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How to Navigate Using Artificial Intelligence Ethically

Published:
December 14, 2023
October 23, 2023
Read this article about one mom teaching the importance of human connection to her son as she raises him in a time filled with AI tools and automated experiences.|Read this article about one mom teaching the importance of human connection to her son as she raises him in a time filled with AI tools and automated experiences.

Recently, my nine-year-old son asked me what 1,539 x 37 is. I told him I didn't know, and he promptly asked our Amazon Alexa, which gave him the answer: 56,943. Soon after, with merriment in his eyes, he asked me who was smarter: Alexa or me? I laughed and responded that Alexa is undoubtedly better than me at math, but lacks other basic human knowledge. Then, I gave him a hug to demonstrate. Alexa will never know how it feels to hug a loved one or experience spiritual longing or fulfillment. In this way, all humans (even this mom who isn't a math whiz) best artificial intelligence.

Still, as a mother and professor, I worry about my son and future students who will grow up not only with narrow, data-driven AI-like robotic personal assistants but also generative AI chatbots like ChatGPT and Bard. Generative AI platforms do more than collate and repeat knowledge; they create human-like text that sounds naturally conversational. When you ask them questions, they pause momentarily and then provide paragraphs of response in simple, easy-to-understand language. In many instances, AI is useful! Looking for recipes, creating travel itineraries, and language translation are all boons. 

Yet my son is nine, and his questions will only prove more complex as he ages, as do all of humankind's. Inevitably, he will ask questions about God and human nature; he may even use a chatbot to salve loneliness. When asking ChatGPT itself about its possible daily applications, it goes further than information retrieval, relaying that "companionship" for those who "feel lonely or isolated" and "therapeutic support" are among its many attributes. The trouble here is our natural propensity as humans to anthropomorphize whatever we encounter that isn't human, from our plants to our cars, and now, AI.

Companionship beyond the digital realm  

Significantly, the root of the word companionship comes from the Latin word ‘panis,' or bread. It comes from the act of breaking bread, or sharing a meal, with someone — an experience we cannot have with ChatGPT and Bard. Instead, these AI tools mimic the experience of companionship. Yes, I can eat and "chat" with a robot, but the robot can never fully share a meal with me. It can never have preferences for how certain pizza toppings taste. Nor can it glance at me and give me a knowing look because of an inside joke we share. It can never have the feelings I do. It can never experience loneliness or the joy of friendship. 

Similarly, it cannot offer beneficial therapy because that process is predicated on human experience. How can an AI offer comfort after grief, or heal disease of any type, if it has never, and can never, feel suffering? 

It is unsurprising that when the use of smartphones began to rise in 2012, young people's emotional health began to decline. Moreover, pandemic isolation exacerbated not only the use of social media but also depression and anxiety. Social media, and I argue here the "companionship" offered by chatbots, often ends up having the opposite effect of what its seekers might intend. The results it yields mimic companionship but cannot replicate it. Using chatbots potentially leaves its users in a cycle of attempting to find and engage in companionship and becoming increasingly bereft. 

Likewise, the idea that chatbots always have answers feels Godlike in a way that ought to be alarming for parents and educators who care about the whole person they are helping to form. Who do believers turn to when we feel lonely or isolated or desire metaphysical answers that data alone cannot provide? Beyond our human companions, we seek God. 1 John 5:14-15 reads, "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything recording to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him." Notice the idea of "will" embedded in this scriptural verse. Catholicism teaches us that the highest moral good is achieved when human will aligns with the divine will. This means individuals ought to aspire to make choices that are in harmony with God's will. Such an alignment of divine and human will requires relationship, or to put it another way: it requires companionship. 

For Catholics specifically, a central sacrament of our faith is the Eucharist. It is not merely a ritual but a profound communion with the divine, which involves sharing bread and wine, or the Real Presence of Jesus. We enter a deep and personal relationship with God in partaking of this sacrament. Thinking back to the term "companionship," as originally meaning sharing a meal (and thus life experiences), our faith provides us not only with answers to complex questions but also with divine companionship. On the other hand, chatbots provide answers generated by algorithms, which are susceptible to the biases in the data they were trained on. 

Navigating the AI era 

As we enter a new era wherein children and young adults go to AI for answers and companionship, we ought not to instill fear about the technology or refuse to see its usefulness. However, we should be honest about its limitations. There is no substitute for real human interaction, and we should encourage this within the young people we care for, even as we remind ourselves to be aware of this fact, too. 

Further, we should emphasize the importance of emotional intelligence that AI cannot replicate. Building empathy and forging genuine relationships takes time, and this effort — not AI — is what many of us naturally fear. Stated another way, AI can't reject us because it is not human. Being human means we put ourselves at risk of rejection, which could lead to loneliness. We ought to know, however, that relying on AI for companionship instead of taking risks with other humans is a path that leads to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Human friendships can be difficult and scary to attempt but can also be fruitful and soul-fulfilling.  

Finally, we ought to remember that personal reflection and prayer are paths to spiritual connection, in addition to the sacraments of the Church. While AI can tell us about religion, it cannot enact or feel it. We are more than our intellectual selves. 

AI’s perils and promises 

In our family, I try to set healthy boundaries for screen time and technology. I encourage balancing online interactions and real-world experiences, including face-to-face social interactions. AI's seduction will continue to rise, and as long as we contemplate it critically, it's possible to use it effectively and ethically. 

I readily admit that my son and I often use AI, asking Alexa to play one of our favorite songs, so we can dance on Fridays when he comes home from school. We use ChatGPT for family and school schedules, to find puns to share, and to help out with logistical questions, among other things. As all humans look to a future when both narrow and generative AI are increasingly prevalent, we should pause and consider its many uses and the effects it can have on our psychological well-being. If we spend too much time with it, especially alone, we need to be aware that it can be psychologically damaging. With this said, there are ways for it to promote the companionship all humans seek, even if AI cannot partake in it. 

Ultimately, AI can provide data-driven answers, but our shared experiences, emotions, and bonds make life truly meaningful. As we continue our journey into the AI era, let's remember that while technology can enhance our lives, the richness of human connection is what nourishes our souls. 

Creators:
LuElla D'Amico
Published:
December 14, 2023
October 23, 2023
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