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Discoveries


I’m always amused by the concept that Columbus discovered America, as though it wasn’t here before he first saw it from the deck of his ship. The eyes of the discoverer are incapable of creating anything. They only observe what was there all along.


The same can be said of the scientist or biologist or anthropologist or archeologist. The laws of nature, the wonders of the world, the chards of an ancient civilization lie within reach for eons before the scientific method, the field scope, or the trowel uncover them for examination and study. As our intelligence and curiosity grow, we dig farther into our planet Earth and soar higher into the Cosmos.


It is in that context that I object to the new term “artificial intelligence” or AI as it has been branded in our acronym-addicted world. It is no more artificial than the internal combustion engine, the lightbulb, or Silly Putty. It was conceived of, designed, built, and employed by some guy who doesn’t want to be blamed as it begins to roam the earth like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. The means to do it were always there. From 1883 when Ada Lovelace realized that numbers could represent something other than just the amounts of things and wrote the first algorithm for Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine”, computer language gave man the ability to reach the stars or destroy the world.


Ultimately as humankind advances, we have more and more choices to make.

I have carried the following quote in my wallet for many years. The words were spoken by Prince Charles (who now sits on the throne as King Charles III) at Harvard University’s 350 anniversary celebration on September 4, 1986. Profound truth.


While we have been right to demand the kind of technical education relevant to the needs of the 20th Century, it would appear that we may have forgotten that when all is said and done, a good man (person), as the Greeks would say, is a nobler work than a good technologist. We should never lose sight of the fact that to avert disaster we have not only to teach men (people) to make things, but also to produce people who have complete moral control over the things they make.


So, back to AI. Save me the pearl clutching and hand wringing from the folks who used the gifts handed down from Ada Lovelace to develop this tool. They need to develop the means to use it properly, control it safely, and channel it to improve our lives on the planet. Yes, government may have a role to play, but an equal or greater burden is on the people who coded learning into Hal and his children.


We have some interesting historical examples. From the time they cloned that sheep Old What’s Her Name, the temptation and dangers of messing with the genetic code have been there and what have we done with it? Used it to advance medical science and cure disease. From the time the Enola Gay’s crew pushed the button, opened the bomb bay doors, and levelled Hiroshima, what have we done? Yes, built bigger and more deadly bombs, but also used nuclear energy to heat homes, light lights, and power French incubators keeping tiny preemies alive. The second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki 28,468 days ago and the ingenuity, diplomacy, intelligence, and self-interest of mankind has so far proved adequate to protect us.


As we make our cinematic choices and flock to the theaters this weekend, surely many of us will choose Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. When it comes to the issues and choices associated with this true tale of science and warfare, I love the famous exchange between President Harry S. Truman and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb”. The conversation was at the White House in October, 1945.


Truman asked the obviously morose physicist what was the matter, to which Oppenheimer replied, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”


Truman told him that when it came to blood, he had way more on his hands than the scientist. Oppenheimer led the effort at Los Alamos to make the bomb, but Truman decided to use it. Most historians credit its use with ending World War II and ultimately saving lives on both sides of the conflict.


Truman later called Oppenheimer that “crybaby scientist” and told Dean Acheson, his Secretary of State, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again.”


Truman left office with the lowest approval rating of any President in our history but has become a public favorite whose words and wisdom have been pilfered by leaders of both parties. In a relatively short space of time, Truman made some of the most momentous decisions of the modern era. The atomic bomb, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the United Nations, the war in Korea, were all choices made on his watch.


So, when we discover, we then must choose. They go hand in hand.


May God always give us the guidance to make the right choice.

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