a future we do not want
The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer, 1669
When Charles Lindbergh landed his monoplane in Paris on May 21, 1927, marking the first time a person had ever flown solo across the Atlantic, he instantly became a hero and a legend around the world. For the rest of his life, Lindbergh would remain one of the most famous and celebrated human beings on the planet, something which tragically brought him and his family tremendous suffering. The dark side of his fame aside, Lindbergh’s accomplishment captivated the human imagination and brought a sense of joy and excitement to nearly everyone on two continents.
Lindbergh’s flight was, of course, a great accomplishment in itself. Simply surviving over 33 hours in a plane on his own over the unforgiving emptiness of the North Atlantic is profoundly impressive. But Lindbergh’s fame was not simply the product of his remarkable skill and endurance. Rather, Lindbergh became the embodiment of a tremendous, bushy-tailed excitement about the future that was sweeping the world during his time. Lindbergh’s success was absolute proof that the still new invention of the airplane could conquer the challenge of a transatlantic flight. The moment that he and his plane arrived safe in France, people everywhere were given license to dream of a world in which a trip from New York to Paris could be made in a matter of hours, opening previously unimaginable opportunities for business and travel. It would take a few decades for transatlantic flights to become affordable for more than an extreme few, but the vision that Lindbergh embodied absolutely did come true. Today we take for granted that virtually no place in the world is more than about 24 hours distance from any other location, and that places like Detroit and London are practically next door neighbours. The celebrations of 1927 that accompanied Linbergh on his tour around North America were not mainly about the man himself, but about a future that the people of the 1920s couldn’t wait to live in.
The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed any number of technological miracles of this nature. We take many of them completely for granted to the point that it is easy to lose sight of how big a deal they really are. Indoor sanitation has made us much more comfortable and vastly more healthy. Medical breakthroughs like vaccines and antibiotics have given us a world where the death of a child is an unthinkable tragedy rather than a daily event. Agricultural breakthroughs have allowed us to sustain a world population beyond our ancestors’ wildest fantasies. Telephones allow us to talk in real time to people anywhere in the world, and televisions and radios keep us informed and entertained at all hours. All that is to name just a few major breakthroughs of the great technological age. Countless others big and small could easily be listed.
The advent of most of these technologies was greeted in the past much the way Charles Lindbergh’s flight was greeted—with sincere excitement about the approaching future in which such breakthroughs would make life better. Certainly there have been inventions that have raised alarms as well—automated processes in factories have been opposed by workers as a threat to their livelihoods, for instance. But on the whole, technology in the 20th century was something that brought joy and promise to most people, and indeed the future they dreamed of has turned out to be astonishingly comfortable and easy just as they had hoped. We, their descendants, hardly know how good we have it.
As we approach the centennial of Lindbergh’s famous flight, however, we seem to have entered a new and very different era of technological innovation. In the first place, there is some strong evidence that the pace of technological improvement has notably slowed in recent years. Certainly the degree of change and improvement in our daily lives has diminished. If Lindbergh’s accomplishment promised a future in which people could fly across the Atlantic, current technological research is often focused on providing more comfortable seats to passengers in first class (and less comfortable ones to those in coach), or personal movie screens to keep us occupied on the flight--improvements, perhaps, but not nearly of the same magnitude as being able to fly across the Atlantic in the first place.
More importantly, however, many of the new technologies that have greeted us here in the 2020s fill us not with the excitement that Lindbergh brought to the world, but rather with active worry and dread about our future. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the recent arrival of so-called “artificial intelligence” tools like ChatGPT or Dall-E. The impact that generative “AI”--which is better termed “machine learning”--will have on the world is without question over-hyped, but it must also not be underestimated. Machine learning is going to change things...a lot...that much is quite clear. But where Lindbergh’s flight may once have filled middle aged men like me with excitement, the rise of “artificial intelligence” is keeping a lot of us up at night, hoping against hope that the future it evokes in our imaginations will somehow not come to pass.
I am not referring here to doomsday scenarios wherein robots take over the world. Such things are purely science fiction. And no doubt some of the worry I and so many others feels has arisen thanks to a media that loves driving us to hysteria to generate engagement. But many of our worries are quite sincerely rational, and that is a serious problem indeed.
Take, for instance, the question of machine learning and academic integrity. We have recently learned that the newest version of ChatGPT (not yet available to the public as of this writing) can ace an American bar exam with a score in the 90th percentile. On the one hand that is, of course, amazing; several years ago most of us would probably have considered such a feat impossible for a computer. Yet the existence of a computer that can pass the bar is something that, in and of itself, creates serious problems while also offering absolutely no benefits. The bar exam exists to try and ensure that practicing lawyers have a certain level of competence—something that is important to society. From here forward the possibility of someone simply completing the bar exam with a computer instead of their own mind will force various officials to work much harder to try and protect the integrity of their exam, and will also result in many more incompetent lawyers obtaining a license that they never should have had. Those who get caught will need to be disbarred at substantial cost to the system. Those that do not will damage their clients and the system as a whole for years if not decades. No doubt people have found ways to cheat on the bar in every generation; there is nothing fundamentally new here. But this new option opens wide new horizons for cheating to get ahead, and while we will do our best to fight it, we can be absolutely certain that there will be deleterious effects. And in exchange? Well, when it comes to the bar exam, ChatGPT 4 will provide us with absolutely nothing positive in return—cost with no benefit.
We can enumerate any number of other costs. People might lose their jobs, bad actors can flood the internet with even more false information than existed there before. We will soon have no way of knowing that a photo or video is authentic, and as a result many people will lose jobs, marriages, and friendships because of completely convincing photos and videos purporting to show them doing something horrifying that they never in fact did. And it will not be long before even experts cannot identify which ones are real. Elections will be swayed by similar false evidence. Thinkers and authors will discover libelous, or perhaps just plain crappy books published under their name on Amazon (as a colleague of mine recently did) and potentially have their reputations questioned or destroyed. People will receive phone calls from scammers whose voices have been transformed to sound just like a loved-one and will be fleeced out of any amount of money without any legal consequences for the scammers. On and on it will go. Indeed, every one of these things is already happening.
When we are not being cheated and scammed, at the very least we will be assailed by a flood of absolutely terrible and soulless writing, sound and imagery in everything from e-mails to news articles to art to music, all of which will appear convincing while communicating absolutely nothing. Even if our future is not one of ever increasing mistrust to the point of severe violence, it is at the very least one of empty content pumped out by an algorithm that knows how to get us to click and watch in spite of how idiotic and empty the drivel in front of us is. How delightful. We stand today peering into a future that we do not want.
“But!”, the current technologists say, “all technologies have costs as well as benefits; it will all work out in the end like it always has.” On the first count they are without question correct. Transatlantic flights, to stick with the example of Lindbergh, certainly have an enormous cost to the environment. Maybe they really aren’t worth it in the end. A reasonable person might contend such a thing. But the benefits of these flights are very easy to see—no one can argue that such benefits exist. There is a difference in kind when it comes to “AI.” Many very serious commentators see little, if any, actual benefit to the regular lives of normal people from these technologies. While these models do seem to offer some remarkable opportunities for medical research, these potential benefits are largely theoretical, and time will tell how large an impact they have. Indeed, the doomsayers may very well be wrong—we may well look back and be glad of the “AI” revolution. But standing here, where we are right now, there is plenty of reason to believe that we truly will not. And that is indeed something markedly different from the view from Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris; the Parisians were not asking themselves “will anything good come from this at all?”
No wonder our youth are so wildly depressed. What is worse, there is literally nothing that we can do about it. Major technologists have already stood up and proposed a pause on machine learning research, or the introduction of major regulations on these kinds of systems. But these things cannot happen. Even if a jurisdiction as powerful as the United States were to ban all such research completely, it would simply occur somewhere else and be unleashed on the world. The djinn is out of the bottle.
Technological research will follow the path laid out by investors in that research, and such researchers quite sincerely do not care in the slightest whether a given piece of technology improves the lives of most (or any) people. They care about whether they can make a profit from it. That is our system, and it is not going to change. While governments and societies can sometimes limit the damage through wise regulation and healthy cultural expectations, in the end we cannot prevent any technology that can produce large profits from being invented and deployed. Take the example of modern medications. No reasonable person wants fentanyl to be available to addicts on the street—even the addicts themselves would no doubt prefer to live in a world without illegal, or probably even legal fentanyl. Fentanyl has simply made human life worse, and whatever benefits a medical practitioner might see in their patients would manifestly not be worth the over 70,000 people slaughtered by the drug in 2021 in the United States alone (with that figure rapidly rising). If we could go back and uncreate the drug, it would be obvious that we should.
Yet fentanyl, from here on, will always be manufactured and thus make its way to the streets. It will kill hundreds of thousands of people every year worldwide, including children accidentally exposed to it, and that is how human life will be permanently and forever because a drug like fentanyl is highly profitable both in its legal and illegal applications. Bans might make a difference, but the drug will still get manufactured and distributed.Fentanyl is like a machine that takes in the bodies of the poor and desperate, then grinds them down and transforms them into money. Once invented, such a machine can never be shut down. Humans are more than happy to kill one another if they can make a dollar in the process.
Machine learning systems in and of themselves will never become as deadly as fentanyl (indeed, by themselves they are not deadly at all), but they could easily be even more deadly when leveraged by nefarious actors to reap chaos, violence, and war. Even if they do not start to pose a serious risk to our very lives, these systems certainly do pose a real risk to our society, our values, our art, our culture, our economies, and our communities. We know for certain that much of that change will be for the worse. The only question left is whether even a little of it will be for the better.
What, then, is a Christian to do?
It strikes me that facing a future that we do not want may have a marked silver lining for Christian spiritual life. Many of us who should know better (and I am speaking of myself here to be sure) have had a tendency to fall into the trap of seeing developed Western culture, and especially its modern technologies, as the basis for hope and optimism about the future. And while it is certainly a lot easier, emotionally, to gaze into a material future that fills us with excitement, the downside for the Christian is that we can easily find ourselves drawn far too deeply into this world, its politics, its false promises. The pessimism so many of us feel about machine learning, and technology in general, may be precisely what we need to remind ourselves that our home was never this world in the first place. And while curing diseases or traveling effortlessly across the world may indeed be something to be proud of, technology can only ever operate in the sphere of the world which passes away, never in the realm of the truly eternal.
Our mission to the world must continue to be what it has always been: to show forth a way of living that is rooted in sincere joy, in genuine health, in deep and real human connections, and in the total love of God that provides these things to us. As machine learning begins to erode social trust, we must create spaces and communities in which real humans can still trust one another. As computers begin to do the world’s thinking, and more and more people drift into mindlessness and depression, we must keep open our houses of worship, and teach the ancient art of contemplation as it has been passed down to us for thousands of years. As jobs are lost or radically re-worked, we must take care of one another and our families with whatever means are given to us. We as Christians must get ready, starting this very moment, to be rememberers of how human beings have lived healthy and Godly lives from one generation to the next. We can be certain that more and more people will find themselves increasingly exhausted and disgusted by the onslaught of “AI” bots of various kinds—reaching out to find something real, something human, something ancient, something true. Not everyone will walk through the church doors in the end, but some people will. They must be greeted by communities who know well how to live in a world being degraded by technology precisely because they have eyes on an eternal world which can never be overcome.
We face a future that we do not want, and there is a great deal of grief in this. But by the same stroke, then, we face a future in which the Church’s mission is more pressing than ever. We must be the haven we already need as the storm grows worse upon us. Perhaps to be more pessimistic about tomorrow’s technologies is to make a start on reinvigorating a much deeper optimism—the hope in Christ that is the only true hope we have ever had.