The question of our AI age: “What goals are worth pursuing?”

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Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

ith recent and rapid advances in artificial intelligence, I think it is increasingly urgent that we answer this difficult question well:

“What goals are worth pursuing?”

It has always been important to have good answers to this, if we want to lead a good life. Still, a lot of political theory over the last couple of centuries has tried to avoid this problem by shunting it off to somebody else, sometimes even claiming that any effort to answer it in general terms is inherently wrong. One especially influential idea there, boiled down, is that only individuals are allowed to answer this question and only for themselves. The trouble is that we also have to answer this question as groups if we want to do even basic and hopefully non-controversial things, like have sewage systems.

Is sanitation a goal worth pursuing together? Yes!

This can seem abstract, but this complete elevation of individual goal-seeking behavior has deeply shaped our attention economy today. It is what underlies things like Google and Youtube and Facebook’s refusals to take truth and goodness seriously enough in their algorithms. The underlying notion is that it is wrong (specifically, the idea is that it is somehow authoritarian) to decide that false authoritarian KKK and Nazi videos shouldn’t be promoted and profited from (for example). Supposedly, only individuals can answer that for themselves. Fascinatingly, this mode of hyper-individualistic thinking has quickly brought us to our own 2 + 2 = 5 situation: it is supposedly not authoritarian to profit from bathing people in false authoritarian propaganda, but it would be authoritarian to stop it. Somewhere along the line, things got twisted exactly backwards.

What is already happening with these AI algorithms is just the shape of things to come. As technology firms become better and better and better and better at using AI to help them pursue their goals, the question of what those goals are (exactly) becomes extremely important. Humans using AIs already have enormously increased capacities to achieve their goals, whatever they are. (Usually, the goals are either profit-maximization or military domination.) And those AI capacities, already impressively world-shaking, are currently going through an enormous phase shift. What is already being done with our attention, due to AI, is enormous and novel and incredibly powerful and important. And we haven’t seen anything yet.

What goals do I think are worth pursuing, for us?

Since it is more urgent than ever that we answer our question well, I’d like to offer my own viewpoint clearly and directly. Why? Because I’m into full disclosure, and because I’d like to encourage people to consider these as possible goals for their own lives. (And their AI systems.)

1) Enemy love must be pursued as a replacement for violence.

This involves non-violent resistance to and prevention of violence, through the transparent and ethical pursuit of enemy love. The Civil Rights Movement in the US stands as an especially moving and powerful testimony to the power of enemy love. Global research from Erica Chenoweth illustrates the general practicality and effectiveness of these approaches for achieving efficient, enduring and positive social change. (I would add that enemy love is also important for personal change.)

Enemy love and violence (with all of the hypocrisy that inevitably comes with it) have stood in deep opposition for a long time. Increasingly, I think it becomes clear that our societies are faced with a fundamental choice: enemy love and life, or violence and death.

2) Reconciliation among people and peoples.

This includes addressing falsehoods and problems frankly, fixing problems, making restitution, and fostering forgiveness without enabling abuse. It applies to personal relationships. It also applies to things like the need for truth and reconciliation commissions, and reparations for historical abuses like racial caste-based slavery in the US. Reconciliation also lies at the beating heart of scientific inquiry, which at its core requires a process of eagerly-embraced correction, reconciliation among warranted views, and reconciliation between us and creation. Our growth in knowledge is some of the delicious fruit of reconciliation, but it is only one aspect of the many benefits that come from it.

3) Joyful solidarity with the poor and marginalized.

I think that a good life necessarily involves lived solidarity with the poor and marginalized. Personally and socially, it is a life of advocacy for those on the edges in terms of our basic needs, and also involves solidarity based on social status. We are social beings, and being honored and respected by others is integral to our well-being.

To fully embrace this involves more than charitably helping those at the margins and advocating for tax codes that properly prioritize investment at the margins, although it certainly includes a lot of that. Ideally, it also involves generosity (freely and joyfully given) that increasingly brings us to the margins ourselves. Things simply look different from the margins. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t pursue income. It is to say that the gifts we have, including our income, can and should be joyfully and freely shared until it is no longer charity. Why no longer charity? Because our generosity becomes an expression of our interests as people who live on the margins. In this way, we can rise together.

All three of these goals are extremely difficult ideals, only partially achieved by almost anyone. I’m not a paragon of any of them, even though I try. Importantly, they all integrate practical external results into deep internal processes that can’t be forced on people or coerced. Where they are coerced or forced, they quickly become a parody of the ideal.

Each in its own way is a movement of grace (unwarranted generosity) from first to last.

Unlike the sort of shallow sense of individualistic freedom that underlies Google and Facebook profiting from promoting the KKK and Nazism, the freedom within these ideas abounds to the freedom of others as well.

To sum up

The ideologies that are popular with tech firms matter a lot. They are shaping and will shape our world in enormously powerful ways. The rapid development of AI systems, including the powerful systems that are already behind our society-changing attention economy, makes it even more urgent than ever that we closely scrutinize our goals and the goals of these powerful firms. It was always urgent that we think deeply about worthy goals, but it is especially important now.

The biggest irony about my goals is that they represent my understanding of the most basic and foundational teachings of Jesus. I’ve arrived at these by reading Luke 6 and Matthew 5–7 in context, and I’ve prioritized these because Christian scripture sets them at the very pinnacle of the narrative it tells. These are the things elevated as matters of first importance: these are presented as the foundational things for life today. And yet some of the very strongest opposition to these ideas today comes from churches. In this, too, I think Christian scripture is remarkably prescient. It prepares us to expect enduring opposition to the basic Jesus stuff from religious and social elites. The situation is deeply ironic, horrible, sad, and utterly unsurprising.

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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