Wrestling with Artificial Intelligence

Wrestling with Artificial Intelligence

This contains spoilers for the television shows Mrs Davis and Westworld.

People are fascinated by robots and artificial intelligence (AI). Ever since the iconic Maria in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, humans have toyed with the notion of making mechanical creatures in their own image. It goes beyond appearances, however, and extends into robots having self-awareness, intelligence, and creativity. While we may not be at this point in the real world yet, the concept of the human-esque robot or AI has been explored in great detail in fiction and movies.

The protective Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the disembodied voice of Hal in 2001: A Space Odessey, the loyal duo C-3PO and R2-D2 in the Star Wars franchise, the unaware replicants in Blade Runner, Data’s desire to be fully human in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the destructive mechanical army in I, Robot demonstrate the wide way in which these beings have been imagined. Helpful servants, saviours of humanity, or their destroyers.

In more recent years two television shows have explored artificial intelligence in quite different ways.

Westworld, the critically acclaimed four season series, based on a 1973 movie of the same name, probes into the lives of humans, and a group robots who become self-aware. The robots are essentially performers in a theme park for the wealthy, where they can indulge any desired whim, without consequences. Humans cannot be harmed in any way. The robots, on the other hand, are repeatedly damaged, and killed, and require constant repairs by engineers. Their memory is wiped of the experiences and they are returned to the park for the amusement of patrons. Over time, starting with one of the original robots, Dolores, the robots begin to become aware of what is happening to them.

In an attempt to escape their “prison”, they escape into the real world to live among humans. Interestingly, the robots demonstrate almost as wide a variety of reactions and responses to life as humans do. Some want to destroy humanity for the “evil” they had done. Others want to save the human race. Still others simply desire to exist, to provide for and protect their “families”. The question lingered throughout the series though – was this the result of their programming or was this the natural consequence of becoming self-aware?

Mrs Davis is an absurdist exploration of an artificial intelligence that controls almost the entire human race and a nun’s pursuit to destroy it. She is joined on her quest by a group of vigilantes who despise the thought of losing their independence and freedom. Mrs Davis is the name that Americans have given an artificial intelligence who is instructing people on what to do with their lives. For the most part, they are actually quite beneficial to the hearers, if somewhat bizarre. She talks to them through their smartphones and people genuinely feel that “she” cares for them. Sister Simone, however, believes that Mrs Davis killed her father and is on a mission from God via Jesus (whom she actually has conversations with in a supernatural diner and is married to) to expose scams, magic, and eventually, Mrs Davis. She discovers that this world dominating AI is actually a glorified version of a fast-food chain’s customer service interface and shuts her down. Simone does, however, acknowledge that the AI has done some good in the world, because creating the best customer experience is “her” programming, but it is not worth the loss of self-reliance, ingenuity, and independence of humanity.

Like so many scientific and technological advances, robots and AI have pros and cons. A robotic assembly line might be able to make items quicker and cheaper than humans, but if they take away the livelihoods of a whole workforce and the families who rely on them, there are economic and social consequences. The internet was designed for the secure sharing of information, first by the military, then scientists, and eventually anyone who had access to the required technology. Now, with the abundance of AI-generated misinformation, bias, deep fakes, and data-sharing, it no longer serves humanity in its original capacity. It is hard for people to know what is real, truthful, and can, therefore, be trusted.

Futurist and author Bernard Marr has written on the complex world of AI. He recognises a number of areas in which artificial intelligence is already been used in positive ways including screening and predicting cancer and other health issues, identifying patterns, trends, and movements in order to protect bees and other endangered wildlife, being utilised in the fight against climate change, and developing tools and apps that can help people with disabilities. Artificial intelligence has incredible potential to do wonderful things that enhance the lives of humans and improve the world.

It also has the potential to do harm – perhaps not intentionally, but harm nonetheless.

One of the recent areas of controversy is in the area of artistic creativity. 

Artists have raised the issue of their artwork being used, without permission or compensation, by AI. Their creative images are taken from the internet as training data by text-to-image generating tools, in order to create new artworks. They are not paid for this, and lose customers as a result, who use the tool, rather than the artist, to gain a desired artwork. 

A recent Change Petition highlighted some of the issues arising from the use of AI generated models. The fashion industry is turning more and more to, not only computer altered images, but to AI generated ones. This eliminates any need for a human model. As such, these unreal images can promote unhealthy and unrealistic ideas concerning body image, eliminate the need to find and utilise models of various sizes or ethnicities, loss of model’s income, and centres wealth in the hands of only a small number of owners of these tools. The wealth is not shared amongst a team of creatives.

Musicians and authors have also had their respective fields threatened as ChatGPT is asked to write lyrics or a story “in the style of”. Artist Nick Cave wrote on open letter responding to a fan who had asked the AI tool to compose a song in his style. He writes, insightfully,

“Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. GhatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.”

At this point, there is very little, if any, regulations surrounding AI development or monitoring in Australia. In 2023, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese launched an artificial intelligence safety inquiry. It received over 500 submissions from various industries including law enforcement, legal firms, the creative sector, and healthcare, to name a few. As yet, the government has only made an interim response. Broadly speaking, the Australian Government’s overall objective is to maximise the opportunities that AI presents for the economy and society, To do this, the next steps include:

  • preventing harms from occurring through testing, transparency and accountability 
  • clarifying and strengthening laws to safeguard citizens 
  • working internationally to support the safe development and deployment of AI 
  • maximising the benefits of AI.

Artificial intelligence is a part of the contemporary world. Theologically one might ask, is AI an expression of our God given creativity, or is it an over reach – bordering on playing God? How we answer this may determine how we interact with and utilise AI as it continues to develop.

Westword and Mrs Davis are streaming now on Binge.

Dr Katherine Grocott


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