This was first published in Phronesis in Pieces at billschmitt.substack.com on April 11, 2023.
There’s a sweet scent of progress lofting in one corner of the polarized public square.
Although many policy arenas have become musty with stale conversations based on old talking points, group-think, and Machiavellian advocacy, one sector—the $387-billion artificial intelligence market—has proclaimed it wants to think bigger thoughts, in a better way.
An open letter, signed (as of April 9) by about 19,000 participants in the technology, including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, emerged last month with a call for a worldwide “time-out.”
Perhaps one of the “large language model” chatbots that now write term papers pro bono discovered some sage advice during its research; for example, a human named G. K. Chesterton offered this warning: “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
The “please press pause” letter, posted on March 22 by the Future of Life Institute, declares AI labs should immediately halt, for at least six months, the “training” of AI systems more powerful than “ChatGPT4.” That mega-bot was the latest version of a wordplay wunderkind released in March. The announcement came amid other news sparking fears that some of our super-tech prodigies have a dark side.
The letter-writers said the pause in cutting-edge AI development should be used by labs around the world to collaborate with “independent experts” to develop and implement safety protocols and with “policymakers” to establish governance structures.
A publication such as Phronesis in Pieces naturally salutes this effort to inject more wisdom into AI through broader and deeper human insights. It’s high time to prioritize the common good over the dynamics of corporate competition and elite power.
But this hopeful piece of news left many questions. How would a moratorium be designed and enforced? How might corporations and governments work together in a statesmanlike way?
Is it enough to bring together “independent experts” and “policymakers” to talk about better procedures and guard rails? Whose voices should be heard as we design standards protecting the weakest, strongest, and in-betweens?
The secularization and relativism in society, separating God’s justice and mercy from everyday concerns, make it more difficult to discern the “common good” when we try to start up 21st century conversations.
While the Declaration of Independence implicitly tied our collective mission to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, alternative formulations now highlight other trinities: environmental, societal, and governance principles, or gains in diversity, equity, and inclusivity.
These terms are easier to capture in metrics, scientific language, and modern-day advocacy.
Those insisting on higher hopes are increasingly seen as rebellious and authoritarian, threatening the natural order with their own “extreme” imaginations.
The letter from the Future of Life Institute helps us focus on today’s conundrum.
We acknowledge that forces now unleashed are, in some sense, out of control. We must improve our control so we can maintain good social order. But the advancement of innovation and technology remains our holy grail.
That favors inviting additional intelligent people (and kindred spirits) into strategic, hopefully quick and easy, consultations.
Some geniuses may be unwelcome because their wisdom embodies—or arises from—an excitement about distinctively human potential and aspirations. They might create spiritual friction with the disciples following science, materialism, greed, or power politics alone.
I fear some of the letter-writers, championing the humane goal of a pause for reflection, remain committed to AI advances that tend toward the disempowered human, or even the transhuman.
The Powers That Be
This recalls the World Economic Forum and its iconic founder, engineer Klaus Schwab. Some corporatist intentions for a globalist lifeboat reside within an ironic bubble that combines hubris, insecurity, and a sense of historic inevitability—a kind of savior complex.
In comments at the WEF’s World Governance Summit in February, Schwab said technologies related to AI, the metaverse, space, and advanced biology have entered an “exponential phase.” He made this forecast: Our life in ten years from now will be completely different, “and who masters those technologies in some way will be the master of the world.”
Mastery is still the paradigm for corporate and geopolitical leaders who see themselves “doing God’s work.” Those who would like to see God do His own work, blessing and empowering humans in communion with Him, have opted for mystery, not mastery.
This fosters a duality between the constructive, problem-solving attitude found among WEF partisans and the “passive” or “negative” stance those partisans attribute to others.
In a commentary that appeared on March 21, the day before the “AI pause” letter, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sketched a scenario more positive than the “us vs. them” duality. He portrayed champions of AI’s long march as open-minded, ready for challenging discussions.
He presaged the Future of Life Institute’s call for new wisdom related to artificial intelligence. But here too, I sensed an ironic mix: requesting help on a large scale and yet limiting one’s imagination about the sources and forces of that help.
Friedman warned there is not much time to search for help on controlling AI, and the problem at this point is huge.
This is a “Promethean moment” when new developments of ability and mind frame will almost literally change everything—“that is, how you create, how you compete, how you collaborate, how you work, how you learn, how you govern, and, yes, how you cheat, commit crimes, and fight wars.”
To confront this imminent collision of good and bad potential, Friedman prescribed the creation of “complex adaptive coalitions—where business, government, social entrepreneurs, educators, competing superpowers, and moral philosophers all come together to define how we get the best and cushion the worst of AI.”
He admitted this is daunting. “No one player in this coalition can fix the problem alone. It requires a very different governing model from traditional left-right politics. And we will have to transition to it amid the worst great-power tensions since the end of the Cold War and culture wars breaking out inside virtually every democracy.”
This appeal to pragmatism did not generate much hope. In any Promethean moment, Prometheus remains the star of the show, and the resolution must be brilliant—ideally, quick and yet enduring, perhaps a “consensus” of benevolent geniuses or a godlike force majeure.
The slow, collaborative ethos of genuinely democratic politics did not seem up to the task. Not much time for moral meandering?
The Pope and Minerva
Fortunately, one other trajectory of response to the AI challenge has taken shape during this period of our leaders’ nervous epiphanies.
A key step along the path occurred in Rome at the annual “Minerva Dialogues,” an event held on March 27. Pope Francis addressed scientists, engineers, business leaders, lawyers, philosophers, Catholic theologians, ethicists, and members of the Roman Curia gathered to discuss digital technologies.
The Pontiff offered a concise prescription. He said those developing machine learning technologies must “respect such values as inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy and reliability” if AI is to become a truly valuable endeavor.
As reported by Fox Business News, Francis said regulation of future developments must “promote genuine progress, contributing, that is, to a better world and an integrally higher quality of life.” The ethical bottom line for AI developers is to spread dignity to “every level of human life.”
It was noteworthy that Francis used terms like “inclusion” and “equity” to present his argument to these luminaries. The Pope knows that such statements of moral bona fides are useful in reaching elite assemblies, where dynamic imaginations ironically collide with fear of human unknowns–and potential adversaries.
To his credit, Francis was transparent in applying the two terms. They allowed him to take his message deeper. He spoke of meritocracy, which is at the heart of the inclusion and equity debate, and he gave voice to the marginalized.
Meritocracy should not worsen inequality, he reminded the Minerva Dialogues audience. “This problem of inequality can be aggravated by a false conception of meritocracy that undermines the notion of human dignity.”
Francis implicitly coached the AI experts to retain some humility in order to expand both the attendance and agendas of their future discussions.
Meritocracy without a humble sense of noblesse oblige can unleash an elitist joie de guerre: “The recognition and reward of merit and human effort have a foundation, but there is a risk of conceiving the economic advantage of a few as earned or deserved, while the poverty of many is seen, in a certain sense, as their fault.”
The Pope has long been echoing Chesterton’s reminder to do the right thing, not merely what is possible. His monthly prayer intention for Catholics in November 2020 was “that robotics and AI would remain always at the service of human beings.”
Francis has also warned decision-makers that “we should be cautious about delegating judgments to algorithms.” After all, “a person’s fundamental value cannot be measured by data alone.”
While neither the Future of Life Institute’s “pause letter” nor Friedman’s strategy for problem-solving coalitions explicitly envisioned input from individuals like the Pope or groups like the mainstream and marginalized, we can be happy that Francis has worked to keep those latter groups on the radar screen.
He’s not shutting up, and we must remember that many people are rooting for him—and for the Church—as strategic planning becomes more intense.
A knowledgeable Vatican participant offered hope in a Catholic News Service (CNS) interview in March, remarking that “priests will be one of the last to be substituted” by AI. “People want to talk with a priest or a sister,” said Father Phillip Larrey. “They want the experience of the religious person that they can’t get in an AI.”
The world’s cadre of concerned experts, represented by the signatories clustering around the Future of Life Institute, must not be blind to this insight. They should recognize, and share, their customer base’s hunger for broader wisdom, for truths that transcend materialism, for a future.
“The people behind chatbots are asking questions of priests and ethicists rather than turning to their artificially intelligent creations,” CNS reported, paraphrasing Larrey. This California native, who teaches philosophy at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, authored Artificial Humanity in 2019.
Larrey said Pope Francis had called for “person-centered AI” in addressing tech leaders—and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities—who attended a January 2023 Vatican conference on AI ethics.
“These people, who are really changing the future of humanity—they want to talk with us. They want to talk with priests, they especially want to talk with Pope Francis.”
Indeed, at that conference, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives signed a document complementing the recent “pause” document. They called on AI researchers to plan their next steps for the technology in collaboration with leaders in faith and ethics.
We can see a bigger picture of collaboration emerging, even though mainstream news outlets, business and technology journalists, and religious media may report only their own pieces of the puzzle.
The growing awareness of our current crisis now cuts across diverse segments of the world’s population, with a call for practical wisdom that even transcends the secular and the spiritual. We have opened windows thanks to letters, articles, and meetings that admit “we need to do something” to prevent AI from going off the rails.
Now, people who see the spectrum of problems and solutions must speak up continuously and enthusiastically whenever the issues are raised, reminding leaders and news-consumers alike to look for the whole story.
This story, requiring explanation and transparency, is an object lesson on our need and ability to generate new ideas together: ideas that are not merely adaptive or minimalist, but transformative and compelling—not merely for the short term, but literally for the life of humanity.
The recently emerging threshold for broadly advancing the virtue of wisdom in tech-savvy and values-informed ways is the real news that deserves celebration in Phronesis in Pieces. We will find the aroma of hope, truly fresh air in the public square, at the turning point where we recognize not only that “we need something,” but “we need someone.”
The Saddest Story Ever Polled
The recent poll from The Wall Street Journal and the U of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center which found steep declines in Americans’ commitment to bedrock values—such as religious faith, patriotism, and childbearing—has garnered much attention since it was published last month.
There is nothing more to add here, except to note the ongoing need to better understand what respondents were expressing from their minds and hearts.
Tammy Bruce, a commentator on The Next Revolution on the Fox News Channel, suggested that the reactions might be roughly comparable to a human body’s reaction when it has been hit by cancer or another debilitating disease.
One might say the body withdraws into a different mode, changing its processes a bit in order to focus on identifying and fighting the dangerous intruder, she said.
The American polity has endured a time of extreme disorientation in its culture, economics, spirituality, politics, world views, etc.
The poll results show sharp pullbacks from such institutions as religion, the family, structures of work and play, and the nation as sources of pride, energy, and inspiration. They could reveal a combination of disenchantment, sadness, and reassessment of priorities—a combination which each person sorts through differently.
It’s possible that this sharp decline in the ties that bind is less a definitive view of a permanently changed country and more a snapshot of people reacting to major changes and challenges. These are occurring inside the institutions, inside their exposures to everyday activities and contacts, and inside themselves.
Americans’ values, or desires for happiness, may have changed less than their experiences—both their visceral and vicarious experiences. It takes a lot of time, thought, and emotional flexibility to figure out the actual impacts and meanings of all these situations.
Some of them have injured us badly, and others have simply confused us via our personal influencers, the news, social media, and other factors. Our “resistance” to damaged physical and mental well-being has been weakened by everything from the pandemic days to current economic woes, from family tragedies to jitters about the world’s future.
Perhaps the best way to use the poll is as a diagnostic test, to see where we and others stand according to these benchmarks, whether we judge the tallies from today or from years ago to be the most realistic and meaningful. Where is improvement needed, and how can we help? We can’t cure what we don’t diagnose.
To expand upon Tammy Bruce’s analysis, it always helps us to see the results of our latest comprehensive blood test. We know the numbers we want to see, and we probably know the factors that drive those statistics up and down.
News-consumers would not have been upset by this poll if we did not collectively see something valuable in what is being measured. We can let the survey grip us and then guide us regarding what needs to change—and what must not change.
Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.
Watching an Irish Precedent?
Watching President Joe Biden in Belfast and Dublin this week makes one think of the sharp cultural turn taken in the independent Republic of Ireland since a tide of disillusionment encroached on the land around 2009 – 2010. A heady decade of “Celtic Tiger” prosperity and multinational influence ended with the Great Recession. Philosophers and political analysts have never adequately explored all the psychological, social, and spiritual disruption left in its wake.
For a profound, and perhaps prophetic, assessment of the “past as prelude” visible in post-modern Ireland—and the contemporary United States—watch this video of two talks delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2018. The second presenter on this panel, hosted by the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, tells a sad story he says has sent his country into a pit of materialism, recrimination, vulnerability, and acedia.
The story combines a period of economic disenchantment and the unveiling of tragic woes in the Catholic Church, along with weakness in national leadership and the lack of a strong, more conservative counterculture that could inspire the Irish with faith and reason. This fostered a loss of trust in core institutions and a contagion of external criticism eroding the public’s confidence in noble aspects of their history and character.
One hopes that Biden, as a son of the Emerald Isle, can bring reminders to those still-wonderful people which encourage them to keep fighting the battles of saints and sinners, in an air of mystery and magic, which resonate in the soil and souls there. I fear the messages which Irish influencers take away from the visit will instead be dominated by continued reliance on a secular, globalist, materialistic future that offers peace treaties, but not peace of mind.
See the Reference Shelf
The biggest benefit from your paid subscription is our constantly growing reference shelf. It contains all sorts of links to resources that fans of phronesis will find interesting as they strive to consume news and information to nurture the virtue of practical wisdom. The goal is to grow as a source of evangelization based on values from the Catholic faith and as a force for service to the common good in a world that craves genuine knowledge and virtuous action.
Go to our reference shelf via this link and the “Bookshelf” navbar item.
Thank you for considering a paid subscription—and, most of all, for continuing to read and comment on Phronesis in Pieces.