By Deacon John De Gano
Truth in advertising.
An ad for Amazon’s talking AI device says: Alexa makes your life easier, more meaningful and more fun by letting your voice control your world. Alexa can help you get more out of the things you already love and discover new possibilities you’ve never imagined.
At a conference on human dignity that I recently attended, a mom got up and addressed a panel of speakers on the future of artificial intelligence (AI).
She had listened quietly as two of the speakers spoke of the various pitfalls of AI technology and the third, rebutting their claims of technology run amok, noted that robotics and such are simply tools, incapable of independent thought or intelligence.
She began by saying that she didn’t know anything about algorithms and such, just what she had seen and observed in her daughter’s personality once Alexa had arrived in their home.
“My demure daughter has become curt, demanding. The girl I had taught to say please and thank you now yells at Alexa as if she were stupid! And what’s worse, she now speaks to me and her friends in the same rude manner. I tried to tell her not to speak that way but she won’t listen. She even refers to Alexa as ‘she’ or ‘her’, as if condoning the stereotyping an entire gender as inferior or dumb. I told her, please call it an ‘it.’ It’s a machine. It’s not a person. Yet she insists on talking about it as you would a person.
“Seeing what it was doing to my daughter convinced me that I needed to get rid of it. You can argue about robots taking over. I’m concerned how technology is having a negative impact on our basic sense of humanity toward one another. Is anybody doing a study on the impact such things are having on how we treat one another? It doesn’t seem to me to be morally acceptable to grant dignity to a machine that you aren’t willing to give to your fellow human beings,” said the woman.
Of all the words expressed at this academic conference, hers were the most insightful because they came from the heart, a heart that is compassionate toward the lowly, the poor and the downtrodden.
A heart like Mary’s who said to her son, Jesus, “They have no wine.”
Jesus knew what she was asking. And he performed his first public miracle at a wedding in Cana. Only a few knew what had happened, yet the couple were saved from ridicule and their family and guests were satisfied.
Prophets can come from many places. Vine dressers. Shepherds. Even the family kitchen.
We ought to gift one another the recognition of their human dignity by listening before we open our mouths to speak. Or, as St. Francis of Assisi might say, “Preach the Gospel with your lives at all times. Use words when necessary.”
Until we can do that successfully, we have no business ordering around our AI devices.
John De Gano is a deacon at St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Riverside.