The season of Epiphany is a short one in 2024. The time for aha moments and breakthroughs in AI and Faith conversations is even shorter.
Seeking Wisdom, human and artificial
Epiphany is celebrated each year on January 6th, and churches reflect on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, which details when the Magi traveled over field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star. The Magi went on a journey following the Star (they were on the original Star Trek teehee), but Magi (or their common moniker “wise men”) really sought wisdom and understanding of cosmic purpose. How would a new king come about and what would they find under a star that signified a new king? How surprised they were to find the new king in a manger or in a ramshackle house in Bethlehem.
We are in the season seeking epiphanies as well in the technology world—of which my local church in Seattle is in the midst of—as technology companies race to create better Artificial Intelligence. The goal of our own trek towards Artificial Intelligence is the second word: intelligence.
So what is intelligence? According to Mo Gawdat a former Googler focused on AI (paraphrased), intelligence is awareness of your surroundings environment compounded with an ability to analyze and comprehend cause and effect of that surrounding environment.
- A child has intelligence when they understand cause and effect.
- A computer has intelligence when it understands cause and effect.
- But both would have wisdom when it comes to planning ahead and knowing what the next cause and effect would be in the future.
Think of the Magi, the wise men. People who are wise are those who see beyond the cause and effect in front of them and know what will happen next. And people who are wise perceive more causes and effects in front of them (scientific, historical, and sociological factors, for example) than those who are not. Think of the people who are wise in your life. They seem to see beyond the binary decisions that are often in front of us, and know the decisions beyond those and beyond those. That’s the goal of seeking wisdom.
So, at the most charitable level, AI is about people training computers to be wise so they can use their massive computational advantage over humans to predict what might happen further down the cause and effect continuum. Wisdom is fine to seek. Intelligence is fine to try to program. The problem is how do you get there, and what do you do with that wisdom when you have it.
Gifts that Uphold Human Dignity
The Magi followed a star because they believed that beyond the star was something wonderful. And so they started on their trek. When they arrived, they brought gifts, gifts that had significance: Gold represented kingship, frankincense was a fragrance used in worship, and myrrh was an embalming fluid (a portent of Jesus’ own death).
When I think of bringing gifts, I think of potluck dinners or lunches when everyone brings some dish from home to a common table. It can be chaotic: there can be casserole next to sushi next to chips and salsa, who knows what? The random nature is part of the fun. We bring our gifts to the pursuit of knowledge and each of our pursuits looks a little different, even if we are working out of the same cookbook together.
So I have to step again in the charitable and believe that there’s a special gift that AI can bring to our tables so long as the intent is to better all of us. AI has discovered new medicines and chemical compounds that we hadn’t come up with yet as humans. It has crunched massive datasets and led to new directions for climate justice, preservation of ancient scholarly texts, tracking spread of communicable diseases, and real-time translation. Anytime we have used a map program to find a better path, a chat bot on a website, or even a Wendy’s drive-thru attendant (upcoming!), we are using AI.
I believe there’s a gift that AI can bring us. There’s also a great calamitous concern, of course (we’ll touch on later in this series). Our advancements in AI should be gifts that uphold dignity, justice, and the betterment of humanity. We must be mindful of the consequences of our creations, ensuring they contribute positively to society and do not amplify our very human inequalities or harm.
Choosing a Better Path
Finally, we get to the end of the Magi story. It’s the last two lines, almost an afterthought to the saga, is that they return home, but do not return to Herod who is planning on killing Jesus once he has his GPS coordinates. They chose to go home by another way—they got a notification that “Google has found a better route”—and chose a better way.
Wisdom and intelligence help us choose a better way, both for our own lives, for our families lives, and for entire city planning, and national progress (which is frustratingly slow and sometimes backwards regression). We are called to forge new ethical pathways in AI development. This could mean prioritizing human well-being over profit, advocating for transparency, and being vigilant against biases and misuse. We must be open to divine guidance, constantly re-evaluating our course to ensure it aligns with our ethical and spiritual values.
And that does mean turning away from where AI ought not go, or to cease production of a learning model when it rips off artists and authors without compensation or recognition. We can do better than that. There is a better way forward.
Beyond Epiphany to epiphanies
Epiphany is not just a day when three Magi brought potluck gifts and then ran away. Epiphany was an entire journey seeking knowledge and choosing paths that gave life to the people and befuddlement to the empire.
Our engagement with AI should be marked with continuous epiphanies that redirect our energies in like fashion. We should constantly seek wisdom, offer our best ethical gifts, and be willing to alter our course for the greater good.
In 2024, the season of Epiphany is very short, less than 40 days until Lent begins. The season we will have before AI gets beyond the point of no return is short as well. What gifts can we bring to the conversation? What societal reckonings do we need too?
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(Image credit: DALL-E via ChatGPT, January 7 2024)