Paul Scherz is an assistant professor of moral theology/ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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Here Come the Robots
RECENT STATEMENTS by tech luminaries suggest that robots with artificial intelligence (AI) are on the cusp of conquering the world. These fears are slightly overblown—researchers assure us that we are nowhere near “conscious” AI. More important, these apocalyptic predictions distract us from the problems that Christian ethics finds in existing forms of automation.
These problems arise from the replacement of central aspects of human existence for the sake of efficiency and convenience. Most obviously, automation leads to the replacement of workers, decimating not only manufacturing jobs but also white-collar jobs as AI becomes more sophisticated. Self-driving cars alone threaten 4 million jobs. While economists predict new employment opportunities, tech executives are less confident, leading to calls for a universal basic income.
Automation is also replacing inconvenient forms of relationship. In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle documents substitutes for relational labor that involve nurturing or therapy, such as robot caregivers for the elderly. Many people embrace these automated caregivers, projecting emotions upon them and sometimes preferring them to humans.
The turn from relationships is increasingly widespread in society. Internet algorithms provide us with a world that reflects ourselves back to us—movies, news, and friends already tailored to our interests. It is easy to understand this turn toward technology: Relationships can be difficult. They involve inconvenient emotions, unrestricted demands, and challenging points of view.
Automation even challenges that most troubling of relations, our own embodiment. Emerging from René Descartes’ philosophy that saw the body as mere mechanism and unnecessary for our identity, artificial intelligence suggests we can live a disembodied existence, such as some transhumanists’ longing to upload themselves to a computer. While transhumanism is a fringe movement, devices encourage more and more people to live with their attention drawn away from the embodied present.