A friend of mine recently received a glowing letter of reference for a job she was applying for. I read it. It was outstanding. “You’re sure to get the job with a letter like that!” I remarked. She smiled. Later that week I ran into the one who sent the letter. “Great letter!” I told him. “Well,” he said, “thanks but I think I should tell you that it was a chatbot-produced letter.” “Oh,” I said, not quite knowing how to respond but feeling sheepish about giving the compliment in the first place. On the one hand, he had taken the time to get a letter well-written even if he didn’t write it himself. On the other hand, he didn’t write it. It felt like a cheapshot even if it was well-written.
I had been following the development of artificial intelligence for years. More recently, I had heard about the introduction of an actual AI machine on the market that could actually write. But for the first time, the ability of a gadget to namelessly strip from my hands the dignity and distinctiveness of human talent – a talent such as wordsmithing that I personally valued – became very, very real.
In the last ten years, two separate (but related?) areas of human history have developed to the point of seriously threatening the health, happiness, and way of life of not a culture, tribe, or nation but the entire planet. I am speaking of course of climate change and artificial intelligence. Climate change threatens to make earth uninhabitable, or at least marginally inhabitable, and artificial intelligence threatens the value of the human intellect in any and all of its applications.
Both of these developments can feel dooming. Are they?
Before addressing that question, I think it is important to clarify the starkly different perceptions of doom manifested by age. If you are over 60 years old, you are unconsciously likely to think of the rest of your life in terms of about 5 – 30 more years, hopefully on the upper end of that spectrum. During most of this time, you are likely to be retired, not seeking employment, not needing to choose your location based on your job, not needing a ‘better’ future, not pursuing career ambitions. With this perspective, how threatening can climate change or AI be? What can it really do to you? It cannot alter the life you have already lived; it can only alter your future. For seniors, not as much of your life, identity, self-esteem, or purpose in life hangs on your future.
If on the other hand you are under 30, the future is, for all intents and purposes, most or all of your life – its substance and its significance. That future could extend another 70 years. Maybe 100. The future of life on this planet is your future. What this earth offers you in terms of job, occupation, career, home, quality of life, wellness is in the future, not the past.
If like me your age is between 30 and 60, your perception may be somewhere inbetween.
Is it not perfectly understandable, then, that young people feel more doom than older people? Climate change and AI may cause seniors to foresee a bad exit. It can cause young people to foresee a bad life. The latter have so much more at stake when considering life-altering developments in the news.
As someone already working on the latter half of my life, I feel it my duty to stand in solidarity with those whose futures are most at stake: if not feel doom, at least understand its logic for someone in that age category. The future may be theirs but I still have a part to play in it.
And as I stand in solidarity, there are many things I cannot offer. Superior intellect – of a human or artificial makeup, quaint solutions, referendums on how we got here, or a spaceship to another planet or universe. But as a person of faith, I can offer hope. If the Creator created this planet, He/She/It has a plan for it. If the Creator created us, He/She/It has a plan for us, soon-to-be inferior intellect and all. If the Creator loves all the creatures in this world, that love will continue regardless of what ‘species’ might run the planet in the future.
And I can offer perspective. When I was a child, superpower nations were building arsenals of nuclear weapons. Big weapons. Ones that could be mounted on long-range projectiles, launched from submarines, ones that dwarfed the destructive power of the Hiroshima bombing. For long stretches of my growing up years, there was a logic forming in my head and heart – and I know many others – that went something like this:
- Nuclear weapons continue to proliferate.
- We now have the capacity to blow up the entire earth.
- Bad people exist out there, bad people who are smart and powerful.
- It’s only a matter of time before they get their hands on these weapons.
- It’s only a matter of time before they blow up the world.
- It won’t take that long. It’s likely to happen this decade.
It was rational. It was based on facts. It was not a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It was a reasonable scenario. Doom was a very logical feeling.
Did it happen? No. Is it going to happen? Well, not imminently. In fact, it seems rather far off now, belonging to another age and time. It could happen, but I no longer feel the doom from it. My adult future turned out bright.
How did we avert a total nuclear meltdown of the earth? You may have your explanation. I thank my Creator who I believe intervened. As He/She/It will again if need be to avert another disaster. Climate change? Superior intelligence? Significant threats, but no match for the Creator.
Doom is a very real feeling and can be based on very real facts. But at least for those of faith, it is still a choice. Hope is also a choice.
I pray that I might graciously, humbly, and generously offer that choice to a younger generation.