Artificial Intelligence as a Humanist Challenge?

Six professors at the University of Toronto came together to converse on the topic “Artificial Intelligence/Humanoid Robots as a Theological Challenge: Is that so?” on January 23, 2020, at the Trinity College, Graham Library. The conversation lasted for two hours in the presence of an audience.

Four of the six were theologians: Gordon Rixon and Susan Wood at Regis College, Christopher Brittain at Trinity College in Divinity, and Ephraim Radner at Wycliffe College The two others were Brian Cantwell Smith in philosophy of computing, cognitive science, and information technology at the information faculty of the university, and Teresa Heffernan who is visiting scholar (2019–2020) at the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. She is a professor in the English Department at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and her area of expertise include the intersection of the future of social cyborgs and fiction.

Facilitating the occasion, Professor Abraham Khan at Trinity College had asked his colleagues to identify three points each as to whether AI was a challenge. After two speaking rounds among the six, he then invited the audience of about 18 to join the conversation.

For a perspective on how the conversation went, it is fair to say that points and comments included a distinction between reckoning and judgment. That is, AI reckons rather than makes judgments. For it is simply an algorithmic machine cycling through massive data in quantum time, and engaging in deep learning structures, compared to judgment performance taken as a human activity or phenomenon. The machine is never present to the other in a relational way that may involve sentiments such as, empathy, patience, sympathy, joy to name a few. AI machines, however fast they may compute (quantum speed) lack the competencies to understand the effects or damage of its action, especially when the effects are incurred at remote distances (drones). Human decision making mediated by AI technology then raises questions about agency and responsibility. At one level it was clear that much media hype and claims about robots are based on science fiction literature, not fully credible, and it is best to mediate such claims by speaking of machine learning and intelligence.

At another level, concerning information gathering that AI does, the question of surveillance came up. Its implication for health care was alluded to. That is, who is to get treatment, insured, or opportunities to move forward intellectually and socially as part of human development. That is, AI machine, gathering and computing BIG DATA at quantum speed, will be impacting our understanding of what it means to be human, of who is to receive benefits or opportunities and who is to be assigned limited access to public benefits. In short, it will be transforming our understanding of what it means to be genuinely human. An implication would be that it will be also undermining democratic processes that allow for social, physical, and intellectual pluralities and differences.

Yet another dimension put forward was that at the end of the day AI technology is in a sense missing the boat theologically. Why? For the idea of “homo deus” is unsustainable. Simply put, theology is about the human inclination to engage the transcendent with respect to the individual and community. It is not about machine intelligence and technology, but about intellectual and emotionally held commitments or relationships, matters of the heart. It is unlikely that AI technology would have a heart as is humanly understood. Christian theology has at its core, the idea of salvation, implying brokenness and mending or healing of it. While AI may assist in an adjunctive way to hasten a healing process in the organic human, silicone creatures will be unlike the latter: no sense of brokenness, of needing to be healed and feeling wholesome, or of metaphysical dependency or propensity. Theologians are interested to the degree that AI science is rewriting the narrative of what it means to be human within a community and thus is an intrusion in theological territory.

The viewpoints expressed allude to rather than comprise an account of the rich conversation marked by parsing of ideas, distinctions drawn, explications, implicit contentions and hinted concerns. They are at best suggestive of the kind of crisscrossing of reflections, observations, and queries. As such they are not to be ascribed to any one scholar or person present at the occasion which was essentially a starting point for what matters and for further investigation. Strategically, c’était un ballon d’essai to gain a sense of what matters intellectually about the future of humanity when considered from certain directions in humanistic studies.

Abrahim H. Khan
Trinity College, University of Toronto


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