Precepts and Paperclips

Psalm 19:7-8:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.

In the world of those who study the ethical questions raised by Artificial Intelligence (AI), there is an oft-recounted nightmare – robo-dystopia – by which the world ends, not with a bang, but with a paperclip. Actually, with many paperclips. Too many paperclips, in fact. 

First theorized by Nick Bostrom, the problem is that of the Paperclip Maximizer (PM for short), an AI task of making as many paperclips as possible. Initially thought to be the capitalist’s dream, the stuff of the future for companies that try to produce as much of their product as possible to sell to customers, this PM turns out to be not a blessing, but a curse. The super-intelligent AI is not perceptive enough to realize that there might be a limit to the number of paperclips needed, and so it stops at nothing, creating automated paperclip factories one after another, until the entire world becomes a mound of paperclips.

This story is a parable to those who study AI, and shows the importance of being very careful with what you say to your hypothetical future AI. And, it raises the question: How do we design AI that follows our true desires, rather than the stated desires we communicate to it (however poorly)? How do we teach an AI to know when to stop, to discard a command and recognize that, in a different context, a different action is necessary to please the command giver?

The conundrum, though quite puzzling and without a simple answer, provides a window into how to approach various commandments in the Bible. We are not robots, but we are made to serve our Creator, and I believe we are happiest and most fully alive when we succeed at doing so. And so, the situation is surprisingly similar; one need not look very far in our national political and theological context to find those who believe that the commandments of 2,000+ years ago still need to be followed without any reflection upon the change in context, greater knowledge and understanding gained, and collective experience. 

Those who would stop, reflect upon their changed context, and realize that perhaps the spirit of the law means something new in our new context, are tasked with drawing lines from one context to another, reaching theological and ethical conclusions about how to implement the spirit of a command offered in a different time and place. This task is difficult, and some would say impossible. I cannot disagree; it is unlikely that any of us can truly hit the bullseye in making an exact comparison between one context and another, of saying X precept from 1,000 BC means Y in the year of our Lord 2022. But to give up and not attempt to make some kind of translation across contexts is to choose to be nothing more than the Paperclip Maximizer, the eager robot who tried so hard to please its human master that it destroyed the world in a mound of paperclips.

Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/

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