How do we recognise the danger and appreciate the opportunities offered by modern technology? Addressing young women graduating from a prestigious school in the Washington, current American Chief Justice, John Roberts, warned that artificial intelligence and big data can alter the way people perceive the world.
He noted machines advise lawmakers “what their constituents think, how strongly they feel about particular issues, how best to appeal to them, and so on.” “Any politician would find it very difficult not to shape his or her message to what constituents want to hear,” Roberts said. “Artificial intelligence can change leaders into followers.”
Along the same lines, the chief justice warned, private companies can tell you what to read, watch and listen to, based on what you’ve read, watched and listened to as well as match customers to their preferred people and ideas, reports USA Today.
“The result,” he said, “can be a narrowing and over-simplification that is contrary to individuality and creativity.” “I worry that we will start thinking like machines,” Roberts emphasised.
To combat that trend, he urged the graduate students to take time for solitude, pensive thought, and “to stay involved with yourself.” “My advice is, when you get to college, to set a little time aside each day to think about things instead of simply acquiring more information. Do not read more, do not research more, do not take notes. Put aside books, papers, computers, telephones. Sit, perhaps just for a half hour, and think about what you’re learning.”
“If you weren’t privileged when you came here, you’re privileged now because you have been here,” Roberts told the boarding school graduates. “My advice is: Don’t act like it.”
After the Head of School introduced the 17th chief justice, he noted that he was given only 10 minutes. “I said, ‘10 minutes? How can I communicate all the wisdom that I have acquired over the years in ten minutes?’” Roberts added: “She said, ‘Speak very slowly.’”
Roberts urged the members of so-called “Generation Z” to be truly happy. To drive home this point, he quoted the American Declaration of Independence’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He added: “You have a patriotic duty to be happy.”
And he urged them not to spend all their time communicating with peers, most often on social media. Noting Generation Z also is known for : “FOMO — Fear of Missing Out” He affirmed: “You need more time to be alone.” Then his final heart-to-heart warning to the students: “What is very interesting can become very creepy, very fast.”
The challenge we are faced with is to be truly involved with oneself, without withdrawing into oneself. In our context of social media and artificial intelligence, it is very easy to follow the crowd and to be obsessed with FOMO. This makes all of us passive followers of the system or the machine. The urge to be relevant, contemporary and fashionable can backfire on us, since the fashionable never gives us a hold or a grip. It sweeps everything from under our feet!
Can we truly get in touch with ourselves, become involved with our own fears, hopes and joys, so that we can be truly creative and inspiring persons who can truly change ourselves and the world? Can we recognise the opportunities and dangers offered by modern technology and life-style?
For this we need time spent alone creatively. We need to reflect explore and experience ourselves in our intimate, darkest and brightest moments. Then we can reach out to the others, critically challenging and creatively offering solutions for joy, fulfilment and hope. This demands we need to “speak slowly,” and live consciously. We need to be silently involved with ourselves first!
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)