Forget sporting rivalries. The real question is, are you on Team Siri, Cortana, Alexa, M, Duer or Google Assistant? (C’mon, Google, you can do better than that with a name!) The competition to be your personal digital assistant is accelerating — so much so that Mattel has announced Aristotle, your voice-controlled artificial intelligence device that can read bedtime stories, soothe babies during nightmares, and tutor kids. Who needs to wait on college for in loco parentis?
Of course, the use of digital assistants is mainstreaming. With the emerging “Internet of Things,” already many of us control lights, room temperature, locking and unlocking. Soon, we can expect our refrigerators to notify us of shortages and reorder. We’ll get advice on word changes so that our emails don’t sound as unfriendly. We’ll get route suggestions for avoiding traffic … wait, that one’s already here.
Ten years ago, an Atlantic cover story famously asked, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Writer Nicholas Carr openly wondered if our reliance on internet search engines would have negative impact on our powers of cognition, concentration and industriousness. If it becomes so easy to get answers simply by “googling it” (as I have done even for part of this article), will we become intellectually weak and lazy?
Perhaps. But I’m more concerned about what the ubiquity of artificial intelligence devices might do to our ability to form human connection. In 1966 MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum invented Eliza, the first chatbot. His chief learning and surprise: the depth of emotional understanding attributed to Eliza by users. “She gets me.” This is reflected today when you insult or compliment Siri (or her rivals) — Siri gives an affective response.
All of this is fun and games until you begin to reconsider how artificial intelligence rewires our brains and blurs the lines for what counts as authentic human interaction. It has already been demonstrated that people can form emotional attachments with robots as straightforward as a Roomba. What happens as our artificial intelligence devices become “smarter” the more we use them? Will they crowd out or confuse our ability and will to make uniquely human connection, to build authentic community?
The theological lens through which we might view these questions is incarnation. In an age of increased engagement with disembodied digital assistants, what might it mean for the church to counterweight this with insisting on and facilitating in-person fellowship? In an era of disembodied conversation, my prayer is that the church might be a contrast society to model a more excellent way of fully-embodied community and in-person presence.