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Lead Us Not Into the Uncanny Valley …

Robert Marks and Gretchen Huizinga discuss whether future developments in artificial intelligence will lead to a better future or a worse one

This is the fourth and final segment of the the recent podcast, “What Does It Mean to Be Human in an Age of Artificial Intelligence?”, featuring Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks and veteran podcaster Gretchen Huizinga. In the first segment, they discussed what AI can and can’t do. In the second segment, they discussed “How did all the AI hype get started?” Then, in the third part, the discussion turned to “Straight talk about killer robots/a>” because Dr. Marks is the author of The Case for Killer Robots. And now we come at last to the Uncanny Valley, where too much AI and robotics risks making everything weird.

The entire interview was originally published by Christian think tank, the Beatrice Institute (March 3, 2022) and is repeated here with their kind permission:

Here’s a partial transcript of the fourth segment, beginning at roughly 34 min, with notes, Show Notes, and Additional Resources:

Gretchen Huizinga: This podcast is part of a larger project called Being Human In An Age of AI. We ask what makes humans special? And what does it mean to flourish on the frontier of a technological future? We’ve already talked about what makes human special.

So, I want to interrogate this idea of flourishing. Since a frictionless existence is a common selling point of AI technologies, what does it mean to flourish in your mind, Bob? And how might a Christian view differ from say a humanist or materialist view? Is there a point where flourishing might be bad for us and the little friction good? What does the Bible say about it? What do you think about this?

Robert Marks: I think on the negative side, too much technology is kind of numbing. There is distraction, which technology gives. It’s credence to the old saying that the idle mind is the devil’s playground. We grow weary, I think, because we have too much play time. It isn’t that we don’t have enough play time. We have too much play time.

One of the things that Ecclesiastes in the Bible says is that one of God’s gifts to us is toil. This was recently pointed out to me by one of my PhD students, a Christian who has literally memorized the entire book of Ecclesiastes. But this is a gift to us. It is toil.

John Tamny wrote a great book called The End of Work. And it is how AI and the technology of the future is going to make life for many, many people, much more enjoyable.

Note: John Tamny argues that AI enables us to have much more interesting jobs based on our unique talents: “The nature of work is changing before our eyes,” he explained. “The New England Patriots, when they traveled to Minneapolis for the Super Bowl, brought a massive team of assistants… including three sleep coaches. Can you think of something more pleasurable than sleeping? But so advanced are we economically that football teams, because they want to prosper, have people who coach you on how to sleep.”

Ted Hamlin,John Tamny: The Changing Nature Of Work And Our Bright Future” at RealClear Markets (May8, 2018)

Robert J. Marks: I’m old enough to remember my grandmother saying, “You got to go out, Bob, and you have to hoe the weeds in the corn.” So I would go out with a hoe and chop down these weeds and things like that. And that doesn’t happen on modern farms. And it’s because of technology. AI is going to, I believe, add to this.

Now, are there going to be dangers? Heck yes, there’s dangers. Anytime you add new technology, there is a danger. All of these things are no more than tools. It’s the way that these tools are used. It’s going to be the same exact thing with AI.

Gretchen Huizinga: So, you have a positive view on the impact of AI and human flourishing — more so than a negative view?

Robert Marks: I would say yes. You started out saying whether I was a dystopian or a utopian. I guess I lean more toward John Tamny’s work… Everybody talks about the impact on jobs, but on the other hand, I’m a great believer in free enterprise. If people get out of the way and let free enterprise and capitalism flourish — right now, today we have things which we never had before. We have web designers, we have social media stars, we have graphic designers, we have podcasters. Right?

Gretchen Huizinga: Ad infinitum.

Robert Marks: And we have the guy hired to ban your video on Google. That made his job. Right?

Gretchen Huizinga: Fact checkers …

I’m going to continue to interrogate this in future talks with people because I wonder if there isn’t a computational version of the prosperity gospel that a Christian should try to avoid. Looking at the film WALL-E, where you see at the end of the film, the people that were taken off the planet. They have just become so leisurely that computers make all their decisions and they become unable to have agency.

Note: WALL-E (2008): “In a distant, but not so unrealistic, future where mankind has abandoned earth because it has become covered with trash from products sold by the powerful multi-national Buy N Large corporation, WALL-E, a garbage collecting robot has been left to clean up the mess… The people of Earth ride around this space resort on hovering chairs which give them a constant feed of TV and video chatting. They drink all of their meals through a straw out of laziness and/or bone loss, and are all so fat that they can barely move.” – IMDB

Gretchen Huizinga: As we close, I want to give you a chance to share your personal vision. Bob, in your role as the director of the Walter Bradley Center, how do you see your personal mission and what kind stamp or legacy would you like to leave on the field?

Robert Marks: Well, we talked about my hero, Walter Bradley. I would like to leave a legacy much like he has. I am a Christian. I am a follower of Christ and have been so since I’ve been a junior in college. And I guess my end result is how I please the Lord God Almighty. I want to be like Paul at the end. Where he says in second Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” I want to do that with whatever I’m doing. We’re all given gifts. My gift is being a nerd. I’m really good at AI and God has gifted that to me. And I want to use that as much as I can for his glory. And part of that is a pushback against atheist and secular conclusions of what happens with AI …

And so I do want to push back against those who say that AI will be smarter than us. That is, I think, the goal of the Bradley Center.

Gretchen Huizinga: Right. Well, Boston Dynamics may come up with something that…

Robert Marks: Oh, Boston Dynamics does incredible things. Lots of seductive optics, but it’s still very impressive.

Gretchen Huizinga: Yeah. I’m afraid of their dogs.

Robert Marks: Yes. And you know why you’re afraid of their dogs? There’s something called a Frankenstein Complex. (The term) was coined by the science fiction author, Isaac Asimov. And it is things that you’re afraid of that are very close to things you’re familiar with in real life. That’s the reason we were afraid of the Frankenstein monster when it first came out. And that’s the reason that we’re afraid of these things that look like dogs, is because we relate to something that’s very close to what we’re familiar with. And the Frankenstein Complex gives us pause on that. Really fascinating.

Gretchen Huizinga: I think they call that a field trip into the Uncanny Valley.

Robert Marks: Yes, it is the Uncanny Valley. You’re exactly right. And the Uncanny Valley, if I remember right, is just a dip in a regression curve or something like that…

Note: The Uncanny Valley refers to the weird experience one feels when interacting with apparently life-like robots.

Here are the partial transcripts and notes for the first three portions of this discussion:

Robert J. Marks: Zeroing in on what AI can and can’t do. Walter Bradley Center director Marks discusses what’s hot and what’s not in AI with fellow computer maven Gretchen Huizinga. One of Marks’s contributions to AI was helping develop the concept of “active information,” that is, the detectable information added by an intelligent agent.

and the second: Robert J. Marks: AI history — How did all the hype get started? Dr. Marks and Gretchen Huizinga muse on the remarkable inventors who made AI what it is — and isn’t — today. Dr. Marks points out that the hype is over AI is so intense that, if his car were AI, he could call it “self-aware” because it beeps when nearing an obstacle.

and

Robert J. Marks: Straight talk about killer robots. Dr. Marks, the author of Killer Robots, shares his expertise with Gretchen Huizinga of the Beatrice Institute. In Marks’s view, no discussion of the rights or wrongs of using autonomous drones in warfare is meaningful apart from what we know re what others are doing.

Show Notes

  • 01:32 | Introducing Dr. Robert J. Marks
  • 02:38 | The Difference Between Artificial and Natural Intelligence
  • 06:31 | The Goldilocks Position
  • 07:40 | The Challenges and Limitations to AI
  • 14:42 | The Legacy of Walter Bradley
  • 18:55 | The Difference Between Computational and Artificial Intelligence
  • 24:22 | What is Hope and What is Hype?
  • 28:44 | What Keeps Dr. Robert J. Marks Up at Night?
  • 34:26 | AI and Faith
  • 36:56 | Is Flourishing Bad and Friction Good?
  • 40:45 | The Personal Mission of Dr. Robert J. Marks

Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript Download


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Lead Us Not Into the Uncanny Valley …