Of Chatbots and Wisdom: Why we are all learners

In the age of information, the creation of an “artificial intelligence” has been something of a holy grail for computer programmers.  I don’t know why, exactly—frankly I think we already have a deficit of “natural intelligence.”  But I digress.

In the past year, the Microsoft corporation released a program known as a “chatbot” on the world.  What is a chatbot?  A chatbot, apparently, is a computer program designed to simulate a human being.  You can send a message to this chatbot, and get a reply.  And because the communication is all digital, you have no way of distinguishing the messages from the chatbot from any of the other messages we exchange in the age of digital networks.

So Microsoft designed a program named “Tay,” designed to emulate the communication patterns of a 19-year-old girl, and released her into Twitter—the popular social networking site.

The results were disastrous.  According to The Guardian:

“The bot, known as Tay, was designed to become “smarter” as more users interacted with it. Instead, it quickly learned to parrot a slew of anti-Semitic and other hateful invective that human Twitter users fed the program, forcing Microsoft Corp to shut it down on Thursday.”[1]

Microsoft had to pull Tay from the internet within only 16 hours, saying that they are “deeply sorry” for releasing her on the world.

I’m not a computer programmer, but I’d guess that the human mind works quite differently from that of a machine or a program.  But I think Tay reveals a valuable lesson, namely that our environment shapes us in more ways that we realize.  Our character is influenced—perhaps strongly—by the sum of our relationships and our habits.

WHY LEARN?

This week we’re looking at the question: “Why learn?”  The answer, revealed in part by Tay, is that we are all learners.  From cradle to grave, all of us learn without necessarily being conscious of it.  Learning, in the Christian sense, is less about information and more about formation.  “Men are made, not born Christians,”[2] wrote one of the writers of the ancient church, and because of the effects of sin we need a gracious re-shaping of our character that we might fulfill our destiny of being “conformed to the image of [the] Son” (Romans 8:29).

Here at Tri-State we do many things with that aim:

  • Sermons (including those on our Youtube channel)
  • Online devotionals
  • Classes (such as those during “second hour,” though also our children’s ministry)
  • Small groups (including our community groups and youth groups)

And of course we could add to this list some of the various projects and ministry events that arise in the course of a year.  These activities serve to help us learn, help us grow, help shape us into men and women who serve as active members of God’s kingdom.

But how?

WHERE IS WISDOM FOUND?

Biblical scholars usually lump together the poetic books under the heading of “wisdom literature,” referring to Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.  But if one book stands out as being about “wisdom” more than others, it is the book of Proverbs.  The book is a collection of poetic phrases and sayings (kind of like King Solomon’s Twitter account), and while the form of the book resembles the poetry of other ancient people (notably Egypt), Solomon anchors his teaching in the character of Israel’s one true God:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.  (Proverbs 1:7)

The Church exists to worship God—to place him at the center of our lives and to reveal him as the exulted King of all Creation.  In doing so, our character is shaped and molded that we might grow in wisdom.

What is “wisdom?”  The word in Hebrew is hokma, meaning something more like “skill.”  It had more to do with actions than intellectual knowledge, though as we see above our English Bibles often translate hokma as “knowledge” or “wisdom” and use the terms interchangeably.  We might define wisdom as the “right use of knowledge,” emphasizing that wisdom has more to do with character than it does to mere information.

After all, it’s a distinctively modern, Western trend to separate knowledge from wisdom.  As we mentioned earlier, ours is an information age.  We are surrounded by—nay, bombarded by—information and data.  In such a world, one of the greatest social “sins” is to appear uninformed.  The “smart phone” is the closest thing to omniscience we’ll ever get to experience.  But we might join T.S. Eliot in his lament for the modern age: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”[3]

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Christian author Dallas Willard writes of how the world is operating completely upside-down:

“Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard and a well-known researcher and commentator on matters social and moral, published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on ‘The Disparity Between Intellect and Character.’ The piece is about ‘the task of connecting intellect to character.’ This task, he adds, ‘is daunting.’”[4]

He goes on to say that in a world devoid of true wisdom, our souls will cling to the kinds of cheap nonsense we find on bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans, things that “somehow seem deep but in fact make no sense: ‘Stand up for your rights’ … ‘All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten’…’Practice random kindnesses and senseless acts of beauty’…And so forth.”[5]

“But try instead ‘Stand up for your responsibilities’ or ‘I don’t know what I need to know and must now devote my full attention and strength to finding out’…or ‘Practice routinely purposeful kindnesses and intelligent acts of beauty.’ Putting these into practice immediately begins to bring truth, goodness, strength, and beauty into our lives. But you will never find them on a greeting card, plaque, or bumper. They aren’t thought to be smart. What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound.”[6]

I know many people who are knowledgeable.  I know many people who are clever.  I know far fewer who are deep and who are wise.

Solomon implores his readers—which would have included his own sons—that wisdom provides great benefit:

Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.

(Proverbs 4:5-6)

We are all learners.  We need to press ourselves beyond the shallow places that occupy our modern landscape and press ourselves deeply into the truths of Christ.  We need to be men and women who possess a wisdom beyond our years while never shedding the laughter of youth.  Most of all, we need the gracious gift of Godly wisdom, that others might see less of us and more of Him.

 

[1] “Microsoft ‘deeply sorry’ for racist and sexist tweets by AI chatbot,” in The Guardian, March 26, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/26/microsoft-deeply-sorry-for-offensive-tweets-by-ai-chatbot

[2] Tertullian, The Apology, XVIII.

[3] T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, p. 147.

[4] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 3-4.

[5] Ibid., 9-10.

[6] Ibid., 10.

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