Psalm 19: 7-8:
The law of the Lord is perfect, revival of the soul;
the provisions of the Lord are sure, to be wise simply;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoices the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightenment of the eyes.
In the world of those who study the ethical issues posed by artificial intelligence (AI), there is an often-told nightmare – robo-dystopia – that ends the world, not with a bang, but with a staple. In fact, with a lot of staples. Too many staples, actually.
First theorized by Nick Bostrom, the problem is in Maximizer staples (abbreviated PM), the task of artificial intelligence to make as many staples as possible. Initially considered the dream of the capitalists, a matter of the future for companies trying to produce as many of their products as possible to sell them to customers, this prime minister turned out to be not a blessing but a curse. Super-intelligent AI is not perceptive enough to realize that there may be a limit to the number of staples needed, so it doesn’t stop at anything, creating automated staple factories one after the other, until the whole world becomes a bunch of staples.
This story is a parable to those who study AI and shows how important it is to be very careful with what you say to your hypothetical future AI. And the question arises: how to design an AI that follows ours that’s right desires, not stated the desires we convey to him (no matter how bad)? How do we teach AI to know when to stop, reject an order, and recognize that, in another context, a different action is necessary to satisfy a command?
The riddle, though rather confusing and without a simple answer, provides a window into how to approach the various commandments in the Bible. We are not robots, but we were created to serve our Creator, and I believe we are happiest and most alive when we succeed in doing so. And so, the situation is surprisingly similar; one should not look far in our national political and theological context to find those who believe that the commandments of 2000+ years ago should still be followed without any thought of changing the context, greater acquired knowledge and understanding and collective experience.
Those who would pause, reflect on their changed context, and realize that perhaps the spirit of the law means something new in our new context have the task of drawing lines from one context to another, drawing theological and ethical conclusions on how to apply the spirit. orders offered at another time and in another place. This task is difficult, and some would say impossible. I can’t disagree; it is unlikely that any of us can really guess at a precise comparison between one context and another, to say that the X rule of 1,000 BC means Y in the year of our Lord 2022. But give up and not try to make some kind of translation in different contexts means to choose to be nothing more than Paperclip Maximizer, an eager robot who worked so hard to please his human master that he destroyed the world in a pile of staples.
Peter Levenstrong is an assistant rector at the Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. Growing up as a non-religious, he enjoys bringing a “fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. More of his sermons can be found at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/