German 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that “God is dead”, in a book he authored in 1883 calledThus Spoke Zarathustra. Through this statement Nietzsche was observing the gradual decline of traditional religious values.
Nietzsche noted that he was writing at a time when the Western World was seeing a departure from the popularity of Bible based ethics: good manners and morals, honesty, unselfish behaviour, generosity and consideration for others.
This departure, according to Nietzsche, was being accompanied by the rise to prominence of science, reason, and secularism.
The departure from religiosity has given way to humanism, best described by a statement of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, founded in Amsterdam in 1952 which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility of giving shape to their own lives and to do so by employing reason and free inquiry while eschewing supernatural views of reality.
Till the modern age the concepts of God and religion have dominated human life, not always in a beneficial manner. Karen Armstrong, writing in her book, A History of God, points out that the idea of God has been reformulated across generations so as to retain its relevance to human needs. Authors have also pointed out how God has been an instrument of the ruling classes to further exploitation.
Writing in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy Karl Marx opined, ‘Religion is the opium of the people. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions.’ Marx felt that religion was not only used to oppress workers but was also akin to a drug which dulled the pain from oppression that would otherwise have induced workers to revolt against capitalist exploitation.
Two other examples of the use of religion to further exploitation come to mind. In the United States, slavery came to an end after the American Civil War, which was preceded by violent disagreement between Northern and Southern Baptist Churches, with the latter endorsing slavery using quotations from the Bible.
It is clear that slave owners in the Southern States of the United States of America benefitted a lot economically from slavery; religion was just being used to promote economic ends. In regard to India, Ramachandra Guha points out how through much of recorded history Hindu temples were instruments of discrimination by upper castes against Dalits, who were not allowed to pray inside the temple premises.
Both the American and Indian examples illustrate how those powerful in the society and economy have used the concepts of religion and God, an endorsement of what Armstrong has said.
One needs to point out in this context the rise of ‘agnosticism’: humans are unable to provide sufficient reason for justifying the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist. The word was coined by the English biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 but has its origins in the heterodox Ajnana school of Indian philosophy which flourished around 6th century B.C.
Interestingly, the Rig Veda, the oldest known Vedic Sanskrit text projects an agnostic view and stresses in its verses that it is impossible to know whether God exists or not.
The rise of the agnostic school has had a significant impact from the late 19th century onwards. In 2010, Encyclopedia Britannica published a survey which found that 9.6% of the world’s population was non-religious.
Around the same time the Financial Times published a poll which stated that this percentage was 14% in the United States but higher than 20% in the West European countries.
But with the importance of religion weakening, especially in the developed world, are people really exercising their freedom in choosing the lives they want to lead? One can argue that this weakening has left a vacuum in people’s minds, quite open to being occupied now by the new influence of an external force.
I argue that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is that force, that opium which will make people’s lives appear much more tolerable but make their brains wither away.
Researchers such as Lawrence Katz and Kevin Murphy, and Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo point out that AI can increase the productivity of skilled workers and creative people while acting as a substitute for unskilled labour.
With robots displacing unskilled workers, the income share of owners of capital might go up; so will, as we have mentioned the incomes of creative and skilled workers. With unskilled workers crowding into sectors not yet touched by AI or subsisting though crumbs provided for the unemployed by the welfare state, we can imagine that a large part of the population will stagnate at low levels of income.
In their case, AI will also provide the ‘opium’ in the form of attractive chatbots and other ‘toys’ which will help dull their misery; it will do their shopping, make their financial decisions and unburden their children of the responsibility of doing their own homework. In other words, there is a real chance of brain development being impeded for a large section of the human population.
The vacuum left by the disappearance of religion from people’s lives is thus being taken by AI. And like religion in many cases, it is serving the interests of those who intend to dominate the economy and society.
What is the answer to AI assuming the role of a Leviathan? First, it might be necessary to ensure the regulated use of AI in educational institutions. This would involve long screen free hours in schools and universities, with students using the conventional instruments of pen and paper along with access to offline instruction.
This would promote attentiveness and creativity, and therefore the nourishment of the brain. The use of tablets and mobile phones should be limited to certain times of the day.
Humans would also need to be warned about having their daily lives being run by AI butlers as this might be a way to promote certain commercial interests. As mentioned, people might get addicted to interaction with seductive chatbots: this can cause problems with focus, memory, and learning as well as decision-making and judgment. Creating mass awareness of this danger might be necessary.
The writer is Professor of Economics, Jadavpur University
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