Arif Khan, United Kingdom
Technology has transformed our lives over the past few decades. It has permeated every aspect of human life, from household gadgets and our smartphones to the way we buy and order food and other goods. The internet has been a huge accelerator, but there is one area of technology that potentially offers an even bigger revolution; Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Articulating a precise definition of AI is not easy. AI is really an umbrella term that covers a wide range of disciplines that ultimately seek to mimic behaviors that are typically only seen in living things, such as humans. Thus, AI covers areas such as computer vision, natural language processing (TAL) or voice recognition. We often see it firsthand in our homes with personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s home speakers. They are able to tell us what the weather will be like, remind us of upcoming appointments and answer basic questions.
AI – More important than electricity or fire
In 2016, Google CEO Sundar Pichai went so far as to say that AI is “the most important thing humanity is working on”, and added that AI is more important than “electricity or fire”. It added fuel to a field that already suffers from a lot of hype largely from the sci-fi world and Hollywood. For many, talking about machines or robots conjures up images of films such as Terminator, Star Wars or Blade Runner, with the majority of plots taking the route of AI overpowering humans.
Less Terminator, more Netflix
For those working in the field of AI, the reality is often much more mundane. There are some extremely exciting areas of AI, such as Tesla’s push for fully self-driving cars (FSDs), but for many the areas we work in are much more related to personal computing. AI in the business world tends to focus on analyzing large datasets and using them to make predictions about customer behavior. Thanks to the discipline of AI for machine learning (ML), companies are able to suggest products that will suit a given customer with a much higher rate of accuracy. We see it in our lives, from movie recommendations on Netflix to online shopping experiences that say “Customers who bought this product also bought it.”
We have AI-enabled devices in our homes, and often in the palms of our hands in smartphones, but what could this area of technology ultimately offer? Could we have robots around our house, or even preach in our places of worship?
AI – A reality check
The AI in its current form is really not very smart. There are examples of AI beating humans, for example at the game of Go, but this same intelligence could not, for example, also play the game of chess. There is no ubiquitous AI capable of combining multidisciplinary knowledge into a single, consolidated view of the world. Humans, however, are great at doing just that.
A recent book that attempted to provide a balance to counter the “hype” around AI technologies is AI restart by Dr. Gary Marcus and Dr. Ernest Davis. The authors explain that searching for information can give the illusion of understanding, when in fact the AI has no internal representation or understanding of the text it is responding with.
In addition to this, they highlight how human beings have a habit of anthropomorphizing; it is to assume that something has much more intelligence than it actually has. In our daily lives, we attribute human emotions or feelings to things like laptops or printers. We often talk about what a system “thought” or what it “felt”, but none of these terms really apply to these systems.
The AI’s ability to understand text also suffers. We think the AI is smarter than it is because it can hear our questions and respond with answers.
They illustrate the limitations, however, with a neat example like below:
‘”Two children, Chloé and Alexandre, went for a walk. They both saw a dog and a tree. Alexandre also saw a cat and showed it to Chloé. She went to pet the cat”
It is trivial to answer a question like “Who went for a walk?” in which the answer is directly spelled out in the text, but any competent reader should just as well be able to answer questions that aren’t directly spelled out, such as “Has Chloe seen the cat?” and “Were the children afraid of the cat?” »
Perhaps surprisingly, no existing AI technology can answer these questions, given the text above. The main skill that is missing at the moment: any form of real inference, because this relies on key knowledge, as well as the ability to form internal representations of situations.
Yet despite this, we continually read in the media that AI is superhuman and questions even arise about AI and religion.
AI in religion
A recent BBC article posed the question: ‘Will AI transform religion?’.
Given the limitations outlined earlier in this article, it should come as no surprise that I think the answer to this question is largely “no”, or at least “not currently”. If we can’t use AI to derive meaning from a simple children’s story, what hope is there of it unraveling the meaning of life itself?
MIT researcher Kate Darling in her book‚ The new breed, argues that comparing AI and robots to humans misses the point. It stirs up emotions of an inevitable future where robots and humans clash, perhaps fueled mostly by science fiction. She argues that viewing robots as pets is a much better analogy and provides a better framework for thinking about the problems that AI can help solve.
Perhaps a better question then would be whether AI can help humans lead religiously active and fulfilling lives?
When the BBC report is dissected and you look beyond the humanoid form of the ‘Minder’ robot, we see that the functionality on display is very similar to what we have in our smartphones and home assistants, such as Alexa . When “Santo”, the Catholic robot asked a question about heaven, he answered with a line of writing containing the word “heaven”. He did not answer the question directly. Considering the above note on Chloe and Alexander’s story, perhaps we can see why. In some situations, however, this form of word matching and retrieval is extremely useful, and that’s where I think AI and technology should focus.
Humans should be left with the complex reasoning and thinking, and technological solutions (which may or may not include AI) should actively support them. It is happening today, but we may not realize it.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, for example, recently launched the Open Quran website (HolyQuran.io). This website allows text search of the Holy Quran in Arabic, Urdu and English, but also more advanced features such as synonyms support. Search for the word “alcohol” or “alcohol” and you will get all results containing the term “wine”. The review of religions The website also has, for example, a search functionality that can recall information from more than 100 years of material within seconds.
In these examples, technology is used to focus on its strengths (quick search of large amounts of data) and this in turn can help a religious scholar find the reference he needs for his sermon. The idea of technology writing the sermon, in a way where it understood what it was saying, is at this point a very far-fetched notion.
Could the future contain this form of AI? May be. I believe a more likely future is one in which apps are available to help people meet my religious obligations, as well as give them words of wisdom during the day from religious scripture. Similar “Verse of the Day” type apps exist today on the various app stores and will continue to grow.
Looking at the personal fitness trend around the world, we can see the benefits of technology that keeps logs of our activities, provides reminders when we are less active, or health and fitness advice.
I believe that a similar orientation for the world of religion will reap benefits.
Rather than looking at technology to answer deep philosophical questions, we should be using it to bring knowledge to our fingertips through digitization and rapid search. Additionally, I expect to see more “faith” related personal apps that provide regular reminders and religious inspiration to users via scheduled notifications.
In this way, AI, and the wider tech world, can help support our religious endeavors, rather than trying to define them.
About the Author: Arif Khan is an AI consultant who has worked in the field for over 20 years. Arif has spoken at over 30 AI events around the world and in 2021 was featured in Forbes Romania discussing AI as “the fourth industrial revolution”. He is also associate editor of the Christianity section of The Review of Religions.
Marcus, G. and Davis, E. , 2019, Rebooting AI – Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust, Vintage, New York
Darling, K. 2021, The New Breed – How to Think About Robots, Penguin, United States of America