmas. He has the solutions to our self-destructive tendencies.

These solutions cannot be discovered or implemented by artificial intelligence. In fact, they are beyond human intelligence as well, because they are spiritual in nature. God’s wisdom comes to us by receiving God’s Holy Spirit, which, added to the spirit in man, allows us to discern the only real solutions to our spiritual problems (1 Corinthians 2:11-14).

And here lies the deepest difference between AI and humanity: our incredible potential.

Future of humanity: our human potential

Earlier we read Jesus’ warning that humanity will be on the brink of self-destruction. But He followed that with a message of hope: “For the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:22).

The elect are those humans whose hearts and minds have been transformed by receiving the gift of God’s Holy Spirit and the spiritual wisdom it makes possible. And this small group will pave the way for millions and billions of others to join them in a family relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ, our elder Brother.

Jesus proclaimed He will return to earth and bring the way of peace this world has not known. He will teach the way of love and giving. He will provide access to the wisdom from above.

Then, instead of AI learning to think like flawed humans, the universe will be transformed by humans learning to think and act like our loving Creator.

Learn more about this amazing human potential in our free booklet God’s Purpose for You: Discovering Why You Were Born.

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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