The Biden administration recently held a press conference to tout that seven companies active in artificial intelligence (AI) development had made a voluntary commitment to create standards for safety, security, and trust around their AI technology. If this sounds like a bunch of smoke and mirrors to you, you’re in good company, as trust in technology companies has been waning. But what are the smoke and mirrors hiding? The answer, it seems, was quite literally staring everyone in the face at a different press conference earlier this summer.
On July 7 in Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations hosted nine AI-humanoids to answer questions posed by journalists. The AI-humanoids had expressive faces, lips that moved, eyes that scanned the room, and heads that turned in the direction of the questioner. They also had their own backstories and culture. They had identifiable male and female characteristics and specific talents and careers. Two even “resembled their makers.”
The question is why? Why do originators and developers of AI strive to represent the technology as human? Creating a human-like robot isn’t necessary. ChatGPT is powered by AI but remains a computer interface. Amazon’s Alexa, while a less sophisticated technology, listens to questions and provides answers, yet none of its devices remotely resemble a human.
The same is mostly true for the navigation systems in our cars. Type in a destination, and the technology gives driving directions specific to your needs. This technology is displayed on your phone or on your car’s dashboard. A voice intended to resemble a human voice gives verbal directions, but no one could confuse it for an actual human voice, nor does it have any embodiment.
Tower of Babel
Yet when it comes to AI, particularly in high-profile settings like the U.N. press conference, the technology is often represented as being human. To understand the mindset of AI developers, perhaps we should revisit the biblical Tower of Babel.
The 11th chapter of Genesis describes ancient Mesopotamia’s newest world-changing technology as brickmaking. “‘Come let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (v.3). Armed with such advanced technology, this innovative society set out to build a city and “a tower that reaches to the heavens,” with the intent to “make a name for ourselves” (v.4). Those who controlled the technology built the tower and planned to ascend to the top as gods.
Back in the modern world of the 21st century, placing an AI interface on phones, tablets, or laptops is decidedly ungodlike. However, an interface that looks and acts human with a distinctive personality transforms its maker into a creator, a god, who shares the same desire as the Mesopotamian brickmakers.
For the brickmakers, it was a confusion of language that stopped them from building the city and the tower, and after the confusion came the scattering. “That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth” (v.9).
In Hebrew, “Babel” sounds like the word for “confused,” a word that could also apply to our situation today. Confused, scattered, and separated into camps, we can’t understand each other or work together. We characterize our divisions as liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican, secular humanists versus the Christian right, urban versus rural, and the haves versus the have-nots. The number of divisions according to skin color, so-called gender identity, sexuality, and ethnicity is truly mind-boggling. While these might seem like separate problems, they all have the same root cause: the desire to be gods.
When you recognize this, you see it everywhere. Doctors play god, purporting to “correct” the mistakes of a person’s sex. Administrators of so-called “diversity, equity, and inclusion” claim to know what is in every human heart, offering a road to forgiveness that runs through them and them alone. Like the Tower of Babel, humans are playing god and think with such advancements as AI they actually have the ability to make it happen. But there are consequences for individuals and societies that choose to be gods.
So while issues of national security and the job market are certainly important, perhaps distrust and concern about artificial intelligence come from another place entirely. We know in our hearts that AI is going a step too far, and trust will not be granted to AI until its developers forthrightly answer the questions: Why are you designing faux humanity, and who is God?