Artificial Intelligence Is Just That – Artificial

And since we’re on the subject of trolls:

Microsoft’s teen chat bot Tay spewed racist comments on Twitter so the company shut her down after less than a day.

Source: After racist tweets, Microsoft muzzles teen chat bot Tay – CNN Money

“Tay” was apparently supposed to be a natural language learning AI.  Microsoft blame its failure on trolls who appear to have rapidly figured out how to manipulate it.  Apparently this AI was as dumb as a post and inherently incapable of identifying the manipulation.

In this case the trolls may have performed a useful service.  They’ve demonstrated that language and intelligence does not neatly reduce to algorithms, regardless of what Google and Microsoft engineers might believe.    Google does better in this regard as demonstrated by the recent defeat in March of a South Korean Go grand master by AlphaGo.  The AI replicates a player’s intuitive pattern recognition.

But Artificial Intelligence is still about algorithms. The question is what happens when the algorithms encounter something novel?  Patterns work well at the scales of large numbers. The problem is what happens at the small scales of individual human unpredictability, where novelty is most likely?

Google’s AI will prove to be extremely useful.  Their models may very well get us to levels of predictive automation that fundamentally change the way our technologies work, our automobiles being the most obvious example. But until the AI can move straight from winning at Go to learning to navigate a wholly unfamiliar situation, it will still be all about algorithms and the constraints they impose.  It will still be artificial.

Artificial Intelligence seems to be a bit like artificial sweetener or hydrogenated vegetable oil.  Something that is very useful in food production but only sort of tastes real.





An Unsmiling Concentration on Self

People have been debating cosmological and theological points for thousands of years (sometimes violently) but the Internet has introduced something new.  It has made it possible to argue in an extended way without face-to-face interaction, and to do so anonymously.  In the past pamphleteers and book authors sometimes published under pseudonyms because of the personal threat that their work might bring.  The Internet has now made anonymity commonplace.  In so doing it has mostly removed any real consequences for abusive behavior.

We all probably have co-workers, acquaintances, and occasionally relatives (hopefully distant) who appear to lack any apparent sensitivity to other people – they habitually interrupt conversations, respond without listening, and demean people with whom they disagree.  But there are limits to the bad behavior.  I am less likely to insult you if what I say is going to result in social ostracism or in a fist to my nose.

The Internet has removed the threat of the fist.

At the extreme is the full-on internet troll.  A study on trolling recently appeared in Discover Magazine:

– Discover Magazine

A scientific analysis of internet trolls finds that yes, they’re actually sadistic psychopaths:   Why do internet trolls do what they do? Here, scientists used online surveys to learn more about trolling personalities.

The referenced study concluded that, “…cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.”[1]  What struck me when reading the study was a bar graph showing the high correlation to narcissism.  This seems to me to be a necessary precursor, and probably a more significant element.  One would hardly engage in sadistic behavior without it.

The correlation brings to mind a quote from the original preface to The Screwtape Letters.  CS Lewis remarks in it the literary representation of “…the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell.”[2]

But the fundamental problem with the study’s conclusion is the conspicuous absence of any definition of what “everyday sadism” might be in actual everyday life.  It might be a bit different from what is seen online.  My intuition is that most trolls probably lack the testicular fortitude to actually serve their crap up in person, particularly when the recipient might serve up some real blow-back.  This probably applies to a whole range of misbehavior that falls far short of full-on trolling, which brings us full circle to the discussion of the effect of the lessening of personal consequences.

Of course everyday life might not look like much at all.   There may be far less perceived need for direct social contact when interest groups of similar mind can huddle online.  In everyday life we have far less control over our interactions with people, which can force us to adjust our behavior in order to get along with them.  This is not the case online.  Regardless of who we alienate (consciously or not) we can always find someone else to connect with.  Relationships become completely disposable.

Which means that, in addition to removing the threat of the fist, the Internet has also mitigated the threat of ostracism.

There probably aren’t very many people that start out in troll mode — I suspect we get there by degrees.   It might start as our insistence on the last comment in a heated discussion on a topic about which we have strong opinions.  It slips into derision and name-calling.  We soon cease to think of the correspondent as a person whom we would never have the guts to abuse in public.   Because all we see is a screen persona it is easy to lose track of the actual human being on the other side of the interaction.

I am not a believer in Karma (in any metaphysical sense) but I do think there are ways to enmesh ourselves in Hell on this side of the grave.  The bad behavior eventually comes back at us — fewer and fewer people find anything attractive about our company, either in person or online.  And we are well on our way to that unsmiling concentration on self Lewis was talking about.

You would think behavior in “Christian” social media venues would be better but it is often not.  We simply ignore Jesus’ rather direct comments on derision (Matt 5:22).  And we risk becoming like Ebeneezer Scrooge’s dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who forged link by link the chains that bound him.

"Scrooge" (1951)
“Scrooge” (1951)




[1] Erin E. Buckelsa, Paul D. Trapnellb, and Delroy L. Paulhusc.  “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun.” Personality and Individual Differences 67 (2014) p. 97–102.

[2] C. S. LEWIS.   The Screwtape Letters, Omnibus Edition,  MacMillan, 1962.   Retrieved from



The Wisdom of Jack

There is this scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Jack Sparrow tells Will Turner his father was a pirate.

Will experiences a bit of cognitive dissonance with the revelation.  This is not what he thought his father to be.  He reacts by drawing his sword and Jack responds by knocking Will off his feet with an adroit flip of a sail boom.  Will finds himself dangling over water with Jack now holding Will’s sword.  Jack proceeds to educate him: “…the only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do, and what a man can’t do.”

Jack expands his meaning to include will and won’t when he asks his captive audience, “…can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?” The idea being that squaring with the world as it exists is a matter of intent.

Unfortunately this is usually not easy in real life. We come equipped with robust facilities for self-deception to avoid engaging with unpleasant discoveries. Most of what we believe we either absorb from those around us, or develop as a result of intuitions or exposure to events with emotional content. And when confronted with contrary ideas we tend to back-fill our beliefs with information and reasoning to support holding them.

In “I told me so” Gregg A. Ten Elshof identifies this as rationalization and describes it as “…the most recognizable of our strategies for self-deception.” Elshof defines the process as constructing “…a rational justification for a behavior, decision, or belief arrived at in some other way.”* It doesn’t follow that a belief is wrong if arrived at through gut intuitions. But as Elshof comments we’re very reluctant to admit that as a basis and feel compelled to come up with reinforcing justifications.

Which is a problem if the belief actually is wrong — rationalization packages a powerful urge to create a false context to support the false belief. Such as a father being a law-abiding merchant sailor instead of a pirate, contrary facts notwithstanding. In Will’s case the contrary facts included a gold medallion with a skull on one side. A major theme in the movie is Will’s struggle to engage with those contrary facts.

Jack’s speech is a good personal reminder. I’ve worked for a couple of large organizations – on more than one occasion in my career history I’ve been yanked out of one project and dropped in another. The process is uncomfortable, particularly when there is a gut-level sense of personal investment. It’s hard not to back-fill that with reasons as to why what I’m suddenly not doing is still relevant to the broader organization.

But adapting to the changes comes far more quickly if I am properly engaged with practical realities rather than avoiding them.


*Elshof, Gregg. (2009). I told me so: Self-deception and the Christian life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. (p. 54. Kindle Edition).

Shredding The Lists

There is this difficult story in Matthew’s Gospel about a slave who owed a staggering sum of money – something probably in the neighborhood of sixteen years wages for a worker of the time. The king to whom the debt was owed put the ledger into the shredder and forgave the account. But the slave then promptly imprisoned a fellow who owed him about three month’s pay – a much shorter ledger. The king’s reaction to this was to turn the slave over to torturers to (literally) take the forgiven debt out of the man’s hide.

This notion of trapping myself with the debts I insist on collecting turns up elsewhere. It’s in the Lord’s prayer and is not some aberration in Jesus’ teaching. I am unable to avail myself of the grace of God because I cannot extend grace to others. The death and resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be good enough to reconcile God and man. But for some reason it’s not good enough for reconciliation between me and other brothers and sisters.

There is no way for that fellow slave to ever pay back the three months wages. And the fact that I had to hunt him down is what was really galling. He did not come to me. My suspicion is that the debt would never have even been acknowledged until the debtor was cornered and begging. But now that I’ve somehow gotten the upper hand I am not inclined to show mercy until all the debt on the list is accounted for.

Shredding a list does not mean that there are no boundaries set to fence off someone else’s dangerous or destructive behavior. Spouses are not obligated to live with abusers and addicts.

Rather, destroying a list is about forgoing the desire that the other person to “pay up” in some fashion. If not to make it right, to at least acknowledge the debt, particularly the real injury that may have been done. Letting go of the record of debt is essential to reconciliation. But keeping such records is lethally poisonous to personal relationships.

Except that the list is only toxic enough to mostly kill them. There are people we know and may have once been friends with that we would rather never see again. Unfortunately the relationships are still twitching and mobile because the memories and chance encounters still hurt. Those personal connections have become animated corpses and it doesn’t matter how many times we hit the zombies with the shovel. They just keep coming. Such walking dead things cannot be “healed.” We’ve successfully trapped them on the wrong side of the resurrection.

Jesus gave outsiders the right to judge the credibility of Christian witness by how we treat each other. Unfortunately the broader culture doesn’t find anything particularly attractive about some of our rotting relationships. The resurrection is about transformation. Those decayed things need transformation into something new.

But this won’t happen until we let go of what’s owed us, and the lists we keep go into the shredder.

Between The Lanterns

This past summer my wife and I were camping by ourselves – our grown children had visited and left so we had a couple of nights alone. We like to sit by a campfire but unusually dry weather dictated a burn ban, which relegated us to sitting and reading by a pair of lanterns on a picnic table. Then a dragonfly appeared from the darkness and started to clatter between the lanterns. It didn’t actually make contact with the glass like fluttering moths often do. It buzzed back and forth, sporadically landing on mugs and pans, and other bits of camp clutter.

I happen to like dragonflies. Their ability to hover motionless except for the nearly invisible whir of their wings has always fascinated me. I am told they can bite but that’s never been my experience. I attempted to capture the insect with a pair of cupped hands and take it out in the brush, away from the light. As my children will tell you I lack the hand-eye coordination to actually pull that off.

My wife retreated to our tent trailer, away from the ruckus. She was not a fan of the large bug. I gave up on the rescue attempt and returned to my book.

Then the dragonfly landed on the end of my nose. It didn’t hurt, but their legs have a claw at the end and there was a definite sensation of being grappled. And they appear quite large when viewed from so close.

I was startled. I sat up abruptly and the insect zipped back to darting between the lanterns. I finally trapped the beastie under a plastic bowl and successfully escorted it out of our camp. If it survived the night it could resume hunting other insects in the daylight.

Some months ago we were dislodged from our moorings in a faith community that we had been committed to for nearly thirty years. Since that point I feel like I have been rattling back and forth between various churches – a bit like the dragonfly I rescued.

I am told this is what’s called a liminal, or “in between” space. A place to wait and find a better place. I don’t much like it.

I am learning new things. Len Hjalmarson describes this as “…one of the benefits of liminality.. we let go of the old answers and begin to ask new questions.”

Mostly what I feel is a needing a safe place to be. Not some random place in the in the dark like where I placed the dragonfly, but a quiet place to rest and regroup.

And await the dawn.