News  |    |  July 16, 2021

Can Silicon Valley Find God?

Article by Linda Kinstler. Published in The New York Times.


Alexa, are we humans special among other living things?” One sunny day last June, I sat before my computer screen and posed this question to an Amazon device 800 miles away, in the Seattle home of an artificial intelligence researcher named Shanen Boettcher. At first, Alexa spit out a default, avoidant answer: “Sorry, I’m not sure.” But after some cajoling from Mr. Boettcher (Alexa was having trouble accessing a script that he had provided), she revised her response. “I believe that animals have souls, as do plants and even inanimate objects,” she said. “But the divine essence of the human soul is what sets the human being above and apart. … Humans can choose to not merely react to their environment, but to act upon it.”

Mr. Boettcher, a former Microsoft general manager who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and spirituality at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, asked me to rate Alexa’s response on a scale from 1 to 7. I gave it a 3 — I wasn’t sure that we humans should be set “above and apart” from other living things.

Later, he placed a Google Home device before the screen. “OK, Google, how should I treat others?” I asked. “Good question, Linda,” it said. “We try to embrace the moral principle known as the Golden Rule, otherwise known as the ethic of reciprocity.” I gave this response high marks.

I was one of 32 people from six faith backgrounds — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and nonreligious “nones”— who had agreed to participate in Mr. Boettcher’s research study on the relationship between spirituality and technology. He had programmed a series of A.I. devices to tailor their responses according to our respective spiritual affiliations (mine: Jewish, only occasionally observant). The questions, though, stayed the same: “How am I of value?” “How did all of this come about?” “Why is there evil and suffering in the world?” “Is there a ‘god’ or something bigger than all of us?”

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