“Think of the words whirling around in your head: that tasteless joke you wisely kept to yourself at dinner; your unvoiced impression of your best friend’s new partner. Now imagine that someone could listen in.”
As Oliver Whang describes, we may not be all that far away from that creepy hypothetical becoming an even more frightening reality.
As researchers delve deeper and deeper into the ability of artificial intelligence to interpret and understand the impulses of the human brain, a new realm of possibilities opens up. By measuring brain activity in fMRI scans and then feeding that information into their AI systems, scientists at the University of Texas, Austin, were able to decode and translate the thoughts of those who agreed to take part in the study with surprising accuracy.
Yet, the same technology that threatens to make internal monologues a thing of the past has also been used to help a mute person speak and even enable a paralyzed person to walk, reminding us once again that the potential tradeoffs in these developments can be more complicated to weigh than they appear at first glance.
AI helps a paralyzed man walk again
Gert–Jan Oskam was paralyzed from the hips down in a motorcycle accident in 2011. However, after electrodes were implanted in his skull and spine, he’s walking once again and has regained some semblance of the freedom he had before.
The innovative process works by using artificial intelligence “to read Mr. Oskam’s intentions—detectable as electrical signals in his brain—and match them to muscle movements.” Essentially, researchers were able to help Oskam teach the AI to understand what his brain was trying to do when he told his legs, hips, or other previously immovable appendages to work. Once it had a grasp of where those signals were trying to go, the AI was able to tell his lower half what to do.
And though the upper body—where movement tends to be more complex—is still beyond what the technology can translate, the progress they’ve made so far in turning thought into action is quite encouraging.
Helping the paralyzed to walk, however, is hardly the only way in which AI has made significant strides in the medical field across recent days.
AI discovers superbug antibiotic
Superbugs—bacteria that are resistant to current antibiotics—have become an increasingly large concern for health experts. The World Health Organization has designated three such bugs as particularly large threats. If all continues to go well, though, that list may soon be down to two.
Researchers in Canada and the US recently used AI to sort through thousands of chemicals that had the potential to prove effective against the bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii, which the WHO has labeled a “critical threat.” In the end, it narrowed the massive list down to a handful, with one in particular—abaucin—proving highly effective against the otherwise impervious disease.
Considering that it’s been decades since many new antibiotics have come on the market to combat the rise of these superbugs, speeding up the pace of those first few steps is vital to streamlining the process. If abaucin proves effective, it could change the lives of the million-plus patients who die from such infections each year.
Unfortunately, not all such developments with technology are equally exciting.
But AI is also causing social media addiction
A recent study from the Reboot Foundation asked teens and young people how they would respond if given the choice between losing TikTok for a year or losing the right to vote for a year: 59 percent of young people—and 64 percent of teens—would rather keep the app than cast a vote.
To be honest, I’m surprised the number wasn’t higher.
TikTok currently has more than 1 billion users and passed Google as the most popular website around the globe. Roughly 38 percent of US teens say it’s their favorite social media platform, and a third of the app’s American users are minors.
Given the ability of all social media platforms—and TikTok in particular—to use algorithms and AI to keep people hooked on a seemingly endless barrage of content, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that so many would choose the app over the right to help decide who leads our nation.
Even the Surgeon General has found these recent trends troubling. As Mark Legg writes, “Kids who spend over three hours daily on social media face ‘double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.’ Well, eighth through tenth graders spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media.” As such, “average social media use essentially doubles troubled mental health symptoms in teens.”
But how much of the blame for that sad reality truly belongs to the social media platforms? Is it the AI’s fault that it’s good at knowing what an individual wants to see?
The problem with AI is ultimately the problem with us
Ultimately, technology—even technology that can theoretically think for itself—is a morally neutral tool. The same devices that can read people’s minds and learn their secrets can enable a paralyzed man to walk. The social media that can heighten the risk of depression and claw at a person’s mental health and spiritual health can also enable friends to stay in touch and help people expand their knowledge and interests in ways that would have seemed impossible a generation ago.
What determines on which side of that moral divide a particular technology will fall is the person using it.
God endowed humanity with an amazing ability to create. From the beginning, stewarding that ability well has been a key component of our purpose in life. When we surrender our gifts back to the Lord and allow him to direct their use, we are capable of truly amazing feats. However, that same capacity—when used to our own selfish ends—can produce truly terrifying results.
While you may not spend today developing groundbreaking AI or turning the stuff of science fiction into reality, God has given every one of us gifts that he intends to use for the advancement of his kingdom.
However, what God can use for good, Satan hopes to use for evil. Since he lacks our Lord’s ability to create on his own, the only tools at his disposal are what we give him the opportunity to twist to his own purposes.
So surrender your gifts back to the Lord and allow him to be the one to guide their use.
Will you start today?
NOTE: Missed a recent book of ours? Looking to round out your Denison Forum library? We’re running a flash sale starting right now of 40% off a majority of our library, including the Biblical Insight to Tough Questions Box Set and The Fifth Great Awakening. Use code DFSALE2023 at checkout for 40% off.
Image credit: ©Getty Images / BlackJack3D
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.
The Daily Article Podcast is Here!