We know so little. Yet without even knowing what we don’t know, we still have to decide.
Back in the early 1980’s the Cold War was intensifying. Reagan was pouring huge amounts of money into the development of nuclear arms technology. I was a young minister in my first parish and against the arms race. I spoke out in whatever forums I could but one of the primary employers for those in my congregation, was a Navy research and development facility. Many of the core members of the church were engineers working on projects like the Polaris missile program. It was bread and butter versus punk preacher spouting easy rhetoric.
My Denomination had developed a Lenten study program on the arms race, leaning heavily toward my side of the argument. As you might guess, there was some resistance to using that program at my church. But those engineers were more open than I was, and they said they would read and discuss what the church published if I would read articles they gave me from their engineering journals.
I learned that for those engineers at that time and in their field of technology, to have a strong and stable career it almost required working in the military-industrial complex. That is where the money and jobs were. I learned that the cruise missile was not developed as a delivery system for nuclear warheads, rather, to use in busting missile silos. Their pinpoint accuracy and lower than radar flight path was an engineering feat for which the engineers were proud. But they were also disturbed that their “neat” bomb had become a “messy” bomb. In short, I learned that what was a clear moral certitude for me was surrounded and embroiled in a web of other issues. There was no strand you could pull that didn’t shake the interlacing complexity someplace else.
That new information did not make me less of a nuclear pacifist, but it did teach me that talk is cheap when you don’t have a job or career at stake in the argument. We are surrounded by decisions and choices for which we do not have sufficient information, and still we must make decisions.
The efficacy of masking, for example. There are so many studies with conflicting conclusions about how well or if masking protects us from airborne germs. Still, we have to decide whether to mask or not, and when.
For most of us, what and how to protect personal information online seems complex and daunting. It is difficult to discern what the real dangers are versus those wanting to make money on our ignorance.
Of course, in the end we have to make a decision or be paralyzed into inaction. Collin Powell apparently was a methodical decision-maker while Steve Jobs was more intuitive. Both had big successes and failures. Such are the things I think about as AI (artificial intelligence) is being so thoroughly hyped. The “intelligence” in AI is what we give it. Not only our data and prejudices but also the absence of what we do not know.
In the end, AI won’t make any better decisions than humans do and surely there will be situations in which it makes far worse ones. More data is not a solution when a significant element of the data is that we do not know what we don’t know.
Richard Mole says
Excellent discussion, thank you. This needs to be taken seriously.
Cam Miller says
Thank you, agreed. It’s always a challenge to know what to do and how to influence such things. But we must try.
Tim Long, Just Up the Hill from Lock 15 says
Thanks, Fr. Cam. It’s all I can do to Not Quote the HAL 9000 supercomputer’s line (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) from that moment when HAL’s dry, anodyne response to Dave’s request makes it clear that the sole remaining human on the space craft is in a pretty tight spot, beyond the airlock to the ship because of HAL’s assemblage of The Data. Although I think I sorta just did. I think we’re in a tight spot, if we just shrug and assume this to be just more progress, like the rotary dial phone or a furnace thermostat. With all this data running loose and organizing itself into stuff at the guidance of folks who’ve not likely wept at performances of Shakespeare, or upon reading anything by Wendell Berry, it’s becoming more difficult to discern the good, I think, but informed, soulful human discernment is evermore called for.
Cam Miller says
Agreed, in a tight spot and with AI the future looks tight too. But not impossible. Don’t give up!