Desk Reset

· Technology,Ethics

Concerned about AI? Then it’s worth watching the classic Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy romcom called Desk Set.[i] A group of four women, headed by Hepburn’s Bunny Watson, works in the research department of the Federal Broadcasting Network. Their role is to answer questions from callers asking for obscure (and sometimes not so obscure) information. Despite this odd setup, they do their jobs with aplomb.

But when a stranger—Tracy’s Richard Sumner—enters their library, they find their jobs put at risk. Sumner brings good tidings of great joy: A “mechanical brain” will soon be installed. The computer, whose enormity is representative of 1950s computers, even has a name: Emmy, short for EMERAC, short for Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator. Humorous panic ensues until the computer crashes, the guy gets the girl, and the researchers keep their jobs. They learn that it was never the intention to replace them. Emmy was being introduced to provide support to the researchers; their work would be increasing due to a company merger.

More importantly, the mechanical brain was no match for the minds of the researchers.

Of course, Emmy could accomplish a greater amount of work than the four women answering phones. This raises the fear of replacement or, that delicious British word, redundancy. And it’s a fear that has again raised its head. We see technology like AI not only as an idea being posited but as a reality in the workplace, the marketplace, and the home. Desk Set signals to this fear.

That said, AI is artificial intelligence, not real or actual intelligence. This is an important difference. Computers may be more efficient than us. But even if they become “smarter” than us, it’s hard to imagine that they will ever be able to make use of intelligence in the way we do. We don’t just answer phones. We have the capacity to choose how to use what we know. In ethics language, this is called practical wisdom.

Practical wisdom is a tool that we often use without really being aware of it. I think we need to recognize it and use it with greater intention because it is a capacity unique to our species. Practical wisdom can be put to work when a situation calls us to make change that leads to some improvement—something good. Practical wisdom first involves a sense of what is good. What do we believe represents wellbeing (of individuals, groups of people, or the planet, depending on the situation)? We best understand what is good not on our own but in community. As we age, we can choose to become part of communities that impress upon us the good we ought to pursue.

After understanding what kind of good needs to be our aim, we gather what we know about the circumstances before us. This knowledge helps us refine our understanding of what good can be achieved in the situation. We then think creatively about good ways of acting (or, sometimes, not acting) that can yield goodness, discerning which response is the most fitting. Because we believe that every person has intrinsic value, practical wisdom always takes account of both our personal interests and the interests of all whose wellbeing is at stake. It is also active in discerning which interests are more important or pressing than others.

Using this virtue helps prevent us from being short-sighted. It helps us look deeply at both our actions and the intentions behind them. It helps us understand the intentions and actions of others involved. And the more experience we gain in exercising practical wisdom, the wiser we become.

If Sumner had only told the research department staff about the intentions behind Emmy from the beginning, he could have allayed any fear that they would be replaced. Together, it would have been possible to determine a way to work well with AI.

But that, of course, would make for a very dull movie.

I have yet to hear a viable argument for the development of wisdom in AI, either by intended design or spontaneous evolution.

That said, nothing is impossible. The choices we make about to use AI must be made with wisdom. So let’s have conversations about how we might do this in our own contexts. What limits do we need to place around AI in order to protect personal and corporate information and privacy? How can we use AI to represent what is true? What kind of training will help us work well with AI? And how can we honour one another by making good use of the gifts we bring to our work? These are just some questions that can start a conversation. Once we start asking them, wisdom will lead us to wiser questions.

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[i] The screenplay was written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, parents to Nora Ephron, who is famous for writing the screenplays of the great romcoms of the 90s. With, of course, the exception of Richard Curtis’s incomparable Notting Hill.