Weekly Reflection – Artificial Stupidity?

12 January 2024

This week, largely thanks to the TV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office, the terrible plight of hundreds of post office staff has exploded into the nation’s consciousness. I must confess I hadn’t realised that the awful business had affected so many people, or gone on so long. Neither legal nor financial help can really ease the suffering of those whose reputations, livelihoods, and in some cases health and lives were ruined. Nonetheless we rightly pray that, as swiftly and properly as possible, those who have been unjustly accused have their reputations restored and their financial losses redressed.

One of the most troubling wider features of the whole saga is the way the IT system seems to have been trusted as accurate, believed in, and defended over and over again, in the face of so many human beings who told a very different story. There seems to have been a widespread failure to understand how the computer systems functioned (or, rather, malfunctioned) and to trust an impersonal system over human instincts.

This begs a much wider question of how much we can trust technologies which most of us don’t really understand. This problem is only going to get worse as robotics, genetics, and Artificial Intelligence can do more and more. Not a new problem: way back in 1909, the novelist E.M. Forster wrote a grim short story about a world where most people live under the control of a supposedly all-powerful ‘Machine’ which they themselves have in fact created.

In this time of the church’s year we hear very human experiences: three wise men making a long journey to see a baby; a young man finding his life’s calling as he dives into a flowing river; water turned into finest wine at a celebration of love. Perhaps the visit of the Magi, the Lord’s baptism, and the wedding at Cana can remind us how important human beings, flesh and blood, mind and matter, are in the world’s story, in God’s story. As we navigate an increasingly technological world our God-given humanity, our awareness of weakness, flaws, and absurdities, should help us remember that technology isn’t always truth, and even Artificial Intelligences can have stupid or dangerous consequences.

With prayers and best wishes,

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