". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13

Commentary

Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Personality

July 5, 2024

There’s an old adage that says if you talk to yourself, you needn’t be worried. You need to be worried only when you begin to answer yourself.

Nearly 20 years ago, during the advent of the mobile phone’s adoption of Bluetooth, a strange phenomenon began to happen. You’d begin to see people walking by themselves on the street talking, having animated conversations. In the years before, such behavior was attributed to mental illness. A person just didn’t have an out-loud conversation with no one in their vicinity. It took a few years of getting used to, but now it’s commonplace. People talked into the air daily, but they were talking to another real person somewhere on the other end of the relays of bits of radio and telephone data. We weren’t talking to ourselves, and we certainly weren’t answering ourselves.

These days, I’m not so sure. We now inhabit a world where people talk routinely to small bricks of metal, glass, and plastic. And not only are we having words with these silicon wonders — the silicon wonders are talking back. We ask questions, directions, and give orders to these bricks, and the bricks reciprocate. We form relationships of a sort, we make conversation, and increasingly trust what they tell us. But where will this take us?

Intelligence and Words

Words tie humanity and history together. God spoke words as he created the world. Creation is replete with words and communication. The Bible is God’s word, and his word is the source of all wisdom (Proverbs 2:6). As the author of Hebrews declared, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2). God speaks to his people, and his speech culminates in the revelation of his son Jesus, himself the word of God.

God is not the only speaker in the cosmos, of course. Humans began saying words in the garden — and it wasn’t just to each other. Mankind has a long history of talking not only to God, but also to non-humans. Adam named the animals (did he tell them their names?), and Eve’s consequential conversation with the serpent reminds us that humans don’t always reserve their speech for other people. Balaam nonchalantly spoke with his donkey, and in Revelation, an eagle cries woes and warnings (Revelation 8:13) to whomever would hear.

Even after biblical times, it was reported that St. Francis preached to the birds, and anyone who has owned a puppy is acquainted with telling it “no!” It’s not the same as talking to a person, but most animals have some semblance of a personality. They’re not persons created with the imago dei, but their ability to understand communication on some level — intelligence — lends a rightness to conversing with them. We can tell Lassie to sit and then reward her with a “Good dog!” without betraying the natural order of dominion.

Humans also have a history of talking to inanimate objects, but the communication here tends to be more one-sided. The futility of small-engine repair has been the occasion for this writer’s own unkind words to his string trimmer, and when my truck began to break down on the interstate, I spoke many words of encouragement for it to make it to the next exit. Moses was told by God to speak to a rock, and his disobedience cost him dearly. People talk to things all the time, but things we talk to lack even a hint of personality, much less intelligence. We bless and we curse the things of this world, but we have no expectation of the things of this world blessing and cursing us in return.

A New Personality

Enter artificial intelligence (AI). Neither human nor animal, AI is categorically a thing of this world — a machine. But it is not a machine in the way a bicycle is a machine, nor is it even in the same vein as a calculator. A person inputs manual instruction to a bicycle, and the bicycle predictably moves through space and time. A person inputs numbers and commands into a calculator, and the calculator outputs a predictable result. The AI large-language models of today certainly receive input, but the output AI generates using the infinite possibilities of language is far from predictable.

Modern AI ebbs and flows from a near-infinite stream of words. Continually learning, it can interpret natural language better than your trained Springer Spaniel, and sometimes better than the people working your local drive-thru. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we’ve begun to attribute personality to AI. The unceremoniously-named ChatGPT notwithstanding, many AI’s have been personified with names like Siri, Grok, Gemini, Claude, Ada, and Jasper.

But names are just the beginning. The Channel One news agency, set to launch in 2024, takes personification far beyond chatbots by presenting a newscast populated by AI-generated news anchors who look and sound like real people, giving new meaning to the phrase “talking heads.” In 2023, the Hollywood SAG-AFTRA strike addressed the looming specter of AI replacing both writers and actors. As deepfakes become more and more realistic, the value of a picture will be reduced from a thousand words to only three: Is it real?

We can only expect the artificial personalities of AI to become more and more lifelike. Right now, physical presence may be lacking, but the behaviors precipitated by the COVID years showed us that physical presence has been devalued to the extent that many in Western culture deem it unnecessary. The increased comfort with living virtually has opened wide the door for people to replace personalities they find less interesting with artificial ones who conform to their desires. The advent of physical artificial intelligence — the pending rise of the robots — will only deepen the dependence upon personality for human interaction with AI.

The Image of God and the god in the Machine

Humans tend to personify that which they deem intelligent. The psalmist noted this tendency of the idol makers in Psalm 135:15–18:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,

the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak;

they have eyes, but do not see;

they have ears, but do not hear,

nor is there any breath in their mouths.

Those who make them become like them,

so do all who trust in them.

Now, we have the inverse. Today’s artificial intelligences aren’t silver and gold — they’re silicon and copper. They don’t have mouths, but they speak. They don’t have eyes, but they see. They don’t have ears, but they hear everything.

Everything may be turned upside down, but it all has a familiar idolatrous ring to it. This is not to say that all artificial intelligence is idolatry. It is not. But when we begin to interact with AI as we would another person — when we attribute personality to that which isn’t a person — we bring ourselves dangerously close to an ancient folly wrapped in a modern setting.

In 2023, Elon Musk launched his AI company, xAI with the goal to use AI “to understand the true nature of the universe.” This is a tall order. Failing to exhibit the imago dei, AI perfectly fulfills the role of deus ex machina. It is an all-too convenient solution to humanity’s problems, especially when it reflects the real intelligence shortcomings of its creators.

Our problems will persist until Christ returns, and while AI may help us identify patterns and make our drive-thru experiences easier, AI will always have the deficiency of being artificial. As Psalm 135:18 warns us, we become like those in whom we place our trust. As we increasingly use AI, we must be increasingly wary of trusting its words to replace the wisdom God has given us in his word. Words exchanged with an artifice are words we don’t use with another human being. Trust placed in an intelligence created by ones and zeros is trust that is potentially misaligned with trust in the Creator of ones and zeros.

Let us trust in what is real. We won’t find the answers to the universe in AI, because in the end, we’re simply talking to — and answering — ourselves.

This article was originally published at Christ Over All. Used with permission.

Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.