07.09.2021 – My car is smart, but not that smart

In March we bought a new car. A Honda CR-V, it is our retirement-grandparent-road trip car.  We like it a lot. The Honda is a smart car, and smarter than any car we’ve owned before.  In addition to telling us when to change the oil and informing us of our current fuel consumption rate, the car keeps us in our lane, slows down when we’re too close to the car in front of us, and flashes a warning when there’s a car or truck in our blind spots.  One of the features allows us to round curves with our hands off the steering wheel (though the owner’s manual advises us not to take our hands off the steering wheel – ever).

The car can be a bit of a nag, telling us we’ve been a bit inattentive and that it’s time to stop for a cup of coffee.
The Honda is usually right. I did wander across the center line or forgot to use the turn signal on that lane change.  But it is not always right. It gets upset in some construction zones when its cameras and its algorithms cannot determine the lane lines in order to remind me to stay within them. Back in April we were driving through Montana when we hit a mini-blizzard and a few minutes of close-to-whiteout conditions.  Without a word of apology, the car told me its radar was obstructed and that I was on my own to make it through. 

Cars are getting smarter all the time, and your next car is likely to be smarter than our new car. 

Artificial intelligence.  It is learning to drive our cars, diagnose our illnesses, and choose which TV series we ought to stream tomorrow evening. Out in the celery fields of California, there’s an artificially intelligent weeding machine, a robo-weeder, that is able to distinguish celery stalks from weeds. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The robot trundles along fields of celery as if it were any other tractor. Underneath its metal shroud, it uses computer vision and an edge AI system to decide, in less than a second, whether a plant is a food crop or a weed, and directs its plow-like claws to avoid or eradicate the plant accordingly.”

Artificial intelligence may be convenient and often helpful, but its dark side allows armies to fire missiles from drones without human involvement in the decision and iron-fisted governments to control their citizens’ every move or thought of dissent.

I am no expert on AI, but I fear its dystopian future may be more likely than its utopian future.  I wonder about the day when Hal says, “Sorry Dave, I am afraid I can’t do that.”

The rise of artificial intelligence deserves careful Christian responses, and some are being made.  Here’s a sample. And another.  

I am a better driver than my Honda is. My radar is still less prone to obstruction.  I understand, however, that it may not be much longer until our smart cars are smarter than we are. I also know that the day may come when some computer-generated voice says, “Sorry Bill, I am afraid I can’t do that.”

This is no place to even begin to solve the dilemmas AI may pose.  And I am not the one to lead the search for solutions.  But I know this. Perhaps counterintuitively, we must begin not by reading up on the latest in artificial intelligence, but by reading the oldest and the best on who we are as human beings. We begin not with The Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, but with Genesis. We don’t think about the capabilities of machines, but about the natures of the human creature and of our Creator. We must consider body and soul, divine image, costly redemption, and amazing grace. We must contemplate a promised future so much better than the utopian musings of a human mind – or the dystopian results of algorithmic data processing.

This is where our conversation about AI must begin:
                So God created man in his own image,
                                in the image of God he created him;
                                male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (ESV)
Becky and I are off on another road trip this weekend. I will try to make sure the smart car doesn’t make too many mistakes.