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‘SMART’ machines

Do we really want machines to take over our mundane tasks?

Mid-January, I logged on to Calvin University’s January Series presentation titled The Future of AI by Flynn Coleman. AI – Artificial Intelligence – refers to the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think like humans and mimic their actions. The term may also be applied to any machine that exhibits human traits such as learning and problem-solving. I believe that AI is an oxymoron (contradictory term), and that its current developers have a highly reductionistic view of the human brain and person, as well as what counts for intelligence. But there is something else that struck me about the presentation.

One recurring claim of AI proponents is that the development of “smart” machines will allow humans to be freed from the drudgery of many mundane, repetitive tasks that now plague us. Thus, AI will allow us real humans the opportunity to pursue more creative and meaningful pursuits. All of this got me thinking about clearing the table and dishwashing. These tasks are my responsibility since my wife Louisa does most of the cooking in our house.

Satisfying rituals

Now, don’t get me wrong, our household contains many gadgets and machines that are so-called labour-saving devices. This includes vacuum cleaners, an electric stove and a dishwasher. But there are certain dishes we don’t put in the dishwasher. Because of the abrasive nature of its detergent and the violence of the electronic dishwashing process, we wash sharp knives, delicate china and cast-iron pans by hand. I suppose that “intelligent” robots may one day clear our tables, and AI dishwashers may be trained to distinguish between various kinds of dishes and cutlery and treat them differently to avoid damage. But you know what? I actually enjoy washing certain dishes by hand.

I marvel every day about the fact that I can turn on a tap and have fresh, potable water come out, adjustable for whatever temperature I need. There is something satisfying about squeezing in a bit of detergent into the sink and watching the foaming bubbles appear. I enjoy taking a stiff brush to the dirty dishes so that they become gleaming and clean, placing them on a drying mat to drain, and then giving them a finishing drying with a dish towel before putting them in their appropriate place in our kitchen cupboards. This is a small but satisfying ritual that connects me to the larger social ritual of food preparation and eating with my wife (and other loved ones, in non-pandemic days). And there are myriads of such mundane but satisfying tasks in house and garden. They may not require a high level of intelligence, but they can nevertheless connect us in thankful ways to the satisfying joys of ordinary life lived in the real world of our Creator. And there is nothing artificial about that.

Bob is a little worried that, on reading this column, Louisa may suddenly provide him with other household cleaning opportunities that hold less intrinsic joy for him.

  • Bob is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton.

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