27 January 2018

“Artificial intelligence and robots will kill many jobs,” was Jack Ma’s Davos World Economic Forum prediction this week. Ma is CEO of the Chinese online sales giant Alibaba. Indeed, artificial intelligence and the use of robots to not only interact with, but also manipulate human beings and even replace them raises all kinds of questions.

“Technology should always give people new opportunities, not remove them,” Ma said. Nevertheless, at the end of November 2017 a new report released by McKinsey & Company indicated that by 2030 as many as 800 million workers worldwide will probably be replaced by robots. In economies like the U.S. and Germany, the study found that up to one-third of the 2030 workforce will need to learn new skills and find new work.

While the impact of robots and automation may be scary to some, Bill Gates, in a Wall Street Journal interview (March 26, 2017) said the issue is nothing to panic about. According to Gates, anyone with skills in science, engineering and economics will always be in demand. This of course raises all kinds of questions about education.

In his Davos presentation, Jack Ma also raised questions about education; and I find myself resonating with him.

I have no doubts that the pace of robotization and the evolution of artificial intelligence will accelerate each year. Human survival Ma stressed, however, will be guaranteed if we shift our educational focus from education as handing on information to education as human development. The same shift in focus, I would emphasize, is needed in the church as well. For years I have stressed that we should not have “religious education” in our parishes and schools but “Christian formation and development programs.”

We need to focus less on doctrines and fidelity to doctrinal prescriptions and more on Christian behavior. Healthy doctrine springs from healthy behavior, as the old saying stresses: “orthopraxy leads to orthodoxy.” Jesus in the New Testament is not a dogmatic theologian. He is a pastoral guide, who stresses a new pattern for living. Examples abound. My favorite is still the story of the Good Samaritan, which could also be called (with a special ring for today) “the parable of the despised foreigner.”

You remember the story: a traveler is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead along the road. First a priest comes by and sees him, ignores him, and moves on. Then a Levite comes by (Levites assisted the priests in Jewish temple worship.); but he too avoids the injured man and moves on. Finally, a Samaritan happens to come along. Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured man. The point of the story, Jesus says is “who is my neighbor?”

Very concretely, if we shift our educational focus from primarily passing on information to a full program of human formation, what would that entail?

Here I can only point to the main formational elements.

(1) A stress on human sentiments of care, concern, and compassion for others. A focus on the human heart not just the brain. Jesus stressed love of neighbor as oneself. He didn’t say “just think nice thoughts about the other.”

(2) An openness to the deeper dimensions of our human experience. Call this a kind of meditative spirituality. Reality is much richer than many people realize.

(3) A stress on critical reflection and questioning of the information that bombards us day and night. Is everything relative and up for grabs? What does the search for truth mean the day?

(4) A stress on human values like fairness, trustworthiness, and honesty.

(5) A solid formation in music, art, and theatre as the most fundamental forms of human (and humanizing) expression.

We can use robots without becoming robots….and so we must.

Take care.

– Jack


6 thoughts on “I Am Not A Robot

  1. Dear Jack- Thank you again for your interesting and thought provoking insight. If only our leaders (church and political) would lead us forward rather than digging their heels in to subvert necessary change. Sigh . . . and prayer.

  2. These would be the kind of life lessons young people could take with and build on throughout life, not just empty doctrinal statements they leave behind after confirmation on their way out the door.

  3. Dear Jack,
    I go back to the words of Fr. Jim O’Leary in his series on men’s spirituality. He stated what may or may not be obvious: “Men operate by rules; women operate by relationship.” He then said that God is about relationship in contrast to the manual of approximately 1200 church canons that he was taught in seminary. (Probably covering the important issues like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.) He then said, “God is CRAZY in love with you!” It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Let’s just starting thinking and acting like Jesus. Love God completely and our neighbors like ourselves.
    Frank Skeltis

  4. Most excellent recommendations, Jack! “Christian formation and development programs” such as you outline are desperately needed. Of what use are our parishes if we don’t emphasize living a Christian life?

  5. Jack

    Your reflection reminded me of a program at MIT I attended so time ago about artificial intelligence where some voiced the view that we could make robots better than humans or at least have human like qualities. The leading expert on robots at MIT began to comment at one point about how he felt about his robots as compared to how he felt about his children. There was no doubt where his love was directed. He was clearly a superb father and a very sensitive human being, but he had difficulty expressing what it was about his children that so captured him in a way that his robots did not. Finally, he simply said, my kids really have juice. We all laughed, but in the context of his reflection, it was very moving.

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