Artificial Intelligence and Government

Recent, Kai-Fu Lee wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, “The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence.” It’s an interesting piece because it names the types of job likely to be lost as A.I. continues its rapid development. My limited experience with A.I., in the form of learning the Python programming language, leads me to agree with Kai-Fu Lee about the coming changes. Robotics in US manufacturing is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of changing employment and potential job losses. What A.I. represents is a far more sweeping change.

As a scholar of religion interested in Bible and government, I have three initial responses to the changes A.I. may bring about. First, are we seeing the emergence of a new governing rationality? This is a rather precise and philosophical question. What I mean is, what is the meta-idea governing human behavior (including governments, institutions, policies, and the like) that is made possible because of A.I. and digital technologies? My colleague at the University of Denver, Dr. Thomas Nail, recently told me some philosophers are discussing whether or not information represents a new governing idea in Western society (following after the ideas of sovereignty, discipline, and biopower, at least as Michel Foucault identified these ideas). Does information amass and coordinate a host of other technologies and processes that shape institutions, architecture, personal behaviors? This is an interesting suggestion. Perhaps it helps us gain some critical, analytical perspective on the world today and how it is changing.

Second, what are the employment possibilities yet to emerge in this digital age? Jobs will be lost, replaced by computers using A.I., but what else will be needed in the future? Kai-Fu Lee points to “service jobs of love,” and this seems quite reasonable. Human interaction requires, well, humans. But beyond that, I suspect most cannot yet really predict with confidence what sorts of jobs will be needed going forward. It’s rather like ancient Israel’s requests for the introduction of kingship (e.g., 1 Sam 8). Did those who asked for this political institution know all the administrative and other positions that would be necessary for the kingship to operate, or could they predict how it would transform society and how people understand themselves and others. I suspect not (biblical texts that warn against sovereignty are not helpful here, since they were written after the rise of the monarchy). Beyond this, how do religion scholars and people who understand themselves as religious or people of faith respond to these changes? For example, should they advocate for universal health care in the US in order to eliminate concerns about where and how people get medical care? Wouldn’t this be a way of attending to the widow, orphan, and poor, as called for so many times in the Bible?

Finally, if Kai-Fu Lee is correct in suggesting those countries and economies that are not centers of A.I. (i.e., not China or the US) could end up becoming economically dependent on China or the US, what sort of governing international structure is this? The book of Deuteronomy is widely-acknowledged by biblical scholars to have the literary form of a suzerainty treaty. These ancient treaties, used in international relations, formalized relations between a dominant and a weaker power. The terms are dictated by the dominant king;the weaker king had little option but to accept them or be deposed.For those people and communities in the US who claim the Bible is authoritative, what will they make of such arrangements if they materialize? This makes the US the suzerain or dominant king, that is, the hated, oppressive party in the relationship, the party opposed to the well-being of the weaker power (at least from the perspective of the biblical writers; cf. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.). If the Bible is canon, that is, the rule of faith and life, and it speaks to life today, then what does it say about such relationships? How will US Christians, for example, manage their identities as suzerains rather than as the oppressed? Probably quite well, since few will recognize what role the US plays in the world, and because US Christians are so accustomed to identifying with down-trodden Israel (I find this to be the case for both conservatives and liberals). What, then, of the claim to view the Bible as authoritative in some way? What does it mean to say it is authoritative for individuals and communities? In what way is it authoritative? Only insofar as it permits us to justify, theologically, whoever and whatever we are? What sort of governing rationality makes this possible?

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The importance of faculty in religion gaining technology and digital skills

When I was attending university I persuaded my father, during a visit, to lug home the first generation IBM PC he used so I could see it. I was underwhelmed with the machine once it was assembled. Two 5.25” floppy drives, no hard drive, and a CRT monitor in green. The computer could not do anything without a program, and the program disks my father brought with him were simple business apps (Visicalc, if I recall correctly). It was, really, my first lesson in technology, and an important one. What I was viewing was the potential of the technology, not its realization. But I could grasp something of that potential.

I am reminded of this experience after reading a story in The Guardian recently about the lack of technology skills in universities. I know there are departments in universities where this obviously is not the case (think: the sciences and computer departments). In the areas of my speciality, the Humanities and Religion, I find this to be the case. A colleague at the institution where I teach told me of attending a workshop for new faculty in which those attending were asked how many enjoyed working with technology and teaching online, if not preferred it. Of the 55 attendees, only my colleague’s hand was raised. For the others, technology and online teaching is a necessary evil, since they prefer to teach residential courses (where, presumably, everyone reads print books). There is nothing wrong with teaching residential courses; I certainly enjoy it. But these were new faculty, people who only recently graduated with their doctorates and started teaching. Most of them grew up with technology and will spend their entire careers with it becoming more and more integral to academic life. I don’t consider this an encouraging glimpse into the state of technology appropriation among scholars of religion. So a different mindset is needed.

There are many reasons why faculty don’t jump on the tech bandwagon–or perhaps more accurately, accept the reality that technology is here to stay. Many of us use a computer to write our dissertations and other scholarship but barely know how to do anything else beyond click the icon for the word processor and then save our work. We’ve never taken the time to learn much about computers, so trying to use technology to teach is beyond our comfort zone. Besides, doing so might reveal to our students how much we don’t know about this stuff.

Such reasons are understandable. Gaining competence in our disciplines and then navigating through a doctoral program and early stages of teaching (or whatever else we do with our advanced degrees) are a lot of work. Trying to learn “technology,” if I may put it this way, is another thing on top of all this work. It’s like learning a new research language, culture, and skill set. It takes work and time. Few disciplines in the Humanities currently offer much by way of teaching students (and faculty) how to use the resources offered by technology, much less its transformational possibilities for pedagogy and research. In short, there are challenges to using technology in our teaching and research.

When the decision was made where I teach to begin offering online courses, I did not rush to teach such a course. Although I enjoy using technology, I knew it would take a lot of time and effort in order to do this well. And so it has. I’ve been teaching online and hybrid courses (where students do most of their work online and then travel to campus for a few days of intensive residential work before returning home to finish the course online) for several years. Conceptualizing, planning, organizing, and readying these courses takes longer than it does for residential courses because I must rethink every aspect of my courses in terms of digital space and the online experience. My teaching goals and objectives are largely the same for my students: developing critical thinking and reading skills, honing research skills, improving their writing and communication skills, introducing them to new ideas and thinkers and issues. How to achieve these goals and objectives online is not quite the same as residential work because the technology itself changes how I try to accomplish them.

Technology offers new and different ways to reach my teaching goals. They are not better or worse than those I use in residential courses, simply different. This is one reason why the work is increased, because I don’t know what is possible with technology, so I am constantly learning. I regularly meet with folks in the IT and instructional technologies departments to discuss what I want to do and to learn what new or modified technology may help me. Recently I began learning Python, a programming language. It’s helping me understand how programs and computers work, and thus beginning to change how I look at research questions and my teaching. I don’t yet know how it will change my teaching and research, but like looking at that first generation IBM PC, I know the potential is there. I wish more of us in the Humanities and the study of Religion could see this potential and accept the challenge to try and realize it.

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“Becoming People of the Book” – Installation address available on video

Video of my installation address, “Becoming People of the Book,” on becoming Professor of Bible and Ancient Systems of Thought at the Iliff School of Theology, is available on YouTube. This contains the entire service, but the lecture begins at 32:10.

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International Master Class Places and Rituals of Memorialisation, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

I returned this week from Germany where I participated in the International Master Class Places and Rituals of Memorialisation. This workshop is organized by Prof. Dr. Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) and Prof. Dr. Carla Danani, of the University of Macerata, Italy. The workshop brought together students from LMU, Macerata, Göteborgs Universitet, the University of Zurich, and Leiden University in a scholarly exchange on place, ritual, and memorialization. The conversations were excellent. I presented on “Place, Writing, Memorialisation, and the People of the Book,” using Deut 27:1-8, in which Moses commands Israel to build a monument (memorial?) of stones covered with plaster once they cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan, and then to write on those plaster-covered stones “all the words of this Torah,” making the argument that this actions places the newly entered land under the governance of the book. My thanks to both Dr. Pezzoli-Olgiati and Dr. Danani for the invitation to attend and participate.

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Helpful explanation of why Academia.edu has become problematic for scholars

Sarah Bond and Stuart Elden, among others, have called for those of us who use Academia.edu to delete our pages and stop enabling that company from profiting from our work as scholars. Iko Maly at diggit magazine provides a useful and clear explanation for why this is important.

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Christopher Watkin’s helpful advice on conference papers

Over on his blog, Christopher Watkin continues providing useful advice for students (and faculty) of various sorts, this time on preparing (“Research hacks #14: 15 tips on planning and writing a conference paper”) and delivering (“Research hacks #15: 15 tips on delivering a conference paper”) a conference paper.

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“Writing is thinking” – useful advice for dissertation writers

In “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation,” Dr. Theresa MacPhail offers her advice to those writing a dissertation: write, and do so every day. I echo her point that the best ideas often come about through the process of writing. It is in the process of writing down and thus trying to explain to others what you think that you come to understand just what that is – at least for the draft on which you are working!

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