Wednesday, February 21, 2024

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Hey, ChatGPT, What’s the Meaning of Life?

This image was created by the AI tool called DALL•E

This image was created by the AI tool called DALL•E, which forms images based on a natural language description. 

By Benjamin Hall

As a father of three young boys mostly in the single digits, I hear crazy things all the time. If you’re a parent or a grandparent, you know what I mean. Just last week I heard, “Why can’t I eat my dinner on the trampoline,” or, last night, “I decided I’m going to be Polish today.” This from an 8-year-old whose mother is Argentinean and father American.    

Despite that which passes for normal banter in my house, which should have prepared me for anything, a recent statement from my oldest managed to cut right to the heart. As he stared into the black void of a sleeping iPad and mashed the Home button, like an ancient Roman consulting an augur, he commanded the gods to tell him what he most needed to know: “Tell me, Siri, what is 7 x 8?” 

In that moment, I realized I was entering a new era of modern parenting. Sure, prior generations of parents had to fend off the call of calculators, and before that, the slide rule, but this generation of artificial intelligence (AI) is a categorically different opportunity for let’s call them motivationally challenged kids who don’t see much purpose in memorizing their math facts.  

Wait, it gets worse. If you haven’t followed the news, OpenAI and its partner, Microsoft, released just before Christmas a natural language AI called ChatGPT. It has unprecedented power, sophistication, and nuance in its written replies to questions. It answered last night’s social studies homework assignment, “What are the similarities and differences between the ancient Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations” and it did it in the Queen’s English in under three seconds flatand that’s just child’s play for ChatGPT. It can impersonate your lawyer, your cardiologist, and even write love song lyrics, like Taylor Swift on the weekends.  

The entire corpus of human knowledge is on call to be summarized, curated, selected, combined, and represented, Aladdin-like to anyone who rubs the lamp. Within five days of launch, over 1 million people rubbed the lamp the fastest adoption rate ever recorded for a web platform, and that’s before it’s even been incorporated into the alphabet soup of Microsoft products.  

What then is the purpose of collecting knowledge in my feeble brain my children will ask me as soon as they hear about the new “Aladdin AI. This anecdote from my father’s childhood captures the danger.  

During grade school, he collected coins from all the various U.S. mints, and he delighted with the addition of each new one. To this day, he can tell you when the silver dollars were actually made of silver and where to find the mint mark, “S,” for San Francisco, or “CC,” for Carson City, and which years were the rarest pennies produced.  

One day, he visited a museum which had a famous coin collection made by a wealthy numismatist, and in one room he saw every coin ever minted by a U.S. mint, and most in a “BU” (brilliant uncirculated) condition. He gave up collecting coins seriously after that visit. What was the point, after all, if his small collection would never rival that one?  

How will my three young sons resist the urge to just let the AI do it? They may reason, “It already knows my math homework, my social studies homework and can write book reports better than I can, so, why bother?” That ‘perfect’ collection is already complete AND ubiquitous!  

It doesn’t take a French existentialist to start to question the purpose of education itself, and its corollary, the purpose of educated people. The mere existence of the AI profoundly challenges humanity’s vision of itself, and this is especially true in our current, secular age whose default model equates the brain and body with a machine a machine valued frequently by its material output. Heaven help us if our children grow up, even if only in some inchoate way, believing they are inferior machines resigned to rub the AI genie. Kids whose identity formation rests heavily on what he or she knows, or can produce, is, of course, inherently unstable.   

The crisis of meaning gripping our rising generations, and the spreading depression, drug use and suicide that travel in its train, will only accelerate as ChatGPT and its AI competitors disrupt a society whose members increasingly grade themselves and each other on a materialist yardstick. As parents and grandparents concerned about our kids, we must push back and hard against this prospect, but the question is, with what?  

We must find a way to celebrate and enjoy the seemingly limitless gifts we get from science, including new tools like AI, but reject its reduction of the human experience, identity, and the attainment of a well-lived life. Every child must know he’s worth more than what he learned in school.  

As a Catholic Christian parent, my response to the crisis is to deepen and renew my vocation to point upward to the Divine, to a relationship with the Creator God in whom I believe we live and move and have our being. In that relationship, and the giving and receiving of love that unfolds over a lifetime, we find the solid ground of human flourishing.   

Regardless of your beliefs, the age of AI is breaking now, and we cannot fail to arm our children with the deepest sources of meaning in lifeNothing else will have the power to animate a life well lived and tame the AI genie.  

ED. NOTE: Benjamin Hall is the Herald’s associate publisher, and son of Publisher Art Hall. He lives in Court House with his wife and three boys.  

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