Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Evening News, Brought to You by AI

I vaguely remember Walter Cronkite reporting the news as the quiet evenings of my childhood slipped into a time less innocent. I don’t recall much of what he said, or how he said it. My parents paid attention, I’m sure, but all I can picture is the man. A reliable, respectable human being. He reported in line with the standards of objective journalism. He was an upright news anchor, and we could believe him. At least, that’s the way I remember him. But maybe I only remember what the adults around me believed. And maybe they only believed what the powers behind the evening news wanted them to believe.

In any case, news coverage is not be what it once was. Now, reporting the facts is less important, perhaps, than supporting the agenda. We may wonder if our media here in America has fallen under a spell of sorts, but we get the gist of daily events from men and women who are not under any real coercion to tell us lies. They may cloud the truth. They might hope to sway us. But at least they’re not being programmed. Yet.

When I first heard of China’s AI news anchors I thought, why build a robot to read the evening news? Why not create a friendly teller who could never be tempted to steal money from the bank? Or a nice waiter who doesn’t require a tip? In my books about the world’s first transhuman, I wrote about the convergence of politics and entertainment, about the use of the media to set the pulse of the nation, so I get it. A trustworthy face at the end of the day to spin the bad news with compassion, and praise certain leaders with a confident nod, is a better use of AI technology.

China’s first AI anchor was introduced a few months ago, and recently joined by a female counterpart. The male anchor is handsome, perfectly groomed. The female, modeled after a real reporter, appears impeccable, right down to her pearl earrings. The political slant of these two is not an issue, since they’re not real. They have no agenda. No opinion. Their standards are unquestionable. They are just as safe, as welcoming, as quaintly familiar as Walter Cronkite with his gray mustache. And people will believe whatever they say, welcoming their calming voices at the end of the day. But an AI anchor has no voice. Not really.

China leads the way in AI. How long until that country’s friendly couple are replicated with American features, maybe a slight Midwest accent? Would AI anchors in the U.S.A. grow a new level of trust between the people and the media? Would their programming encourage adherence to the old standards of objective journalism? If not, maybe nobody would notice. 

Maybe no one will notice at all when the robots bring us the evening news.

Click here to see China's AI news anchors in action:

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Abortion and the Conquest of Man

I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis. Not the fun stuff, but the philosophical. Not absorbing every word but rereading the brilliance until at least a sentence or two blows my simple mind. I thought at one point that I might need a C.S. Lewis for Dummies. Surprise, there is one, though I’m not sure it addresses The Abolition of Man, the little book keeping me gloriously stupefied. I haven’t finished the book, but I can see the journey laid out before me. One I’m not sure I want to take, but I can’t stop now.

Other readings of late, that is, the headlines, have brought something of a different sort of wonderment, one leaving me stupefied on the level of repugnance. A gruesome realization that I live in a world quickly falling into the Biblical foresight of right becoming wrong and wrong becoming right. It’s then that I go back to Lewis, and squint and ponder words like these, which make the headlines seem like a follow-up:

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well . . . I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man . . . The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

Lewis may have seen it coming—the great promise, and potential calamity, of modern technology and medical advancements. He hints at the intention of science, genetic modification, at the treatment of the unborn. In another passage, he rightfully fears what may happen to humanity when human instinct becomes nonessential:

As we pass from mother love to rational planning for the future we are passing away from the realm of instinct into that of choice and reflection: and if instinct is the source of value, planning for the future ought to be less respectable and less obligatory…

This is a hard contemplation for me, one wrapped in societal acceptance. Most women today take for granted their perfectly legal, morally tolerable right to use contraception. But not too far back in our nation’s history, the use of birth control was illegal, considered to be lewd behavior. Once it became good medicine, most women, including most Christians, including me, embraced the practice. I won’t argue the ramifications of contraception, either good or bad. But Lewis did.

Now his words rail against the headlines. The omen of what may taint our future is now here. Birth control became the norm. No longer taboo. No longer sinful. The conditioning of our minds and lifestyles to accept something that proved to be a good thing led to a thing that is not good at all. The use of birth control before conception led to the expulsion of a pregnancy after conception, and now to the death of a baby right up to the point of delivery. But surely a woman won't carry a baby for nine months, and then decide to abort.Will she?

Some governing bodies are removing all limits, while others attempt to pull back on what’s legal. We Christians rage at the thought of a baby being killed on his delivery date, but now we seem to breath a little easier, to almost celebrate a state government pushing to outlaw abortion if the baby has a heartbeat. Did we not once insist life begins at conception? Has our protest against any and all abortion now shrunk at the passing of a worse law?

Are we being conditioned to accept the practice of abortion to a point? When it’s all settled, the full-term abortion law might fade away as the pre-heartbeat law becomes the standard. A moral shift of society. No longer opposed. Is this push for full-term abortion an act of the power of Man, as Lewis calls it, to alter our concept of morality? Time will tell. The signs are there that we, as billions of people, will change our opinion of right and wrong as we are conditioned by the thousands of men.

Though he became a Christian, perhaps his pre-redemption atheism gave C.S. Lewis the right voice to speak to a world bent on straying off the path of survival. The Abolition of Man encompasses a code of morality, reason, instinct, and posterity. It’s not a guide so much for the Christian, but for the human race.

Seventy-six years after the book was written, we continue on a path that may lead to our destruction. Along that path, the abortion issue is not one simply to be opposed by Christians, but to be cautiously weighed by all women, and men, and governments. Of course, that’s not the way it will work out. The question is, will Christians accept the death of an embryo if the government will only abolish the threat of death to a full-term baby? Again, time will tell.

Or maybe time is running out. Lewis may have let his faith shine for a moment in the above quote when he wrote of that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. He spoke of extinction, but he waited, as I wait still, for the Redeemer. That day will come. Perhaps not far off.

Lewis, C. S.. The Abolition of Man (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis)  HarperOne 2009