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An Interview with Curt Thompson

Today, we feature an interview with Curt Thompson. Curt is a psychiatrist whose work weaves together an understanding of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) and a Christian view of what it means to be human — to educate and encourage others as they seek to fulfill their intrinsic desire to feel known, valued and connected. He is the author of several books including “The Soul of Shame” and, more recently, “The Soul of Desire.” Thanks, Curt, for taking time to speak with us!

AI & Faith: Curt, thanks so much for joining us today. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got connected to AI and Faith?

Curt Thompson: Absolutely. I’m a psychiatrist. My work three days a week is seeing patients, and I’ve been doing that for 35 years. In the last 20 years, that work has focused specifically on the field of interpersonal neurobiology, which looks at the intersection of neuroscience and relationships, and how relationships and the brain shape each other as people and (in my religious tradition) as Jesus followers.

From my perspective, science tells us about the mechanics of what happens in the world, but it can’t answer our ultimate questions of “why” – it doesn’t give us purpose. In psychiatry, I think the first question we should be asking is “what does it mean to be human?” I try to help folks be curious about who they actually are as human beings. Their answer to that question has implications for depression, anxiety, and all sorts of things that psychiatric care tries to address.

I was introduced to AI and Faith at a conference that I was attending. The conversation got started because I was having a conversation with someone from AI&F about sex robots. I raised some questions about assumptions that we make about what it means to be human, such that we find ourselves in a place where we think that it’s ok – and maybe even good – to be manufacturing these kinds of machines.

AI & Faith: Could you share a little more about some of these assumptions?

Curt Thompson: To preface everything, my comments come from the perspective of a person who believes in the Biblical narrative of the world, which means that everything about the world’s purpose ultimately revolves around the person of Jesus. My belief system says that I’m a creature and I am not ultimately in charge of my own destiny. I most certainly have agency, but I don’t have the final word on anything. Furthermore, I believe that there is a Creator who has a purpose for goodness and beauty in the world, and that I am called to both create and become this goodness and beauty.

I think the fundamental problem with things like sex robots is that they do not move us towards this vision of goodness and beauty. They are designed to satisfy very basic needs and wants, not put us into a relationship with someone on whose behalf I can make sacrifices. I believe that relationships help us become who we were destined to be because they require us to make sacrifices that help us grow. Nobody’s making sex robots in order to help me become a more patient, loving, or kind person. Such robots just make life convenient in certain ways.

AI & Faith: Do you see those assumptions more broadly in the field of AI?

Curt Thompson: Every technology does at least one thing for us and always potentially does a second thing. Every technology is designed in some way, shape or form to make life more convenient. Often, that’s a fine and helpful thing to do. But the second thing that technology will always potentially do, because it makes life more convenient, is that it makes me need you less. And that means that there’s always the potential for greater separation and disconnection. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s often the case.

Sex robots are just the latest version of this, allowing us to do what we want without the inconvenience of another human’s preferences. As far as I am aware, these robots aren’t designed with a chip that says “no, not tonight” or “I have a headache.”

The reason I’m drawn to this angle on new technology is because it directly affects the patients who come to my office. My patients are human beings living in a technological world, and technology often accentuates their baseline level of anxiety. Anxiety ultimately is about one’s terror of being left alone, existentially alone. We who are Jesus followers and who read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament hear this mandate is not good for the man to be alone. And technology only makes it easier for us to be alone.

AI & Faith: I know you think a bit about social media and shame. Recommender systems (a type of AI engine used to surface content on social media platforms) were designed to connect people. Do you think these systems draw us together, as intended, or apart, as you’ve suggested other technology does?

Curt Thompson: We built these recommender systems because we want to be more connected. Connection is a good thing, but in and of itself, it’s not what we’re ultimately looking for. As a Jesus follower, I’m actually looking for connection in order to become a person of greater love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentle self-control, all those things. I’m looking to live to invite into a place of hospitality the least and those who are outside. That’s how I’m called to live. Connection is an important part of how that happens, but it’s just the conduit by which this transformation is taking place. Connection for its own sake isn’t the end of the road. We are made for far more than that.

AI & Faith: There are a lot of other AI systems out there, things like ChatGPT or generative models that can produce realistic images. What are your thoughts on this broader space of AI models?

Curt Thompson: As the folks at the Bible Project would say: “everything you need to know about human beings you can learn by reading the first four pages of the Bible.” Those pages hold the Creation narrative, the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. This is who we are. What do I mean by that? We are faced every day with dozens of opportunities to take from either the “tree of life” or the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. And it is in the taking that our trouble lies.

Technology can often become a way for us to take more, to become God on my terms. In making a world that’s more convenient for us (via technological advancements), we often fail to recognize that our “taking” in this way makes the world inconvenient or hurtful for someone else. For example, with generative AI models, we can make personalized, realistic porn. But making this sort of thing can harm people, particularly women around the world, when images are used without consent or objectification of women is normalized.

This really boils down to the idea that all of us want a life without pain. We want to live life without having to learn to be patient or having to regulate our irritability. We don’t want people getting mad at us or hurting our feelings. And so, we think that if we can create technology that makes people into objects, not living beings, we won’t hurt them, and we can’t get hurt. But when we do this, we reduce our ability to become people of wisdom, because we are refined by the pain we experience in the world.

Becoming a person of wisdom requires interacting with real, imperfect embodied human beings, who create the space for me to grow. Relationships force me to work at being more than who I am right now, because they don’t make life convenient for me. People ask us hard questions. People say things that we don’t like. And who’s going to design a machine that is going to call me on the carpet? That forces me to reconsider my actions and become a better person?

AI & Faith: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Curt Thompson: I’d just like to say that, to me, technological progress is often driven by this very primal sense of grief – this sense of “I have to have all these new ideas, because if I don’t, I’m going to have to live with myself.” If I pause long enough to be curious about that fear, I discover that there are things about me that I’m working really, really hard to keep in the dark. And creating for the sake of creating is just one more way for me to be distracted from the reality of myself – my brokenness, my limitedness, my woundedness.

The woman in the conversation with the snake in Genesis 3 was wounded. Her taking of the fruit isn’t just an act of arrogance. It is in no small part a way for her to cope with what’s been happening in the conversation and how she has been hurt. And all hell breaks loose in the wake of this decision, this act of taking. Instead of receiving and becoming like God more and more so just by receiving, we take. And in a sense, when we develop new technology, we often just keep on taking.

AI & Faith: Thank you so much for your time and for sharing these insights with us!


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