Robots and Being Catholic

I’ll talk about artificial intelligence, robots, self-awareness, Turing tests, and all that. Someday. Probably. Not today.

Robots in factories are getting smarter.

We’ve already got ‘robots’ driving cars and trucks. And doing it well enough for folks to be looking at commercial applications.

That hasn’t made a big impact yet. But I’m about as sure as I can be that it will. Soon. It’ll make a huge difference.

I don’t see it as all good or all bad. But anyone who’s a truck driver, cabbie, or delivery driver should probably start learning new skills. Or finding off-the-road ways of earning a living with what they already know.

Learning new skills for a new-to-me job is what I’ve done most of my life. It’s easier for me than job-hunting.

More fun, too.

Besides being fun, I’ve learned a lot besides new skills. I’ve been a delivery guy, computer operator, radio DJ, beet chopper, ‘office girl’ — light clerical & answering phones — and graphic designer. Among other things.

That’s helped me as I try understanding how others see this world.

And appreciate that some see retraining as a threat, not a change of pace.

The ‘robot drivers’ thing will wait.

This post is what happened when I picked the ‘robots’ topic and started writing. It’s ‘organized’ in the sense that I added headings.

I had fun writing it. Your experience may vary:

Family time and Robots

I’m still enjoying having #1 daughter around. The good news is that we like to talk. The bad news — it’s not bad, actually, just different.

We really like to talk, so I’ve been and will be spending more time doing that. Also less time researching and writing these posts. (January 26, 2018)

The ‘up’ side is that Friday’s was shorter than usual. Post, that is.

And maybe more of how I see things, less of what I found while rummaging around humanity’s virtual archives. That could be a ‘down’ side, too. Depends on viewpoint.

Now, about robots that look and act like humans. More or less. We’re getting closer to making bots that talk, act, and occasionally look like humans.

What I’ve seen to date is occasionally useful. Chatbots, for example, sometimes. And about as convincing as someone doing a robot dance: a human imitating a robot.

Beware the Robot Menace

I think robots do a better job of imitating humans imitating robots. That could start an — interesting??? — discussion.

Or maybe not.

Either way, I think we’ll be seeing scary headlines and earnest editorials about the growing robot menace. Maybe later this year.

They’ll be based on actual events. Some may have moments of clarity. Maybe even useful insights or proposals.

The reality behind those scary headlines and sedulous editorials — Oddly enough “sedulous” and “seditious” don’t have much in common. On the other hand, they’re both from Latin words with slightly-related meanings.

Etymology, which isn’t studying insects. That’s entomology, an “ology,” but not — this isn’t what I was talking about, is it?

Let’s see: robots, humans, Latin, insects. right.

I’m pretty sure that folks living in America, at least, will see a big change in how we earn a living. That’s nothing new. Some of us will change gears without much trouble. Others, maybe not so much.

But I don’t think robots will take over, or that we’re doomed.

We’re NOT Doomed?

I’ve got my own views about robots and what’s ahead for humanity.

Basically, I think today’s world isn’t what it was in 1818 or 1918.

I’m about as sure as I can be that it’ll be different in 2118. America included.

Even how many of us see change changes.

From at least 1818 to the early 1900s, quite a few folks in America, and elsewhere, figured that the future looked spiffy.

They had a point. We were learning how to not die quite so often from disease. Or famine, or disease caused by famine.

I keep saying this: the “good old days” weren’t. The late 19th century wasn’t perfect. We’ll be cleaning up some of the mess it left for centuries.

But folks had pretty good reason to think that we could keep making life better. I think they were right. Partly. Overly-optimistic, but basically on the right track.

Some also assumed that stamping out ignorance and superstition would be a vital step in building a better world. I think pretty much the same thing.

The ‘stamp out’ assumption’s down side was that many thought religion and superstition were the same thing. Some still do. I don’t. (October 30, 2016)

I’ll grant that some self-described religious folks, including some Catholics, include a hearty helping of superstition in their beliefs.

That’s a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 21102111)

The 19th century’s optimistic outlook and dedication to Progress lasted until around the mid-20th century. I miss the optimism, but not the unreasoning belief.

Quite a few folks breathed a sigh of relief when 1918 saw the end of the “war to end war.” America got the Roaring Twenties next, followed by a global depression and the next global war.

That time around we weren’t calling it the “war to end war.” (November 10, 2017; February 17, 2017; December 16, 2016)

Quite a few folks survived. Both times. Many, digging out of the rubble, thought enough was enough. I think they were right.

We’re currently trying a new approach to conflict resolution. It’s lasted well over a half-century, and isn’t perfect. But I think it’s better than many alternatives.

And we can do better. But it’ll do for now. (November 10, 2017; May 28, 2017)

The End of Civilization as We Know It

I quoted Yeats “the centre cannot hold” poem Friday. Like many folks at the time, he had some cause for feeling apprehensive.

That chap with the facial tentacles is Cthulhu. I’ll get back to the author who imagined him. Or it. I’m not really sure.

Lovecraft lived and wrote around the same time as Yeats. Both had reasons for feeling apprehensive, like I said.

The same goes for folks living today. Or in any other era.

Particularly those times when folks are dealing with a solution that’s become a problem. I think that’s happening now.

I also think it’s the end of civilization as we know it. And think it’s a good thing.

New ways replacing old isn’t new. What’s remarkable are those eras when not much changes. For a few centuries, anyway. Then — you guessed it — things change.

If I thought post-1967 America was a golden age, I’d probably be angsty about current events. I’d be more apprehensive if I thought it really was the best humanity can do.

I think today’s ‘business as usual’ must change. And will. But I don’t hanker for Happy Days America. I remember what came before the 1960s, and why we made changes.

I really wouldn’t want those “good old days” back. The trick will be working for changes that make sense. (December 3, 2017; February 5, 2017)

God, Truth, and Lovecraft’s “Placid Island of Ignorance”

I don’t know how seriously Lovecraft took his “placid island of ignorance” attitude.

It certainly works well in his tales of cosmic horror. But seeing our only hope as either fleeing into “the peace and safety of a new dark age” — or madness?

That seems unreasonable. But the attitude helped put Lovecraft on the map.

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. … The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

I’ve met folks who don’t seem comfortable with what we’ve learned in the last few decades.

Some are Christians who feel that science and religion get along like cobra and mongoose. Others seem convinced that we can have either technology or clean air. “Technology” defined as whatever’s been developed since some arbitrary date. I don’t agree with either.

Treating science as a religion or faith as science doesn’t make sense. Neither does blaming our tools for what we do. (January 12, 2018; October 29, 2017; February 10, 2017)

My lively interest in our expanding knowledge of God’s creation isn’t, I think, vital to being Catholic.

But it sure doesn’t hurt.

Studying natural processes is a good idea. It’s one way we can learn more about God. (Catechism, 3135)

I can learn about God by paying attention as I read the Bible, too.

I’d better. It’s an important part of being Catholic. (Catechism, 101133)

I think faith is willingly and consciously embracing “the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

That’s the whole truth. All of it. Not just the parts I like, or what we’d uncovered by 1543. Or 1859. Or knew when Hammurabi wrote his law code.

I think God creates everything we can see or will ever be able to observe.

Being scared of studying God’s work doesn’t make sense. Pursuing truth does. It’s part of being human. Or should be. (November 5, 2017; March 26, 2017; October 28, 2016)

Using the brains God gave us doesn’t offend God. We’re supposed to be curious. Truth cannot contradict truth. Scientific discoveries? They’re opportunities for greater admiration of God’s creation. (Catechism, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341)

We’re surrounded by beauty and wonders. Paying attention makes sense:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Exodus 33:18; Palms 27:89; 63:23; John 14:8; 1 John 3:2)….”
(“Fides et Ratio,” Pope Saint John Paul II (September 14, 1998) [emphasis mine])

“…if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. … we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed….”
(“Gaudium et Spes,” Pope Bl. Paul VI (December 7, 1965) [emphasis mine])

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411))

Letting our appreciation of this universe get out of hand is a bad idea. But the reality we’re in isn’t bad. Like God said, it’s “very good:”

“Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them.”
(Wisdom 13:3)

“You adorn the year with your bounty; your paths drip with fruitful rain.
“The meadows of the wilderness also drip; the hills are robed with joy.”
(Psalms 65:1213)

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

Using our Brains

I think “The Phantom Creeps” showed a slightly more plausible scenario than many tales of cybernetic menaces.

Rampaging robots weren’t the only tool Dr. Zorka developed.

The point is that they were tools. Assorted humans used them. Or tried.

I’m quite sure that blaming tools for the movie’s disasters doesn’t make sense. It’s the same way in real life.

Tools make it easier for us to help, or hurt, others. And ourselves.

We’re the ones in control. Not the tools. Our track record suggests that many of us don’t think about likely outcomes. Not well enough, anyway. Then there’s the issue of choices based on feelings, not reason.

Emotions are part of being human. So is thinking. Or should be. (February 10, 2017; October 5, 2016; August 21, 2016)

Artificial intelligence, AI, in the movies occasionally runs amok on its own. I think that’s more a testimony to human imagination and fears than a likely threat. Some of the stories are well-crafted, though. And fun, if the reader remembers that they’re tall tales.

Or, occasionally, satire. Or a semi-serious look at what might happen. Maybe.

Daniel Wilson had fun with fear in his 2005 “How to Survive a Robot Uprising.”

So did XKCD’s Randall Munroe:

“…Here are a few snapshots of what an actual robot apocalypse might look like:
“In labs everywhere, experimental robots would leap up from lab benches in a murderous rage, locate the door, and—with a tremendous crash—plow into it and fall over.
“Those robots lucky enough to have limbs that can operate a doorknob, or to have the door left open for them, would have to contend with deceptively tricky rubber thresholds before they could get into the hallway.
“Hours later, most of them would be found in nearby bathrooms, trying desperately to exterminate what they have identified as a human overlord but is actually a paper towel dispenser….”
(“Robot Apocalypse,” What If?

AI, robotic and otherwise, has gotten smarter. Better at some tasks than humans. Seeing the tech as a threat to humanity doesn’t make sense. As a threat to some of our jobs, that’s another story. John Henry comes to mind. (July 7, 2017)

Machines can do some jobs better than humans. And sometimes using machines is a good idea for other reasons.

Before today’s crash test dummies came along, researchers used animals, human cadavers, and the occasional volunteer for vehicle testing.

Getting a Grip About Crash Test Dummies

Tests on human subjects gave researchers useful information. But I don’t think crashing a car with an infant, two kids and an adult couple into a wall is prudent.

Mad scientists can be entertaining in stories. Their real-life counterparts are anything but fun. (January 12, 2018; November 11, 2016)

Medical or scientific experiments with human test subjects “can contribute to healing the sick and the advancement of public health.” (Catechism, 2292)

Learning how we and this universe work is part of being human. That’s a good thing. Taking “disproportionate or avoidable risks” with someone’s health or sanity isn’t, or shouldn’t be. Doing it without informed consent is worse. (Catechism, 22922295)

Like I said, sometimes using machines for a human’s job makes sense. Medical simulators help folks learn medical procedures and resuscitation techniques without putting patients or volunteers at risk.

Crash test dummies and the like can be a bit creepy. But I see them as tools. Not threats. And I’m pretty sure that God doesn’t mind if we use tools to help other folks.

Being Human

Some Christians may still think vaccines and lightning rods offend an irascible Almighty. Vaccines, anyway. (July 21, 2017; October 16, 2016)

I think vaccines, lightning rods, robots, stone knives, or any other tech can help us help each other. Or not.

That doesn’t mean they’re fool-proof “safe.”

Folks still get burned by inadequately controlled fires. I’m quite sure that happens because humans got careless: not that God smites those who dare cook or grill.

Georg Wilhelm Richmann’s spectacular demise encouraged development of today’s safety procedures.

And we still get hurt. Knowing how something’s done doesn’t help when we don’t use our knowledge. (July 28, 2017; October 16, 2016)

Our tools aren’t the problem. It’s us. We have freedom, “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act….” (Catechism, 1731)

Deciding that we’d rather act against reason, truth, and right conscience is an option: and a very bad idea. (Catechism, 311, 396, 1704, 1730, 1739, 1849)

Studying this universe and developing new technology with what we learn, is part of being human. Or should be. (Catechism, 22932296)

More, mostly about paying attention and using our brains:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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6 Responses to Robots and Being Catholic

  1. I can feel the thinking, indeed…and it doesn’t feel condescending!

    And speaking of which, I get the feeling that we tend to be a little too prideful and weaponizing (not just nuke-producing, but also keyboard-gunning, table-slamming, and paper-cut-making) about our discoveries these days…though that probably isn’t anything new, no?

    • Not so much. Like the fellow wrote, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’

      Hammurabi’s law code dealt with murder, and there’s a *really* old dig with evidence of either a mass murder or execution. That was in the really old days, when the latest thing in superweapons were most likely made of stone.

      I think Job 5:7 got it right: “Human beings beget mischief as sparks fly upward.” It’s far from hopeless, since we’re still basically good creatures. But we got off to a bad start, and that’s another topic.

      I talked about that, the Thirty Years’ War, and “Time Bandits” in “Sin, Original and Otherwise”

  2. I’ll comment on one aspect of your article. Robots’ effect on human employment.

    As more robots/machines replace humans at doing work, (driverless cars, automated factories etc …) we will have an un-employment problem to solve. It is not always easy to learn new skills, especially as more and more manual tasks are eliminated by machines. Governments will need to decide how to balance the efficiency of robotics against the social problems created by people with nothing to do. One idea I heard speak of is to tax the employer (corporations and business) at the same rate that it would have cost him to employ the humans which were made redundant. That way it negates, to some extent, the need for robots. I am not sure this is the answer, but it is one of many suggestions to somehow ensure that robots do not create millions world-wide with nothing to do.

    I’d like to hear your views about robots/machines and un-employment.

    God bless.

    • My views about using robots or other tools instead of human workers for jobs – very briefly, I’m glad the buck *doesn’t* stop with me: that I do not have to come up with a solution that’ll be tried.

      I do plan on doing a more thoughtful post on that topic. My experience has shown me that many folks don’t merely prefer not learning new skills: they find the process difficult or nearly-impossible.

      That isn’t a criticism. At all.

      Dealing – respectfully and humanely – with folks who learned a skill that’s no longer useful may involve finding ways to help folks re-apply what they *do* know to other sorts of work.

      I don’t think trying to preserve old work-related customs is practical in the long run. I doubt that there are more than a handful of fletchers in Europe, for example. Or America, although we use arrows for recreational purposes. Not handcrafted ones, though, for the most part.

      John Henry is a more recent and possibly-fictional example of someone who heroically, if imprudently, defied change. The old-school habit of discarding folks who couldn’t work isn’t acceptable, of course.

      I think “complicated” is a good way to describe the issue(s).

      I do plan on talking about it: including a ‘crisis’ in white-collar jobs in the mid-20th century. But I don’t expect I’ll come up with a tidy solution.

  3. irishbrigid says:

    Missing punctuation: “you guessed it — things change”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!