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Easing into the AI Conversation

We are putting the finishing touches on the video that we have been invited to present at the UUA General Assembly in June. We also have some compelling art, thanks to Erin Corr, a senior at North Creek (NY) High School, who has achieved impressive results with Dall-E 2.

This mythic creature was inspired by Robert Geraci, who kindly contributed his thoughts about AI and Ayudha Puja to our video. Ayudha Puja, or “worship of tools”, is a Hindu holiday that recognizes the tools and implements employed by mankind, including our computing devices.

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“I have started thinking about religion, science, and technology as a three-headed hydra,” Geraci says. “They are all connected. You might have an artificial intelligence hydra, a climate hydra, or a physics hydra, and they kind of bumble around in our culture.”

Geraci also adds that “sometimes these heads are really well-aligned and the vision is clear and sometimes they disagree with one another. One head wants to go this way and another head wants to go that way. They are in an argument. Religion, science, and technology are like that.”


An Annual Observance

Many UU congregations — including my own in Saratoga Springs — open their liturgical year in September with our annual Water Communion. We all bring a small amount of water from a place that is special to us. At the appointed time, we pour our water one by one into a large bowl, briefly stating the water’s significance to us. After a blessing, we bottle a small amount of the water, which is saved for use in the following year’s ceremony.

Each October, we are proposing to do something similar in connection with Ayudha Puja. Instead of bringing water, we’ll invite members to bring photos of a favorite tool, instrument, or machine, along with a brief note of appreciation to them.

Last fall, I asked an AI writing assistant named Jasper this question: “Does AI pose a threat to human dignity?”

“No,” the chatbot declared flatly. “I think that AI can be used to enhance human dignity by providing individuals with new abilities and opportunities. For example, AI can be used to assist people with disabilities in living more independent and fulfilling lives.”

That response resonates with Murray Penney, a retired GE engineer and long-time member of UU Saratoga who has joined our Ayudha Puja planning team. A passionate gardener, he launched our congregation’s annual plant fair years ago.

“It occurs to me that one of the most important things that all religions I know about do is care-giving,” Penney says. “I have a personal example with my mother, who was so lonely she listened to the weather report all day. I just think a robot could do so much better. Then she told me she loved getting a massage or hand care because, she said, ‘That’s the only time anyone ever touches me.'”

“Could she have gotten to know some kind of robotic entity well enough to have enjoyed the touch of the robot?” Murray asks. “These kinds of applications seem to be the way we are likeliest to get to know robots and get used to living with them.”


Easing into the Conversation

Murray suggests we ease into the subject of AI in our Ayudha Puja service,

“For thousands of years, we were not inventive. Humans did not try to find better ways to do things and develop them to the point where they became noticed by history. In the Middle Ages, not much happened other than improved ability to build forts and cathedrals. Then we got our early machines, like the printing press, the steam engine, and the cotton gin. Then it was more and more and faster and faster. Everything now seems to be changing at a breakneck pace. Maybe our brains have changed.”

“Each of us could tell a story about our evolution with machines, but we have not thought about it all that much. At least, most of us have not. We are still in this Steve Jobs mode: ‘You tell me what I should be interested in and I’ll go out and buy it.'”

“Machines have changed people, and we are changing more and more every year,” he continues. “Think about how the printing press changed people by making the Bible available, by making other books available. Think about how fast airline travel, firearms, television, and computers have changed the way behave. Now we are transferring more and more of our lives to interactions with intelligent machines, machines that talk back and interact with us. These machines are making more and more sense to us and are becoming more and more capable.”

“I think we are in a process of evolution from no machines to simple machines, then to complex machines like televisions and computers, and now to more complex machines that do some of their own programming. We will not be able to easily understand what is going on inside them to make decisions. It will only get more and more complex as we go along.”

Murray thinks we are at an inflection point, transitioning from less intelligent machines to far more intelligent machines, and that it will change us in many ways. “We should think about and keep track of this inflection point, perhaps even to influence where the technology goes.”

“Ultimately we will be talking about our relationship with intelligent robots, and that is going to be interesting. We should start preparing for it.”

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