Living God's Love Values - Generosity, Joy, Imagination and Courage
Living God's Love Values - Generosity, Joy, Imagination and Courage
SeeRound Online Oct 2017

Take your Vicar to the Lab! Scientists in Congregations: Computing

Although Vicars in Labs currently has no more visits schedules, it is far from dormant, having recently turned its attention to computing.

It’s common to think of computers, although very helpful as not actually very bright: if you put garbage in, you get garbage out. So if computers become as or more intelligent than humans through the development of Artificial Intelligence, (AI) what are the implications for faith and for that matter for humans?

These and similar questions were the subject of a recent conference on ‘The Internet, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Computing’, held at High Lee under the Vicars in Labs banner.

The speakers included Tony Hey, until recently Vice-President of Microsoft Research Connections and the Revd Kathryn Pritchard, Project Manager and Research Fellow for ‘Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science’ at St John’s College Durham, parent project of Scientists in Congregations which is behind take your Vicar to the Lab. Also present were priest and eminent scientist the Revd Prof Nicholas Goulding and Director of Ministry, with a background and PhD in computing, Revd Canon Dr Tim Bull, both co-directors of Take your Vicar to the Lab.

The conference concerned itself primarily with social questions and pragmatic outworkings of artificial intelligence, such a the implications for employment. Tony Hey spoke about the overqualification of many graduates for the jobs available – such as responding to requests for more chips – of the fried variety.

The conference also examined ethical issues around the development of self-driving cars. How, for example are manufacturers approaching issues such as how these cars would choose in an accident between heading for a mother with a pram and killing the driver of the car? Who would decide how to programme the car’s response and what ethical view would inform that choice?

Would such a car or computer be able to learn or develop ethics for itself? This is a common science-fiction plot of the kind where machines decide to prioritise their survival over that of their human creators, as in the film ‘I Robot’.

Whether a machine could make such decisions or be dependent on someone programming in such choices might depend on what would characterise the artificial intelligence given to it.

Scientists are beginning to describe two kinds of AI, weak and strong. Weak AI machines replicate human intelligence but do not show any attributes of consciousness. Strong AI machines would have something approaching consciousness. Tony Hey believed strongly that Strong AI is impossible, a view also informed by his own Christian faith.

Tim Bull described an experiment to the conference which demonstrated this. An AI computer was given all the words in English and Latvian and by itself worked out how to translate between the two languages. Although it could translate very effectively between the two, it couldn’t explain how it had learnt and nor could it derive any rules for translation. The suggestion is that it would need to have consciousness to be able to do that.

The conference also examined the implications of the vast amount of data collected and held about people and their activity, often including their movements or whereabouts and the presence of that data in the hands of companies such as Google. What are the ethics of so much being known about individuals?

Reflecting on the conference, Tim Bull concluded:

“While AI of the future may be able to simulate many aspects of human intelligence, I don’t believe we will ever create a genuinely conscious machine. There is something about our God-given nature – a ‘soul’ if you like – which makes us unique.”

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