Artificial Intelligence and Human Morality

Fresno Bee, June 4, 2023

Is artificial intelligence going to kill us? It all depends on who is using it and why

Experts warn that artificial intelligence may kill us. A declaration signed by a number of luminaries states: “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

I’m sympathetic to the worry. But when you think about the other problems mentioned here — nuclear war and pandemics — it might be that we need AI to save us from our own incompetence. Could AI have responded better to Covid than we humans did?

It all depends on what we do with AI, and who is using it. A crazed dictator with AI is scary. But a scientist assisted by AI, not so much.

Geoffrey Hinton is one of the signatories of the new AI warning, and an expert in the field. In a recent interview, Hinton warns that AI may grow smarter than its human creators within five to 20 years.

One of the things that freaked him out recently was when he asked an AI to explain a joke. Hinton did not expect AI to understand humor. But it did.

That got me curious, so I asked ChatGPT (an online AI), “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Immediately, it said, “To get to the other side.” And then, without prompting, it explained the joke as a play on words. It said, “It’s a simple and often unexpected answer that plays on the double meaning of ‘the other side.’” It explained the joke as a “philosophical statement on the nature of life and death.”

This surprised me. The AI recognized that I was asking a joke. I had actually forgotten that the joke was about chicken suicide. But the AI went straight to the heart of the matter.

But is this an existential risk? I depends on how we use AI. If we use AI to explain jokes, we won’t risk much. Philosophy, and comedy, assisted by AI, might be fun and informative. But if we weave AI into the systems that govern our lives, we might end up in a strange dystopia.

One obvious concern is the stock market. AI can analyze data and make trades in nanoseconds. This may not lead to extinction. But it may cause bubbles and panics, and enrich those fortunate enough to have an AI broker. Or, maybe AI could be used beneficially to even things out, preventing panics and bubbles. Again, it depends on what we do with it, and what safeguards we program into the system.

A darker possibility is if AI took control of military systems, including nuclear weapons. What if AI were put in charge in the hope of automating and streamlining the decision procedures involved in nuclear war? Maybe nuclear-armed AI will lead to Armageddon. Or, again, maybe AI will better control our most deadly weapons.

It’s worth asking whether human beings are really trustworthy custodians of weapons, or wealth. Some crazed Dr. Strangelove could launch a nuclear war. And rapacious financiers like Bernie Madoff ruin people’s lives. Perhaps AI is more trustworthy than humans in this regard. AI won’t get angry, greedy, envious, or hateful.

And here is where things get really weird and dystopian. What if a smart AI figures out that humans — with all of our ignorance, spite, and greed — should not be trusted with nukes or with billion-dollar deals? In science fiction, the AI might seize control — for our own good!

But AI will only take control, if we put it in charge. Human beings are always looking for shortcuts and quick fixes to complex problems (as I discussed in my column last week). We invent tools to make things easier. But ultimately, we are responsible for the tools we create, including nuclear weapons, the stock market and AI.

We are also responsible for the greed, spite, and ignorance that afflict the world. These are human problems. Tools can magnify these ugly traits, or they can help us control our worst impulses. In the end, the choice of crossing the road to get to the other side belongs to us. This choice is ultimately about ethics and the human spirit. If AI leads to our extinction, the fault will not be in the tool but within the human soul.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article275991471.html#storylink=cpy

New Year’s Resolution: Live as an Adult

We live in a childish age.  This is an era of immediate gratification, temper tantrums, and short attention spans.  It’s time to grow up.  Here’s an idea for a new year’s resolution: let’s live like adults.

This is an ancient resolution.  In the Second Century, the philosopher Epictetus said “Grow up!  Stop behaving like a child.”  Now is the time to get serious.  “The Olympic games are now,” he said.  Stop procrastinating and start living a good life. 

But it is easy to mope and whine like spoiled children.  We are childish when we expect the world to satisfy our wishes.  The truth is that reality does not conform to your egoistic expectations.

It is difficult to be an adult.  There are bills to pay and work to be done.  There are battles to be fought and losses to be endured.  Adults understand that life is difficult and that it takes hard work.  Adults do their duty.  They avoid self-indulgence and ingratitude. 

Adults also understand that nothing lasts forever.  They prepare for death, realizing that everyone dies and that the world imposes significant limits upon what we can achieve.

The word adult has an intriguing etymology.  It comes from a Latin word for growth, related to the word adolescence.  An adolescent is one who is growing.  An adult has completed that process. 

To be an adult is to be ripe and mature.  Fruit also ripens.  Each creature has its own path of maturation and completion.  The playful puppy becomes a dog who hunts, defends, and stays loyal to its pack.  The sapling grows through several seasons until it produces flowers and fruit.

To be mature is to have reached the final stage of development.  It implies a sense of completion and fulfillment.  Maturity depends on what we take as the essence of the thing that is ripening. 

In our culture, we tend to think that the human essence is defined by liberty and license.  They key coming-of-age milestones in our culture are about the freedom to consume.  At age 21, we gain the freedom to drink alcohol, smoke pot (in California anyway), and gamble.  There are other milestones.  At 16, you can drive a car.  At 18, you can vote. 

It is a sad world in which the entry into adulthood is marked by your ability to buy beer.  Perhaps this is why we often fail to grow up.  In our culture, too many adults are focused on consumption, sensual indulgence, and self-satisfaction.

The philosophical tradition has a different notion of the human essence.  This idea holds that to be fully human is to develop wisdom and virtue.  Adolescents are not yet virtuous or wise.  But adults have ripened to the point at which wisdom and virtue are possible.  This is not about liberty and consumption.  Rather, it is about self-restraint and obedience to the moral law.  Adults know how to control their bodily urges.  They also understand that there are duties and obligations that must be fulfilled. 

At what age does wisdom and virtue become possible? 

Plato suggested that at around age 50 people had the capacity to rule themselves (and others) wisely.  The U.S. Constitution holds that you have to be 25 to run for the House, 30 to run for Senate, and 35 to run for President.

Of course, age is merely a number on a calendar.  Some young people are wiser than their parents.  And some old people are foolish.  The point is to grow up. 

The poet Horace once said: “To begin is only half the battle.  Now is the time for the audacity of wisdom.  Begin!” Horace was referring to a timid animal standing beside a river, waiting for the water to stop flowing for its chance to cross.  We might picture this as a juvenile, waiting for its chance to jump into the flow of life.

But the river stands still for no one.  The point is to take the plunge and get going.

So here is a philosophical new year’s resolution: let’s resolve to be adults.  That means we should be audacious in the pursuit of wisdom.  We should overcome childish self-indulgence.  And we should get to work on being good. 

Rename Schools After Ideas Not People

Fresno Bee , November 14, 2021

As local districts consider renaming schools, I suggest not naming them after people. Human beings are flawed. No one is perfect enough to have his or her name immortalized on a building.

Renaming is already underway in our region. Forkner Elementary in Fresno is being renamed for Roger Tartarian. The school’s original namesake was responsible for racial redlining that excluded Armenians, such as Tartarian. Meanwhile, people in the Central Unified School District are calling for Polk Elementary to be renamed. President James K. Polk was a slave owner who led U.S. expansionism during the Mexican-American war.

If you scratch the surface of many names, you’ll find problems. Herbert Hoover High School is named for a U.S. president who is typically blamed for the Great Depression. He has also been accused of racism. In 1932, W.E.B. Dubois said, “no one in our day has helped disenfranchisement and race hatred more than Herbert Hoover.”

At Stanford University there is an institute named after Hoover. The Stanford name is also controversial. Leland Stanford named the university after his dead son, Leland Stanford Jr. The elder Stanford was the governor of California — and a racist. In his inaugural address in 1862, Stanford said, “the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged, by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.”

There may be some pure souls whose names deserve to be immortalized. But the naming process is often corrupted by wealth and power. It is the rich and powerful who put their names on buildings — or on entire universities. In America, we often confuse wealth and power with virtue.

Given this, it is strange that we continue to name buildings, universities, and even cities after people. Speaking of cities, the capitol of Wisconsin is named for James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution. But Madison was also an unrepentant slave owner. In Madison, Wisconsin today, they are trying to rename James Madison Memorial High School. Such are the ironies of American history.

One benevolent purpose in naming places after people is to memorialize role models. Role models are important. We learn through imitation. If you want to learn to play a sport or an instrument, you should imitate what good athletes and musicians do. But no human role model is perfect.

The case of Aaron Rodgers comes to mind. He is widely admired for his skill as quarterback. But his integrity and intelligence have been called into question due to his anti-vax views.

I’m disappointed, but not surprised by Rodger’s failure. Rodgers is good at throwing a football. Why did we expect him to make good decisions about medicine? We don’t expect doctors to be good quarterbacks. We each have our virtues — and our vices.

The same limitations hold true even of past presidents. They are skilled at politics. But it’s naïve to think they are flawless moral exemplars.

Each one of us is a creature of our own time. Past values influence the behavior of past icons. As our values evolve, former heroes fall from grace. This is inevitable. It is natural to reassess past heroes in light of current knowledge.

A further problem is polarization. In our polarized world, there are even disputes about the integrity of icons such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We disagree about role models because we disagree about everything. Imagine the partisan outrage that would erupt if a school were to be named after Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Trump.

To avoid all of this, we might name schools after concepts — as I suggested in a previous column. This would be less polarizing. It would avoid the game of “gotcha” through which heroes are toppled.

I previously suggested naming schools after concepts such as “Liberty,” “Independence,” “Imagination,” and “Kindness.” We might also consider “Truth,” “Justice,” “Democracy,” “Fairness,” or “Responsibility.” How about Curiosity Elementary, Integrity Middle School, or Human Rights High School?

Finally, let’s include young people in these conversations. There is power in names and in naming. Students could be inspired and empowered by this opportunity. In doing the research and engaging the process, young folks can learn important lessons about history, democracy, and the power of names.

Graduation: Kick Away the Ladder and Soar

Fresno Bee, June 6, 2021

Here is a column for the graduates. Graduation celebrates success at climbing a ladder. The word comes from “gradus,” which is Latin for “step.” To graduate is to complete all of the steps.

Education is an ascent. Plato pictured education as a climb out of the cave of ignorance toward enlightenment. In the Renaissance, Pico Della Mirandola said the ladder of knowledge leads us to God.

Our world has lots of ladders. In school you climb from one grade to the next. As you ascend you are graded, ranked, and evaluated. This hierarchical system continues in business, the military, and other forms of adult life. Much of life is organized by ladders and ranking systems. You will ascend a variety of ladders, including the famous ladder of success.

But once you’ve climbed up, then what?

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein recommended kicking away the ladder once you’ve climbed it. Graduation is like that. It is a time to leave the ladder and make a leap. This leap is a moment of freedom, anxiety, and joy.

Freedom can be scary. There is comfort in climbing a familiar path. But life is not merely a never-ending staircase. There are also circles and repetitions — and moments in which you hover, soar and plunge. Life is a dance and a leap as well as a climb.

What will you do with your freedom once the steps are no longer measured for you by parents and teachers? How will you use your freedom? Which mountain will you climb? Where will you dance off to?

Education should culminate in freedom. Knowledge liberates us. But liberty requires constraint. Freedom without discipline is chaos. Virtues like honesty and integrity channel freedom in productive ways.

Freedom must also be connected to compassion and justice. In “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare warned us not to turn our backs on our friends once we’ve climbed ambition’s ladder. Remain humble. Give gratitude to those who helped you ascend. And offer a hand to those who need help climbing up.

There is also wisdom in standing still and learning to wait. Our culture emphasizes achievement and accomplishment. But silence is golden and patience is a virtue.

We learn this from music and the arts. The best music is not a frantic flurry of notes. The silences matter, as do the whole notes, and the whispered undertones. Subtle harmonies require gentleness, attentive listening, and a light touch. The sweetest poetry leaves important things unsaid.

And don’t forget love. True love is not selfish. It expands and uplifts. Parents, teachers, and coaches gave you the love you needed. They held your hand as you took the first steps of your journey. At some point, the training wheels came off and there you went. They ran beside you for a while as you sped up the path. And now you are ready to soar. Spread your wings. And when you are ready, pass that love on. Your task is to help others learn to climb.

Your parents and teachers hope that wisdom, courage, and tenacity will guide you as you conquer other mountains. But we can’t tell you where to go from here. Maybe you will climb Half Dome. Maybe you’ll write a poem. You might discover a cure for cancer. Or you might find a cure for violence, racism, and hate. The choice is yours.

There will always be new challenges to overcome and new ladders to ascend. We hope that you climb well, and bravely, and wisely. May your life be a dance, a song, and a sparkling work of art.

We’ll be here cheering you on, waiting for news of your achievements. Do us proud. Climb as high as you dare. Then gather your virtues around like a superhero’s cape and make that leap. If you fall, we’ll still be here to pick you up. Don’t be afraid to fall. Everyone falls down from time to time. What matters is the will to get back up and climb again.

Eventually you’ll catch the wind and soar beyond us with dignity and grace. Circle back from time to time. Astound us with what you’ve learned and who you’ve loved. We look forward to being amazed at who you will become.

Waning Religion and Our Epicurean Moment

Epicurus

Religious membership in the U.S. has dropped below 50% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  Some Americans continue to believe in the supernatural.  A 2020 survey indicates that half of Americans believe in ghost and demons.  But it is remarkable that today fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion. 

This new data confirms other surveys indicating secularization.  The Pew Center has documented the rapid growth of “the nones” (those who do not claim to belong to a specific religion) and the decline in church attendance. 

Some pundits worry this indicates a cultural malfunction.  Dennis Prager says, “When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”  Shloto Byrnes says that the West is suffering from a “Godless delusion,” arguing that “to be human has meant to be religious throughout history.”  And Shadi Hamid suggests that secularism fuels political extremism. 

These hyperbolic concerns are misguided and misleading.  Many societies have done quite well without Judeo-Christian values.  It is not true that human beings have always been religious in the contemporary sense, or that we need to be.  And rational humanism actually offers an antidote for extremism. 

The Covid-19 crisis provides a great example.  Prayer and miracles will not solve this crisis.  Scientific medicine provides vaccines, prevention protocols, and treatments for infection.  When people get sick these days, they go to the doctor instead of the shaman. 

Scientific naturalism is ubiquitous.  To predict the weather, we consult meteorologists instead of astrologists.  Earthquakes and volcanoes don’t appear to us as the work of mercurial deities who need appeasing.  Reason and humanism provide us with useful advice that improves health and happiness.

And despite what Byrnes says, humanism has a long history.  It made a strong appearance 2,500 years ago in the philosophy of Epicurus.  The Epicurean philosophy aimed to cure the anxiety caused by religious superstition.  Epicurus offered thoroughly naturalistic explanations of earthquakes, lightning, and the like.  The Epicureans taught that happiness was easily obtain by focusing on friendship and virtue in a world emptied of the supernatural. 

The Epicurean philosophy was popular in the ancient world.  But Stoic and Christian authors vilified Epicurean naturalism.  Epicurus’s name was falsely associated with licentiousness and shameless hedonism.  This caricature is unfair to a school that emphasized modesty, frugality, and friendship—and the deliberate avoidance of political extremism.

As a result of persecution, however, few of Epicurus’s original writings exist.  We do know that Epicurus defended an early version of atomism based in a naturalistic view of the world.  His views are remarkably modern. 

Epicurus taught that the cosmos was made up of atoms moving in the void.  He held out the possibility that in the infinite space and time of the universe, there were other worlds that resulted from the same natural processes that produced our world. 

Epicurus said that the soul was merely a combination of certain kinds of atoms.  When the body died, the soul dissipated.  There was no life after death.  If there were gods, they were not concerned about human life.  Religious myths and superstitions caused anxiety by making us worry about the whims of the gods and life after death.  In order to cure that anxiety, a better understanding of nature helps.

Epicureanism also provided an antidote to extremism.  Religious zealots sometimes end up trying to silence the advocates of reasonable naturalism.  They can also fall prey to outrageous conspiracy theories. But rather than engage these zealots in the streets, the Epicureans advised living unobtrusively.  Political tumult results in unhappiness.  The Epicureans tried to avoid that by retreating to private communities, where friendship, reason, and happiness could be cultivated. 

It seems that now is a good time for an Epicurean renewal.  Religion is waning. And while some zealots are succumbing to extremism, most of us are rediscovering the importance of science, reason, and restraint.

The Covid lockdown has also encouraged us to find happiness in simple things.  While extremism and violence has erupted in the streets, we are re-learning the wisdom of living simply and with social distance.  This is an Epicurean moment: a time to rediscover the wisdom of naturalism, a time to turn away from superstition, and a time to cultivate modesty, simplicity, and friendship.