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SXSW 2019: Grappling with AI’s immense culture shifts

Panelists Robert J. Marks and Jay Richards spot the human advantage in an AI-driven culture

Artificial intelligence was all the buzz at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film, music, and media festival here in Austin, Texas, last week. Our culture is obsessed with asking “What exactly is artificial intelligence, what is it really capable of, and what does that mean for who I am as a human and how I am going to live in the future?” Over 150,000 people flooded into downtown Austin this year to attend the ten-day official SX party and the unofficial parties, concerts, art exhibits, and seminars citywide.

AI sessions dominated the SXSW Interactive schedule which included talks on augmenting human intelligence, blockchain technology, AI and storytelling, and how AI will change what it is to be human. Even SX comedians tapped into the AI hype to entertain the crowds. As one speaker at a session discussing the global food economy quipped, “Since it’s SX, I have to make some mention of AI.”

Our community at Christ Church Anglican recently moved into a renovated building on 2nd Street, just half a mile east of the Austin Convention Center where most of the SXSW Interactive sessions are held. Knowing that most SX conversations around AI assume that humans are reducible to material mechanisms, our Faith & Culture team decided to partner with our friends at the Austin Institute and provide food for thought. On Monday, March 11, we co-hosted an SX-styled symposium on artificial intelligence, featuring computer engineering professor Robert J. Marks and philosopher of business and technology Jay Richards.

We titled our event after Jay Richards’ book, The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines. It argues that the skills that are most uniquely human—creativity, resilience, and empathy—can enable ordinary people to thrive in this age of mass technological disruption. We wanted to join Richards in redirecting the conversation around AI toward an emphasis on the uniqueness of the human mind and person.

left to right, Robert J. Marks, Jay Richards, and Kevin Stuart at the Human Advantage panel discussion, Christ Church, Austin TX, March 11, 2019

Anglicans love a good party as much as any other Austinite, so we started with a happy hour catered by Frontyard Brewery. The Christ Church arts community decorated the courtyard with AI-generated art prints and the conversation in the sanctuary was enlivened by robot videos and AI-inspired commercials. A keg of root beer kept our teens contented while Frontyard’s new Rye IPA proved that God indeed loves us and wants us to be happy.

Robert J. Marks began the discussion by explaining that AI is algorithmic: If a set of instructions can outline a skill, AI can do it. If not, the skill is beyond the reach of AI. No matter how large and complex an algorithm grows, algorithmic activity does not magically leap into some other kind of activity. Our inclination to perceive robots as more than they really are attests to the power of the human imagination, not the power of AI.

Jay Richards talked about the main reasons why an information economy in a high-tech culture feels especially challenging and different, compared to socio-economic changes of the past. While AI and other digital technologies initiate highly disruptive change at an exponential rate, he argues that bad philosophy, not sound economics, predicts that future change will render the human worker obsolete. The activities of the human mind, while they include algorithmic computation, are not reducible to algorithms. Therefore AI cannot replace human intelligence and agency in every way. By developing the unique characteristics of the human mind and person—courage, resilience, altruism, collaboration, creative freedom—he contends that we can anticipate and prepare for the future.

Kevin Stuart of the Austin Institute moderated an extended Q&A where attendees could text questions to the speakers. They ranged from how human learning differs from AI learning to whether AI can learn virtue and whether people as successful as Bill Gates can really be wrong. The questions showed not only the breadth of AI’s current impact on culture but also the significant difficulty most people have in grasping the fundamental nature of both artificial and human intelligence. Here’s the audio link.

Over two hundred people attended “The Human Advantage” symposium, a third of whom were from outside the Christ Church or Austin Institute community. From homeschooled teens to high-tech entrepreneurs to retired doctors to University of Texas students, Christ Church was full of Austinites trying to understand what the rapid growth of AI technologies means for their future.

Austin’s 2019 SXSW festival focus is a mere blip in the buzz over AI. That is why we need more events like “The Human Advantage” and resources like Mind Matters to foster clarity about AI: what it is, what it can do, and what its limitations really are, in the face of materialist hype. Only when we understand the truth will we make good decisions politically, economically, or personally.

Annie Crawford

Annie Crawford lives in Austin, Texas, where she currently homeschools her three teenage daughters, teaches humanities courses, and serves on the Faith & Culture team at Christ Church Anglican. She is an editor and contributor at An Unexpected Journal, a periodical exploring the relationship between faith and imagination. She will graduate with a Masters of Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University in May 2019.

SXSW 2019: Grappling with AI’s immense culture shifts