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Press: AI chatbots reveal inhumanity of New Atheism  

16 December 2022


IT DIDN’T take long for the first wedding vows to be generated by AI. Professor Beth Singler, a level-headed guide to the subject, found a Reddit post from a woman whose husband had just renewed their wedding vows that way: “I was so touched by the beautiful words he spoke and the depth of his love for me. But now I found out that he actually used the OpenAI chatbot to write his vows.

“I don’t know how to feel. On one hand, I’m flattered that he wanted to put so much effort into expressing his love for me. But on the other hand, I feel hurt and betrayed that he didn’t write the vows himself.”

Jonathan Aitken, in prison, spent a lot of time writing letters for his fellow prisoners. Some, no doubt, were love letters of a sort, or attempts to keep a fragile relationship going. Did their recipients wonder at the sudden unaccustomed articulacy?

It seems to me that there are two relevant differences. The first is that Mr Aitken will have written a better letter than any AI can presently manage. The second is that he is a human being, consciously engaging in a moral action.

The rise of these text-generation mechanisms will have all sorts of economic and social consequences. Some people will lose their jobs, others will gain them — wittingly and paid, or not, as trainers for the programmes. Remember that all this apparent cleverness depends ultimately on human beings’ looking at hundreds of thousands of random outputs and grading them, just as the ubiquitous demands that you identify every picture with traffic lights in it to “Prove you are not a robot” are actually recruiting you to train other robots to recognise traffic lights.

But all that is in the future. The immediate effect, I think, is that they show up very clearly the dehumanisation at the heart of the New Atheism; for the latest chatbots behave exactly as the philosopher Daniel Dennett maintains that a conscious human would: they simply assemble fragments of text (“memes”) and extrude them in a rule-bound, if unpredictable way. As the computer scientist Murray Shanahan writes: “Suppose we give [Chat-AI] the prompt ‘The first person to walk on the Moon was’, and suppose it responds with ‘Neil Armstrong’. . . What we are really asking the model is the following question: Given the statistical distribution of words in the vast public corpus of (English) text, what words are most likely to follow the sequence ‘The first person to walk on the Moon was’? A good reply to this question is ‘Neil Armstrong’.”

There is already a Siberian acreage of human language — not only sermons and newspaper articles — produced by a similar process. In fact, there is a specific journalistic skill that consists of working out what prompt ought to follow the response to the prompt that you have just given the machine — it’s called “getting ahead of the story”.


SO, GIVEN that the Archbishop of Canterbury has condemned the plan to send Albanian asylum-seekers to Rwanda, what does the machine suggest? This will depend on who is asking the question, but if it is The Daily Telegraph, the answer is obvious: “Supporting the Government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda is not un-Christian, leading religious thinkers have told the Archbishop of Canterbury.” All that’s needed then is to fill the slot for “leading religious thinkers”.

First you find a Roman Catholic philosopher, John Finnis, who is happy to put the Pope to rights. Than there is Canon Nigel Biggar, of Christ Church, Oxford, who told the paper: “Such a policy may be firmly deterrent and it may disappoint illegal asylum seekers by denying them permanent residence in the UK, but it is not lacking in care or compassion.” I don’t understand how anyone can write this with a straight face when the whole point of the Rwandan scheme is to ensure that the consequences of crossing the Channel are so horrible that no one will even make the attempt. Bringing up this trio of leading Christian thinkers is Fr Michael Nazir-Ali. The Telegraph needs a bigger barrel.


THE whole spat was a pre-emptive strike against the Archbishop’s intervention in a Lords debate on asylum policy. I’m sure that he spoke eloquently against it. But there is one subject on which his silence is even more eloquent: The Times ran a piece that dated from his visit to Ukraine (News, 2 December), in which he explained that he could not say anything about same-sex marriage. “I am not sure I will be able to say during my time in this job. I can express my own view as far as I know my own mind — and it doesn’t change. But the role of archbishop is to be a focus of unity.” Obviously, both sides will read into this what they will, and neither will trust him more as a result.

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