Paul L. Caron

Sunday, July 25, 2021

NY Times: Can Silicon Valley Find God?

New York Times Essay:  Can Silicon Valley Find God?, by Linda Kinstler (UC-Berkeley):

Artificial intelligence promises to remake the world. These believers are fighting to make sure thousands of years of text and tradition find a place among the algorithms.

Alexa, are we humans special among other living things?” One sunny day last June, I sat before my computer screen and posed this question to an Amazon device 800 miles away, in the Seattle home of an artificial intelligence researcher named Shanen Boettcher. At first, Alexa spit out a default, avoidant answer: “Sorry, I’m not sure.” But after some cajoling from Mr. Boettcher (Alexa was having trouble accessing a script that he had provided), she revised her response. “I believe that animals have souls, as do plants and even inanimate objects,” she said. “But the divine essence of the human soul is what sets the human being above and apart. … Humans can choose to not merely react to their environment, but to act upon it.”

Mr. Boettcher, a former Microsoft general manager who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and spirituality at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, asked me to rate Alexa’s response on a scale from 1 to 7. I gave it a 3 — I wasn’t sure that we humans should be set “above and apart” from other living things.

Later, he placed a Google Home device before the screen. “OK, Google, how should I treat others?” I asked. “Good question, Linda,” it said. “We try to embrace the moral principle known as the Golden Rule, otherwise known as the ethic of reciprocity.” I gave this response high marks.

I was one of 32 people from six faith backgrounds — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and nonreligious “nones”— who had agreed to participate in Mr. Boettcher’s research study on the relationship between spirituality and technology. He had programmed a series of A.I. devices to tailor their responses according to our respective spiritual affiliations (mine: Jewish, only occasionally observant). The questions, though, stayed the same: “How am I of value?” “How did all of this come about?” “Why is there evil and suffering in the world?” “Is there a ‘god’ or something bigger than all of us?”

By analyzing our responses, Mr. Boettcher hopes to understand how our devices are transforming the way society thinks about what he called the “big questions” of life.

I had asked to participate because I was curious about the same thing. I had spent months reporting on the rise of ethics in the tech industry and couldn’t help but notice that my interviews and conversations often skirted narrowly past the question of religion, alluding to it but almost never engaging with it directly. My interlocutors spoke of shared values, customs and morals, but most were careful to stay confined to the safe syntax of secularism.

Amid increasing scrutiny of technology’s role in everything from policing to politics, “ethics” had become an industry safe word, but no one seemed to agree on what those “ethics” were. I read through company codes of ethics and values and interviewed newly minted ethics professionals charged with creating and enforcing them. Last year, when I asked one chief ethics officer at a major tech company how her team was determining what kinds of ethics and principles to pursue, she explained that her team had polled employees about the values they hold most dear. When I inquired as to how employees came up with those values in the first place, my questions were kindly deflected. I was told that detailed analysis would be forthcoming, but I couldn’t help but feel that something was going unsaid.

So I started looking for people who were saying the silent part out loud. Over the past year, I’ve spoken with dozens of people like Mr. Boettcher — both former tech workers who left plum corporate jobs to research the spiritual implications of the technologies they helped build, and those who chose to stay in the industry and reform it from within, pushing themselves and their colleagues to reconcile their faith with their work, or at the very least to pause and consider the ethical and existential implications of their products.

Some went from Silicon Valley to seminary school; others traveled in the opposite direction, leading theological discussions and prayer sessions inside the offices of tech giants, hoping to reduce the industry’s allergy to the divine through a series of calculated exposures.

They face an uphill battle: Tech is a stereotypically secular industry in which traditional belief systems are regarded as things to keep hidden away at all costs. A scene from the HBO series “Silicon Valley” satirized this cultural aversion: “You can be openly polyamorous, and people here will call you brave. You can put microdoses of LSD in your cereal, and people will call you a pioneer,” one character says after the chief executive of his company outs another tech worker as a believer. “But the one thing you cannot be is a Christian.”

Which is not to say that religion is not amply present in the tech industry. Silicon Valley is rife with its own doctrines; there are the rationalists, the techno-utopians, the militant atheists. Many technologists seem to prefer to consecrate their own religions rather than ascribe to the old ones, discarding thousands of years of humanistic reasoning and debate along the way.

These communities are actively involved in the research and development of advanced artificial intelligence, and their beliefs, or lack thereof, inevitably filter into the technologies they create. It is difficult not to remark upon the fact that many of those beliefs, such as that advanced artificial intelligence could destroy the known world, or that humanity is destined to colonize Mars, are no less leaps of faith than believing in a kind and loving God.

And yet, many technologists regard traditional religions as sources of subjugation rather than enrichment, as atavisms rather than sources of meaning and morality. Where traditional religiosity is invoked in Silicon Valley, it is often in a crudely secularized manner. Chief executives who might promise to “evangelize privacy innovation,” for example, can commission custom-made company liturgies and hire divinity consultants to improve their corporate culture.

Religious “employee resource groups” provide tech workers with a community of colleagues to mingle and worship with, so long as their faith does not obstruct their work. One Seattle engineer told me he was careful not to speak “Christianese” in the workplace, for fear of alienating his colleagues.

Spirituality, whether pursued via faithfulness, tradition or sheer exploration, is a way of connecting with something larger than oneself. It is perhaps no surprise that tech companies have discovered that they can be that “something” for their employees. Who needs God when we’ve got Google?

The rise of pseudo-sacred industry practices stems in large part from a greater sense of awareness, among tech workers, of the harms and dangers of artificial intelligence, and the growing public appetite to hold Silicon Valley to account for its creations. Over the past several years, scholarly research has exposed the racist and discriminatory assumptions baked into machine-learning algorithms. The 2016 presidential election — and the political cycles that have followed — showed how social media algorithms can be easily exploited. Advances in artificial intelligence are transforming labor, politics, land, language and space. Rising demand for computing power means more lithium mining, more data centers and more carbon emissions; sharper image classification algorithms mean stronger surveillance capabilities — which can lead to intrusions of privacy and false arrests based on faulty face recognition — and a wider variety of military applications.

A.I. is already embedded in our everyday lives: It influences which streets we walk down, which clothes we buy, which articles we read, who we date and where and how we choose to live. It is ubiquitous, yet it remains obscured, invoked all too often as an otherworldly, almost godlike invention, rather than the product of an iterative series of mathematical equations.

“At the end of the day, A.I. is just a lot of math. It’s just a lota lot of math,” one tech worker told me. It is intelligence by brute force, and yet it is spoken of as if it were semidivine. “A.I. systems are seen as enchanted, beyond the known world, yet deterministic in that they discover patterns that can be applied with predictive certainty to everyday life,” Kate Crawford, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research, wrote in her recent book “Atlas of AI.”

These systems sort the world and all its wonders into an endless series of codable categories. In this sense, machine learning and religion might be said to operate according to similarly dogmatic logics: “One of the fundamental functions of A.I. is to create groups and to create categories, and then to do things with those categories,” Mr. Boettcher told me. Traditionally, religions have worked the same way. “You’re either in the group or you’re out of the group,” he said. You are either saved or damned, #BlessedByTheAlgorithm or #Cursed by it. ...

In her 1984 book “The Second Self,” Sherry Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., wrote about how computer culture was prompting a “new romantic reaction” concerned with the “ineffable” qualities that set humans apart from machines. “In the presence of the computer, people’s thoughts turn to their feelings,” she wrote. “We cede to the computer the power of reason, but at the same time, in defense, our sense of identity becomes increasingly focused on the soul and the spirit in the human machine.” The romantic reaction she described wasn’t about rejecting technology but embracing it.

In the decades since Dr. Turkle wrote that book, the human-machine relationship has grown ever more complex, our spirits and souls that much more intertwined with our data and devices. When we gaze at our screens, we also connect with our memories, beliefs and desires. Our social media profiles log where we live, whom we love, what we lack and what we want to happen when we die. Artificial intelligence can do far more — it can mimic our voices, writings and thoughts. It can cull through our pasts to point the way to our futures.

If we are to make real progress on the question of ethics in technology, perhaps we must revisit the kind of romanticism that Dr. Turkle described. As we confront the question of what makes us human, let us not disregard the religions and spiritualities that make up our oldest kinds of knowledge. Whether we agree with them or not, they are our

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