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AI
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11 min read

The summit of humanity: decoding AI's affectations

An AI summit’s prophecies need to be placed in the right philosophical register, argues Simon Cross. Because being human in an AI age still means the same thing it has for millennia.

Simon Cross researches ethical aspects of technology and advises on the Church’s of England's policy and legislative activity in these areas.

An AI generated image of robot skulls with bulging eyes on a shelf receding diagonally to the left.
Alessio Ferretti on Unsplash.

The UK’s global artificial intelligence (AI) conference is nearly upon us. If the UK had a ‘prophecy office’ it would have issued a yellow or even amber warning for the first days of November by now. Prophecy used to be a dangerous business, the ancient text of Deuteronomy sanctioned death for false prophets, equating its force with a leading away from God as the ultimate ground of truth. But risks duly acknowledged, here is a prophecy about the prophecies to come. The global AI conference will loudly proclaim three core prophecies about AI. 

  1. This time it’s different. Yes, we said that before but this time it really is different. 
  2. Yes, we need global regulation but, you know, it’s complicated so only the kind of regulation we advise is going to work.  
  3. Look, if we don’t do this someone else will. So, you should get out of our way as much as you possibly can. We are the good guys and if you slow us down the bad guys will win. 

I feel confident about this prediction not because I wish to claim the office of prophet but because just like Big Tobacco and Big Oil, Big Tech’s lobbyists will redeploy a tried and tested playbook. And here are the three plays at the heart of it. 

Tech exceptionalism. (We deserve to be treated differently under the law.) 

Regulatory capture. (We got lucky, last time, with the distinction between platform and publisher that permitted self-regulation of social media, the harvesting of personal data and manipulative design for attention, but the costs of defeating Uber in California and now defending rearguard anti-trust lawsuits means lesson learned, we need to go straight for regulatory capture this time). 

Tech determinism. (If we don’t do it, someone else will. We are the Oppenheimers here.) 

Speaking of Pandora 

What should we make of these claims? We need to start by exploring an underlying premise. One that typically goes like this “AI is calling into question what it means to be human”. 

This premise has become common currency, but it is flawed because it is too totalising. AI emphatically is calling into question a culturally dominant version of human anthropology – one specific ‘science of humanity’. But not all anthropologies. Not the Christian anthropology.  

A further, unspoken, premise driving this claim becomes clearer when we survey the range of responses to the question “what does the advent of what the government is now calling ‘frontier’ AI portend?”  

Either, it means we have finally prized open Pandora’s box; the last thing humans will ever create. AI is our Darwinian evolutionary heir, soon to make us homo sapiens redundant, extinct, even. Which could happen in two very different ways. For some, AI is the vehicle to a new post-human eternal life of ease, roaming the farthest reaches of the universe in disembodied digital repose. To others, AI is now on the very cusp of becoming abruptly and infinitely cleverer than us. To yet others, we are too stupid to avoid blowing ourselves up on the way to inventing so-called artificial general intelligence.  

Cue main global summit speaking points… 

Or, 

AI is just a branch of computing. 

Which of these two starkly contrasting options you choose will depend on your underlying beliefs about ‘what it means to be human’. 

Universal machines and meat machines 

Then again, what does it mean to be artificially intelligent? Standard histories of AI always point to two seminal events. First, Alan Turing published a paper in the 1930s in which he proposed a device called a Universal Turing Machine.  

Turing’s genius was to see a way of writing a type of programme to control a computer’s underlying binary on/off in ways that could vary depending on the task required and yet perform any task a computer can do. The reason your computer is not just a calculator but an excel spreadsheet and a word processor and a video player as well is because it is a kind of Universal Turing Machine. A UTM can compute anything that can be computed. If it has the right programme.  

The second major event in AI folklore was a conference at Dartmouth College in the USA in the early 1950s bringing together the so-called ‘godfathers of AI’.

 This conference set the philosophical and practical approaches from which AI has developed ever since. That this happened in America is important because of the strong link between universities, government, the defence and intelligence industry and the Big Tech Unicorns that have emerged from Silicon Valley to conquer the world. That link is anthropological; it is political, social, and economic and not just technical. 

Let’s take this underlying question of ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and recast it in a binary form as befits a computational approach; ‘Is a human being a machine or is a human being an organism?’ 

Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett was recently interviewed in the New York Times. For Dennett our minds and bodies are a “consortia of tiny robots”. Dennett is an evolutionary biologist and a powerful voice for a particular form of atheism and its answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ Dennett regards consciousness as ephemera, a by-product of brain activity. Another godfather of AI, Marvin Minsky, famously described human beings as ‘meat machines.’

By contrast, Joseph Weizenbaum was also one of the early computer pioneers in the 1960s and 1970s. Weizenbaum created one of the first ever chatbots, ELIZA– and was utterly horrified at the results. His test subjects could not stop treating ELIZA as a real person. At one point his own secretary sat down at the terminal to speak to ELIZA and then turned to him and asked him to leave the room so she could have some privacy. Weizenbaum spent the latter part of his professional life arguing passionately that there are things we ought not to get computers to do even if they can, in principle, perform them in a humanlike manner. To Joseph Weizenbaum computers were/are fundamentally different to human beings in ways that matter ineluctably, anthropologically. And it certainly seems as if the full dimensionality of human being cannot yet be reduced to binary on/off internal states without jettisoning free will, consciousness and transcendence. Prominent voices like Dennett and Yuval Noah Harari are willing to take this intellectual step. Their computer says ‘no’. By their own logic it could not say otherwise. In which case here’s a third way of asking that seemingly urgent and pressing question about human being;  

“Are we just warm, wet, computers?” 

The immanent frame 

A way to make sense of this, for many people, influential and intuitively attractive meaning of human being is to understand how the notion of artificial intelligence fits a particular worldview that has come to dominate recent decades and, indeed, centuries. 

In 2007 Charles Taylor wrote A Secular Age. In it he tracks the changing view of what it means to be human as the Western Enlightenment unfolds. Taylor detects a series of what he calls ‘subtraction stories’ that gradually explain away the central human experience of transcendence until society is left with what he calls an ‘immanent frame’. Now we are individual ‘buffered selves’ insulated by rational mind so that belief in any transcendent reality, let alone God, is just one possible choice among personal belief systems. But, says Taylor, this fracturing of a shared overarching answer to the question ‘What does it mean to be human’ over the past, say, 500 years doesn’t actually answer the question or resolve the ambiguities. Rather, society is now subject to what Taylor calls ‘cross pressures’ and a lack of societal consensus about the answers to the biggest questions of human meaning and purpose. 

In this much broader context, it becomes easier to see why as well as how it can be the case that AI is either a profound anthropological threat or just a branch of computing – depending on who you talk to… 

The way we describe AI profoundly influences our understanding of it. When Dennett talks about a ‘consortia of tiny robots’ is he speaking univocally or metaphorically? What about when we say that AI “creates”, or “decides” or “discovers” or ‘seeks to maximise its own reward function’. How are we using those words? If we mean words like ‘consortia’ or ‘choose’ and ‘reward’ in as close to the human sense as makes no difference, then of course the difference between us and our machines becomes paper-thin. But are human beings really a kind of UTM? Are UTMs really universal? Are you a warm wet computational meat-machine?  

Or is AI just the latest and greatest subtraction story?

To say AI is just a branch of computing is not to say the harms of outsourcing key features of human being to machines are trivial. Quite the opposite. 

How then should we judge prophecies about AI emanating from this global conference or in the weeks and months to follow?  I suggest two responses. The first follows from my view of AI, the other from my view of human being.  

Our view of current AI should be clear eyed, albeit open to revision should future development(s) so dictate. I am firmly on the side of those who, without foreclosing the possibility, see no philosophical breakthrough in the current crop of tools and techniques. These are murky philosophical waters but clocks don’t really have human hands now do they, and a collapsed metaphor can’t validate itself however endemic the reference to the computational theory of mind has become.  

Google’s large language model, Bard, for example, has no sense of what time it is where ‘he’ is, let alone can freely choose to love you or not, or to forgive you if you hurl an insult at ‘him’. But all kinds of anthropological harms already flow from the unconscious consequences of re-tuning human being according to the methodological image of our machines. To say AI is just a branch of computing is not to say the harms of outsourcing key features of human being to machines are trivial. Quite the opposite. 

Which brings me to the second response. When you hear the now stock claim that AI is calling into question what it means to be human, don’t buy it. Push back. Point out the totalising lack of nuance. The latest tools and techniques of AI are calling a culturally regnant but philosophically reductive anthropology into question. That much is definitely true. But that is all. 

And it is important to resist this totalising claim because if we don’t, an increasingly common and urgent debate about the fullness of human being and the limitations of UTMs will struggle from the start. One of the biggest mistakes I think public theology made twenty-some years ago was to cede a normative use of language that distinguished between people of faith and people of no faith. There is no such thing as being human without faith commitments of one kind or another. If you have any doubt about this, I commend No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers by Michael Novak. But the problem with accepting the false distinction between ‘having faith’ and having ‘no faith’ is that it has allowed the Dennetts and Hararis of this world to insist that atheism is on a stronger philosophical footing than theism. After which all subsequent debate had, first, to establish the legitimacy of faith per se before getting to the particular truth claims in, say, Christianity.  

What it means to be human 

I see a potentially similar misstep for anthropology – the science of human being – in this new and contemporary context of AI. Everywhere at the moment, and I mean but everywhere, a totalising claim is being declared ever more loudly and urgently: that the tools and techniques of AI are calling into question the very essence of human identity. The risk in ceding this claim is that we get stuck in an arid debate about content instead of significance; a debate about ‘what it means to be human’ instead of a debate about ‘what it means to be human.’  

This global AI summit’s proclamations and prophecies need to be placed in the right philosophical register, because to be human in an age of AI still means the same thing it has for millennia.  

Universals like wonder, love, justice, the need for mutually meaningful relationships and a sense of purpose, and so too personal idiosyncrasies like a soft spot for the moose are central features of what it means to be this human being.  

Suchlike are the essential ingredients of the ‘me’ that is reading this article. They are not tertiary. Perhaps they can be computationally mimicked but that does not mean they are, in themselves, ephemeral or mere artifice. In which case their superficial mimicry carries substantial risks, just as Joseph Weizenbaum prophesied in Computer Power and Human Reason in the 1970s.  

Of course, you may disagree. You may even disagree in good faith, for there are no knockdown arguments in metaphysics. And in my worldview, you are free to do so. But fair warning. If the human-determinism of Dennett or the latest prophecies of Harari are right, no credit follows. You, and they, are right only because by arbitrary alignment of the metaphysical stars, you, and they, have never been free to be wrong. It was all decided long ago. No need for prophecies. We are all just UTMs with the soul of a marionette  

But when you hear the three Global summit prophecies I predicted earlier, consider these three alternatives; 

This time is not different, it is not true that AI is calling into question all anthropologies. AI is (only) calling into question a false and reductive Enlightenment prophecy about ‘what it means to be human.’  

The perennial systematic and doctrinal anthropology of Christianity understands human being as free-willed, conscious, unified body soul and spirit.  It offers credible answers to the urgent questions and cross-pressures society is now wrestling with. It also offers an ethical framework for answering the question ‘what ought computers to be used for and what ought computers not to be used for – even if they appear able to be used for anything and everything? 

This Christian philosophical perspective on the twin underlying metaphysical questions of human being and purpose are not being called into question, either at this global summit or by any developments in AI today or the foreseeable future. They can, however, increasingly be called into service to answer those questions – at least for those with ears to hear.  

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Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.