James McGrath, Butler University – Artificial Wisdom

On Butler University Week: Computer intelligence can take many forms.

James McGrath, professor of religion, looks into artificial wisdom.

James F. McGrath is Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature. His PhD from the University of Durham became the basis for his first book, John’s Apologetic Christology, published by Cambridge University Press in the SNTS Monograph Series. He has also written a “prequel” about the broader context of monotheism and Christology in ancient Judaism and Christianity, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context, published by University of Illinois Press. In addition to his work on the New Testament and early Christianity, Dr. McGrath also researches the Mandaeans (the last surviving Gnostic group from the ancient world) and their literature. The two-volume critical edition, translation, and commentary on the Mandaean Book of John (which he produced together with Charles Haberl of Rutgers University) represents the first such academic edition of the complete work in English based on all known manuscripts. Another area of specialty is the intersection of religion and science fiction. On that subject, he is the author of Theology and Science Fiction, editor of Religion and Science Fiction and co-editor of Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith: Religion and Doctor Who. He blogs at Religion Prof.

Artificial Wisdom


Although it doesn’t resemble the Artificial Intelligence depicted in science fiction, computer science has made enormous advances in AI, as can be seen from improved search engine results, the way that outlets like Amazon and YouTube recommend other items we might like, and the progress that has been made on driverless cars and computers that play chess. Intelligence can be challenging to define, but inasmuch as it involves the manipulation and interpretation of data, there are many ways in which machines today can do that, and often can do it at scales and speeds that no human could ever hope to compete with.

If we turn our attention to wisdom rather than intelligence, the challenge of coming up with a definition is no less. But whether define wisdom as discernment, ethics, or in some other way, it is clear that computers lag far behind humans.

It is not immediately clear why that should be the case. But the effort to program human ethical values into machines (for instance autonomous vehicles) and to see where biases of programmers and human users influence the outputs of algorithms (for instance in the case of search results) provides a useful opportunity to explore what it means to make wise, ethical decisions. Computers can weigh far more data than any human being could ever hope to. To the extent that considering as much relevant data as possible is ethically important, machines have something important and useful to contribute to our ethical pursuits. On the other hand, the effort to decide what it means to use data and computational results ethically – and discover why supposedly unbiased machines do not always provide morally acceptable outcomes – can teach us a lot about our human ethical reasoning, as well as hopefully achieve more just outcomes in future computational endeavors.

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