Arif Khan, UK
Technology has transformed our lives in the past few decades. It has permeated every aspect of human life, from in home gadgets and our smartphones, to how we shop and order food and other goods. The internet has been a huge accelerator, yet there is one field of technology that potentially offers an ever greater revolution; Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Articulating an accurate definition of AI is not easy. AI is really an umbrella term that covers a wide range of disciplines that ultimately look to emulate behaviours that are typically only seen in living things, such as humans. Thus, AI covers areas such as Computer Vision, Natural Language Processing (NLP), or speech recognition. We often see it first hand in our homes with personal assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, or Google’s home speaker devices. They are able to tell us what the weather will be like, remind us of upcoming appointments, and answer basic questions.
AI – More Important than Electricity or Fire
In 2016 Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, went as far as to say that AI is ‘the most important thing humanity is working on’, and went on to add that AI was more important than ‘electricity or fire’. This has added fuel on top of an area already suffering from much hype largely from the world of science fiction and Hollywood. For many, talk of machines or robots conjures up images from movies such as Terminator, Star Wars, or Blade Runner with the majority of plot lines heading down the route of AI overpowering humans.
Less Terminator, More Netflix
For those who work in the area of AI, the reality is often a lot more mundane. There are hugely exciting areas of AI, such as Tesla’s push for full self-driving (FSD) cars, yet for many the areas we work in are far more about personal computing. AI in the business world tends to focus on analysing large sets of data and using that to make predictions on customer behaviour. Through the AI discipline for Machine Learning (ML) businesses are able to suggest products that will be suitable for a given customer with a far greater accuracy rate. We see this in our lives ranging from film recommendations on Netflix to online shopping experiences that state ‘Customers who bought this product also bought this’.
We have AI enabled devices in our homes, and often in the palm of our hands in smartphones, but what could this area of technology ultimately deliver? Could we have robots around our house, or even preaching in our places of worship?
AI – A Reality Check
AI in its current guise is really not very intelligent. There are examples of AI beating humans, for example at the game of Go, but that same intelligence could not, for example, also play the game of chess. There is no ubiquitous AI that can combine multi-disciplinary knowledge in to a single, consolidated view of the world. Humans, however, are excellent at doing just this.
A recent book that has tried to provide balance to counter the ‘hype’ around AI technologies is Rebooting AI by Dr Gary Marcus and Dr Ernest Davis. The authors explain that information retrieval can give the illusion of understanding, when in fact the AI has no internal representation or understanding of the text it is responding with.
In addition to this they highlight how human beings have the habit of anthropomorphising; that is assuming something has far more intelligence than it actually has. In our everyday lives we attribute human emotions or feelings to things like laptops or printers. We often talk about what a system ‘thought’ or how it ‘felt’, yet neither of these terms truly apply to these systems.
The ability of AI to understand text also suffers from this. We believe AI is smarter than it is, as it can hear our questions and respond with answers.
They illustrate the limitations, however, with a neat example as below:
‘”Two children, Chloe and Alexander, went for walk. They both saw a dog and a tree. Alexander also saw a cat and pointed it out to Chloe. She went to pet the cat”
It is trivial to answer a question like “Who went for a walk?”, in which the answer is directly spelled out in the text, but any competent reader should just as easily be able to answer questions that not directly spelled out, like “Did Chloe see the cat?” and “were the children frightened by the cat?”’
Perhaps surprisingly, no existing AI technology can answer these questions, given the above text. The main skill lacking right now: any form of real inference, as this relies on key pieces of knowledge, as well as the ability to form internal representations of situations.
Yet, despite this, we continually read in the media about AI being super-human and questions even arise about AI and religion.
AI in Religion
A recent BBC article asked the question : ‘Will AI transform religion?’.
Given the limitations laid out earlier in this article, it should come as no surprise that I believe that the answer to this question is very much ‘no’, or at least ‘not currently’. If we cannot use AI to derive meaning from a simple children’s story, what hope is there for it to unravel the meaning of life itself?
MIT researcher Kate Darling in her book‚ The New Breed, argues that by comparing AI and robots to humans we are missing the point. It stirs emotions of an inevitable future where robots and humans clash, perhaps fuelled mostly by science fiction. She argues that thinking of robots as pets is a far better analogy and provides a better framework for thinking about the problems AI can help solve.
Perhaps a better question then would be if AI can help humans with the task of living religiously active and fulfilling lives?
When the BBC report is dissected, and you look beyond the headline grabbing humanoid form of the ‘Minder’ robot, we see the functionality exhibited is very similar to what we have in our smartphones and home assistants, such as Alexa. When ‘Santo’ the Catholic robot was asked a question about heaven it responded with a line of scripture that contained the word ‘heaven’. It did not answer the question directly. Given the note above about the story of Chloe and Alexander, perhaps we can see why. In certain situations, however, this form of word matching and retrieval is extremely useful, and this is where I think AI and technology should focus.
Humans should be left with the complex reasoning and reflection, and technology solutions (which may, or may not, include AI) should be actively supporting them. This is happening today, yet we may not realise it.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, for example, recently launched the website Open Quran (HolyQuran.io). This website allows text-based search of the Holy Qur’an in Arabic, Urdu and English, but also more advanced features such as support for synonyms. Look for the word ‘alcohol’ or ‘liquor’ and you will be returned all results that contain the term ‘wine’. The Review of Religions website also, for example, has a search functionality that enables information from over 100 years’ worth of material to be recalled in seconds.
In these examples technology is being used to focus on its strengths (searching large amounts of data quickly) and this can in turn help a religious scholar find the reference they need for their sermon. The idea of the technology writing the sermon, in a way where it understood what it was saying, is at this stage a very farfetched notion.
Could the future hold this form of AI? Perhaps. I believe a more likely future is one in which apps will be available to help people keep up with my religious obligations, as well as feeding them words of wisdom during the day from religious scriptures. Similar ‘Verse of the Day’ type applications do exist on the various apps stores today and will continue to grow.
Looking at the personal fitness trend in the world, we can see the benefit of technology that keeps logs of our activities, provides reminders when we are less active, or tips around health and fitness.
I believe a similar focus for the world of religion will reap benefits.
Rather than looking at technology to answer profound philosophical questions we should use it to bring knowledge to our fingertips through digitisation and rapid search. In addition I expect to see more personal ‘faith’ related apps that provide regular reminders and religious inspiration to users through scheduled notifications.
In this way AI, and the wider world of technology, can help support our religious endeavours, rather than try and define them.
About the Author: Arif Khan is an AI consultant who has been working in the field for over 20 years. Arif has spoken at over 30 AI events around the world, and in 2021 featured in Forbes Romania discussing AI as ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’. He also serves as the Deputy Editor of the Christianity Section of The Review of Religions.
Marcus, G. and Davis, E. , 2019, Rebooting AI – Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust, Vintage, New York
Darling, K. 2021 , The New Breed – How to Think About Robots, Penguin, United States of American