This spring is the 50th anniversary of my brother’s death at age 31. He was my only sibling. He left a widow and two small daughters. At his death he was a respected engineer working for AT&T in New York City. Steve earned that assignment because of his work developing computer programs for Mountain States Telephone in Phoenix. He served on the developmental cutting edge of computer programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Steve was fascinated with the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, primarily because it foretold the future of humans. If he were alive now, he might suggest that his prediction is coming true.

Today we are entering quantum computing and all its ramifications for societies and nations. Most worrisome is generative artificial intelligence based on human neural networks, an element that could create the Space Odyssey’s “HAL” (heuristically programmed algorithmic computer). In the movie, HAL turned rogue and attempted to subvert the mission of the spacecraft and the role of its crew. AI folks tend to agree that such an outcome could occur in any of their programs.

Being dominated by rogue computers was once just science fiction. But today we are being told it is possible. Unless we are intentionally careful. Or drop the idea of creating such technical monsters in the first place.

Dropping the idea is not viable. We live in a world in which nations and societies compete for economic and political dominance. There is no possibility the race to upgrade the power and influence of computer programs will abate.

The world’s largest nations are in a feverish competition to outdo each other in both computing speed and creating sophisticated AI algorithms. They are considered essential to the building of infrastructure. Increasing the amount of interactive data needed for rapid problem-solving.

My brother Steve would be excited to be involved in the challenge of creating socially responsible forms of artificial intelligence. And I would be fascinated with the challenge of building guardrails. To ensure that moral humans continue to control such powerful technical marvels. In that way, Steve and I were the same.

We were different in that he was academically attuned to math and science. I was more capable in language and social studies. But our backgrounds were similar in other ways.  We were both active in our church youth activities and shared an interest in all things mechanical. We had a common interest in the military, belonged to the same fraternity, and were the first in our family to graduate from a university.

Both of us held the ambition to lead lives more fulfilling. To achieve greater personal, professional, and financial goals. After graduation, Steve gained employment in a respected technical field.

My road in the field of education depended on acquiring advanced degrees. By 1973, both of us had achieved entry level forms of professional success. We both married and had two children. But a genetic disorder ended Steve’s quest to contribute more. Leaving a legacy that  remains strong in my heart and mind.

Steve’s legacy is that we both shared an interest in serving the world into which we were born. Our feelings of ambition corresponded with a need to serve humanity. Through technology on the one hand, and education on the other. The crossover point was in how one reinforces the other in the context of giving meaning to human existence.

To discern what our creator wants us to be. To live out our lives on earth productively and meaningfully.

Our father entered the picture with an observation of his own. The 20th Century had already achieved remarkable technical achievements. And would achieve even more in the decades ahead. His concern was how social guardrails would keep it all under control.

To Dad, Steve’s contributions would significantly make technology work for us and not against us. He believed my contributions would focus on the institutions and processes needed to assure stability and human fulfillment.

Both challenges were and are critically important. Technology has already enhanced understandings between and among the peoples of the earth. But oddly that understanding is politicizing us even more than before. Driving us into accepting and even advocating beliefs of leaders and activists who articulate their own biases. Often using our pent-up fears and prejudices as justifications for their narrow admonitions.

Already technology is taking us to the brink of disaster through pervasive, intrusive, and overwhelming social media. Those who believed better electronic communication would enhance understanding and goodwill are discovering it can also be a tool for evil intent. A narcotic for those who crave acceptance. Mental illness and suicides among our young people have increased exponentially. What role did social media have in those tragedies?

If society through its governmental and institutional systems cannot reign in the march toward the expansion of even more social media, enhanced by AI’s ability to create artificial interfaces that mimic human features and voices, we as a species may be doomed. Making the challenge even greater is the fact AI is seen to be essential for those interested in world domination or accruing more financial rewards.

My brother Steve would likely be as concerned as I.

In the 1968 Space Odyssey film HAL, the rogue computer, finally realizes the human being at the controls can pull the plug on HAL’s existence. That knowledge makes HAL afraid of his own demise. He pleads to be given a second chance. To no avail.

Can we collectively be like the astronaut in the film who shuts down HAL? Would we want to? We are more likely to work hard to build guardrails that make technology work in our favor. But that takes time and concentrated effort. A unified endeavor almost impossible to achieve worldwide.

All of us crave ways to make life more fulfilling through individually and collectively working to find processes to meet that goal. The problem is that we humans come into the world prewired with different characteristics that mitigate against unanimity.

As individuals, we are prewired in unique ways that incorporate everything from skin color to cognitive skills. Steve was prewired to be creatively skilled in math and technology.

Unfortunately, he was also prewired with an addiction.

The scientific term for prewiring is genetic predisposition. Found in DNA and often replicated in families. In our family that predisposition was associated with alcoholism. The affliction that took Steve from us too early in life.

A Moral Quandary

Some associated with the artificial intelligence movement believe it is possible to play God by incorporating technical kinds of religious or behavioral standards into programs. To avoid creating another “HAL.” That idea is akin to the genetic predisposition we humans have in our makeup. But to make sure those programmatic dispositions are positive.

Steve and I would likely agree that such thinking is both naïve and even dangerous. God created us and inserted DNA triggers that make us who we are as a species and as individuals. Most of those triggers are good for our wellbeing, but some are not. Like the one that killed my brother.

It is difficult to think of God making a mistake in how we were created. That would be the ultimate form of human hubris.

But at this writing, scientists are researching ways to manipulate our DNA to weed out genes that harm us or those we bring into the world. Opening the door to intense discussions about ethics and religious belief.

Steve and I had philosophical discussions a few years before his death. We agreed that God gave humans the ability to control their environment and circumstances. That gift justifies our actions to invent everything from airplanes to vaccines that defend against disease. God approves of our attempts to make ourselves healthier and more comfortable. Intelligence and problem-solving skills are also part of our God-given DNA.

God meant us to be his partners, in a sense, in making our world livable and even enjoyable. For ourselves and all other species.

The “partnership” perspective is certainly not part of the world’s religious traditions. The closest to that idea, one that emphasizes considerable study and self-discipline, is Buddhism. Most other beliefs advocate the discernment of God’s will and our actions in trying to meet those expectations. Allowing the possibility of a junior partnership with God. But it may not give humans enough latitude to create a fully moral and circumspect artificial intelligence platform.

My brother Steve has now been with God fifty years. Certainly enough time to gain heavenly insight into how we earthlings should behave with regard to quantum computing and artificial intelligence. And many other aspects of human life that tax our meager abilities to build a better world.

It would be wonderful if I could again sit across from Steve. Imagine him resting in his favorite lounge chair and smoking a pipe, offering his highly informed interpretation of God’s will. Even better would be our Dad walking into the room and asking “What are you guys discussing now?” And after our response, to lucidly summarize the main aspects of our logic. To pose another set of perplexing questions.

To make us think even more deeply. And bring us all even closer to God and his will for us.

©2023 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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