Thought for the Day - Catherine Pepinster

It’s the stuff of science fiction: that machines will take over the world. In Taiwan, fantasy appears to be coming closer to reality, for an electronics firm has announced this week that it’s expanding its automated workforce to a million robots within the next three years. Robots are apparently much more efficient than humans, and the Taiwanese are not the only people to think so. Elsewhere, scientists are developing robots with greater memory capacity and intelligence, while Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has said that he thinks there are businesses that could function much better without humans.

But if robots can labour as hard as humans and are increasingly smart, where does that leave us, given that work and intelligence have been two of the key ways in which so many of us define ourselves? What is it that makes a human being different?

Until now humanity has often tried to define itself by distinguishing its differences from animals. That isn’t easy. After all, monkeys demonstrate intelligence: they’ve worked out how to use rocks as tools. We do, though, go further: we’re interested not only in how, but why, too. And we have not only intelligence, but far-reaching knowledge as well, including awareness of our mortality. Then there’s our responsiveness to beauty, our desire for happiness, our questioning of existence which for many is the start of religious faith.

But there is something else that seems above all to distinguish the human person, something that goes beyond biological determinism: our capacity for love is far more than animal desire or nurturing. And it takes us into the realm of moral goodness, into making distinctive choices, and sometimes having to make them in the face of that other, disturbing human capacity, the capacity for evil. A shining example of this is Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who offered himself to be executed in the place of a man with a wife and children in Auschwitz. The man was a stranger but Kolbe’s faith in God, which in turn inspired his love of his fellow man, motivated him to make his sacrifice.

Pope Benedict has called this courage “the risk of goodness”, a goodness or love that St Paul said is kind, is patient, does not envy or boast, is not self-seeking, that perseveres and never fails.

Artificial intelligence is challenging us in the most profound way, making us think again about what we do, what we’re capable of, even of who we are. Perhaps that’s best summed up by the words of poet Philip Larkin: What will survive of us is love.

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