Can an AI ever demonstrate biblical wisdom?

by Calum Samuelson, 12th April 2018

Amazon Alexa: An AI Assistant (Credit: Quote Catalog, CC BY 2.0)

As the topic of Artificial Intelligence continues to feature in headlines, I recently came across something troubling: the term ‘wisdom’ is being used to describe future characteristics of AI (specifically ASI or Artificial Super Intelligence). A case in point comes from one of the leading thinkers in this area, Oxford scholar Nick Bostrom. He has defined superintelligence as ‘an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills’. There is, of course, a tremendous deal we are still unsure about when it comes to the future nature of AI, but one concerning feature of Bostrom’s (and others’) writing is the way in which wisdom is basically pitched as a type of high-level knowledge or intelligence. The Bible talks about wisdom in a very different way.

1) Wisdom is categorically distinct from intelligence.

According to the biblical corpus, wisdom cannot simply be located somewhere on the spectrum of intelligence. For example, in discussions about AI the insignificant ant is often used as an example of a creature with extremely low-level intelligence.[1] However, the ant is lauded in the Bible as a wise creature for the way it stores food (Prov. 30:24–25). Additionally, both Solomon’s request for wisdom  (1 Kings 3:12) and the book of James (especially James 1:5) teach us that true wisdom is something that God gives to us rather than something that results merely from decades of diligent learning (although diligent learning is certainly not discredited, as Proverbs makes clear).

One of the main reasons that wisdom differs from knowledge or intelligence in the Bible is because it entails acting upon what one already knows. This is portrayed in Deuteronomy 4:6, where the word wisdom (chokhmah) characterizes Israel acting upon the guidance and instructions that God had given them. Even clearer is the way that Jesus himself contrasts these themes in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock… But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand’ (Matt. 7:24; 26). Both men had the same information, but only one put it into practice.

2) The wisdom of God is not synonymous with the wisdom of the world.

This is evident throughout the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians: ‘The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight’ (1 Cor. 3:19). Although Christians do well to maintain this distinction, there is also a danger of slipping back into the type of ‘continuum’ described by the AI researchers, where wisdom is made into the long-awaited (and sometimes exclusive) ‘product’ of diligent Christian devotion and Bible study: ‘It’s difficult to grasp now, but once you have been a Christian for a long time you will finally understand.’ Of course, we are able to make more sense of God’s actions as we get to know him better, but the reality of the Cross will always fundamentally be a scandal (skandalon) that we can never completely understand (see 1 Cor. 1:23).

Ultimately, perfect wisdom is not some distant goal to be achieved by an ultra-powerful ASI, but rather a present reality that has already been made known in the person of Jesus Christ: ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (see 1 Cor. 1:30).

3)  Intelligence will never be a prerequisite for following Christ.

In my opinion, our Western, technological world has a rather poor understanding of intelligence. We admire certain types of measurable cerebral performance and ignore many others which are less quantifiable. The fact that staggering amounts of information is arguably making us less intelligent seems to be indicative of conflicting views about intelligence.[2]

Regardless of how we might choose to understand intelligence, it is plain that a high IQ is not required to be a good disciple of Jesus. This is at least one of the implications of Jesus selecting fisherman as his disciples, who presumably would not have been fisherman if they had been better at studying the Torah as boys. Rather than IQ, Jesus cares about simple obedience.

A brilliant person may know perfectly well how much it will hurt for them to sacrifice themselves for another (for example), and then refuse to do so for that very reason. A wise person, however, would do it anyway if they knew it was the action that God required of them. One of the main reasons many experts are so concerned about the growth of AI is precisely because of the extreme, logical self-preservation it will likely typify. Can AI ever obediently and wisely make the type of ‘scandalous’ sacrifices God requires of his children?[3] It does not seem so. Thus, Christians would do well not only to preserve a biblical understanding of wisdom, but also to challenge the notion of ‘wisdom in AI’ whenever it may appear.

 

[1] For just one example, see the ‘Intelligence Staircase’ depicted in this article: https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-2.html.

[2] I didn’t have room to squeeze this into the main text of this blog, but in contrast to Benjamin Bloom’s well-known taxonomy it is instructive to consider the ‘Experiential Taxonomy’ of Steinaker and Bell.

[3] I don’t mean to equate a wise person with sacrificial actions, but use sacrifice as one example of how a wise person might apply their understanding. In addition to sacrificial actions, we could also ask whether AI will ever be able to ‘go out of its way’ to perform actions that require more energy than necessary, or ‘not cause another to stumble’ by communicating with language that is more sympathetic to the hearers’ ears than needed, or even make decisions ‘on faith’ that cannot be supported by sufficient data.

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Category: Blogs

April, 2018

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