NO DOUBT inspired by the Church Times’s excellent coverage last week of artificial intelligence (AI), BBC4 screened Storyville: iHuman (Tuesday of last week). We saw extensive contributions from key players in the international AI scene, both those developing the technology, and those experts monitoring — usually with mounting alarm — where it’s going.
It is a glossy production with spectacular computer-generated sequences, and I’m pretty certain that it is foreign, and made several years ago (i.e. not up-to-date), but — despite the vaunted claims about how information about everything is now instantly available — I cannot find definitive proof of its provenance.
The message veers between hailing a glorious new dawn and looking into the jaws of impending apocalyptic doom. The proponents are convinced that we are on the threshold of creating self-developing autonomous bots that will be able to solve every problem confronting us. Already they can outcompute humans in almost all fields. But can moral agency be built into them? Can they unreprogammably be channelled for good and not evil? Already, smartphones have more or less destroyed our privacy.
Algorithm-based social media, determining the material brought to our attention, influence our attitudes and decisions in ways that are surely improper. They do so mostly for commercial gain: the international companies who run them are in the hands of terrifyingly few and barely accountable individuals. The experts missing, whose contribution would have been illuminating, were, as always, theologians. For us, there is nothing new in the conflict between free will and predestination; and the doctrine of the incarnation provides insight into just how far infinitely intelligent machines that yet lack flesh-and-blood corporeality can be considered as “beings”, let alone “persons”.
Climbing Great Buildings: Lincoln Cathedral (BBC4, Monday of last week) was originally shown in 2010. Jonathan Foyle works with a team of riggers and rock-climbers to set up a web of lines and harnesses, from which he dangles in space to show us in close-up the marvels of medieval architecture, stone carving, and stained glass. It is scary and spectacular, but wouldn’t a hydraulic cherrypicker have done the job with far less danger to the fabric? What certainly impresses is his enthusiasm and eagerness to share the glories of technical development and inspiration. No doubt, a robot could have done it far more efficiently.
The new comedy drama The Following Events Are Based On a Pack of Lies (BBC1, Tuesdays) is extraordinary. Alice (Rebekah Staton) pursues her charismatic former husband, who destroyed her life. The plot is farcical, but the scenes of mental and personal destruction caused by vile male abuse are real, true, and distressing.