Debugging Our Artificial Intelligence

Robots are getting more like humans every day—and if I were a robot I wouldn’t brag about it. An article in The Wall Street Journal this week reported that robots are being endowed with the same kind of “deep learning expertise” as their creators. This means that instead of being programmed solely with fixed rules, computers are starting to learn by themselves how to do a task. That may not be good news, judging by what shallow learners their creators have always been. That’s why OUR creator gave us a simple program of ten rules. Most of them are clear statements of what NOT to do, so we can’t make any mistakes judging between the right or wrong of them. There’s no room for deep learning or interpretation about disobeying, dishonoring, killing, coveting, lying, stealing or cheating. We shall NOT do these things.

Where we are granted some leeway for creativity in our programming is in how we obey God’s greatest rules, as Jesus identifies them in the Gospel of Mark:

Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like it, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31).

Unfortunately, many humans—like robots—rely on artificial intelligence when processing our creator’s commands. Knowing how to obey those greatest commandments to love requires a deep dive into our native intelligence. A great example of the artificial intelligence gained by surface-level learning is in this Sunday’s gospel—again, from Mark (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23). In this passage, we read that the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews of that time, did not eat without carefully washing their hands, in keeping with the traditions of the elders. So when they see that Jesus’ followers were NOT following these laws of man, they challenged Jesus. In response, he quotes the prophet Isaiah:

This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.

“You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition,” Jesus tells them.

As the Pharisees proved, although we humans can recite our programming verbatim, we are more creative in how we disobey the “thou shalt NOTs” than in how we act on God’s favorite directives—the “thou SHALLs.” They are his favorites because they require that we access our native intelligence—no deep learning required. Moses says as much in our first reading (Dt 4:1-2, 6-8), when he advises:

“Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’”

We were certainly designed and programmed that way. As James writes in our second reading (Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27), we were endowed with the wisdom of his truth:

“Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls,” James advises. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.”

James’ advice goes into the wisdom of the “Thou SHALLs” that make our programming pure:

“Care for orphans and widows in their affliction and keep oneself unstained by the world.”

The lives of St. James and all the saints offer great examples of THOU SHALL loving. Nothing artificial about their intelligence. Let’s get with that program.

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