Developing Wisdom for the Digital Age

Complexity requires wisdom. Since the beginning, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. Each societal, cultural, or technological change requires wisdom for how to navigate the new, more complex world.

We used to have decades, or even centuries, to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply. But that world no longer exists.

The pace of wisdom and technology

Remarking on this in the preface to his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch writes, “…the pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it.” I think his point is that technological change is coming much faster than we’re able to develop wisdom about how to react to it. And he’s right.

As I write this, it’s 2017 and both Google and Apple have already held their annual developer’s conferences. The central themes of both were artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The iPhone was introduced a mere ten years ago in 2007 (along with Facebook and Twitter), kicking off the smartphone explosion which revolutionized the way humans interact with the world. But we’ve had little time to reflect on all that’s changed.

Think of how this has worked with something like social media. It used to feel like every 6 months a new platform would come out you’d have to be on. While you were still trying to learn Facebook all your friends were getting on Twitter. While you were learning Twitter you heard about this photo sharing app called Instagram everyone was loving. Then it was Snapchat. Next it’ll be some VR or AR platform. Each of these requires unique wisdom and discernment to use, but we’ve had next to no time to develop that wisdom – much less pass it along to the next generation.

That’s not to say there’s no wisdom for navigating these spheres, but there is significantly less wisdom for using Twitter than, say, driving a car. Both require some amount of skill and competency, and both can be quite dangerous, though in different ways.

Becoming desensitized to the promises of technology

Perhaps more dangerous than the speed of technological change is that we’ve become used to the pace and no longer wait to evaluate whether or not a new development actually delivered on its promises. Crouch writes, “We are stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.” Facebook ballooned to the social behemoth it is today before we could think through the ramifications of consolidating so much of the world’s attention on one company’s view of what’s most important.

Now, maybe more than ever, the church needs people who will think deeply about the world around it. That world is changing faster than ever before, and if we’re not careful it’ll be like finding ourselves in a hole of our own digging. We’ll climb out, eventually. But it would have been much easier to stop digging the hole so deep to begin with.

A call for wisdom (and courage)

So this is a call for wisdom, which is really a call for courage. The world has changed quicker than anyone expected. But we can’t continue to idly accept the latest Silicon Valley offering without thinking deeply about it. We need the courage to be different, to ask tough questions, to be late adopters, or even to opt out entirely of certain forms of technology. But we can’t get there unless we cultivate technological wisdom rooted in theology.

I’ll be sharing more on this subject here in the days ahead, including more writing on the subject and sharing more resources that are helpful in developing a deeper understanding of the digital tech landscape.

VR and AI are About to be in Your Living Room

You’re living the last technological revolution right now. In fact, you’re probably reading this on it — your smartphone. It wasn’t that long ago that it didn’t exist. And it really wasn’t that long ago when only business people had them for work (remember Crackberries?). Before that it was the PC.

Most of us knew these things existed and maybe we wanted one, but it seemed like they were just out of reach. Until they weren’t. Then we all got one.

Well, we’re on the precipice of another one of those technological moments, but this time it’ll be with VR (virtual reality) and AI (artificial reality). Most people I talk to seem to have no idea about this, so let me see if I can paint the picture of how close we are to having both of these in our living rooms (or strapped to our faces), and then talk a little bit about why it’s important to know.

How close we are to VR

“Imagine 10 years ago trying to envision the way we use cellphones today. It’s impossible. That’s the promise VR has today.”

That’s Matthew Schnipper writing for The Verge, probably the biggest tech and gadget site online these days. That’s a huge claim when you think about the complete revolution of the iPhone and subsequent smartphones back in 2007. Our world has fundamentally shifted since then. Now, information is immediate. Boredom is outdated. And connection is endless.

And the biggest companies in the world know how close we are to VR entering into the mainstream. Facebook is betting $2 billion dollars on its Oculus Rift. Google just launched its Daydream View headset along with its new Pixel phones. Then there’s the HTC Vive, Playstation VR for the upcoming Playstation 4, Microsoft Hololens, and on it goes. Apple, noticeably absent from the above list, is surely going to release a VR headset or something similar in the near future. The iPhone 7’s powerful camera is poised to take VR into most of our pockets.

With names like that pushing this technology as hard and fast as they are, it’s only a matter of time before we all have one laying around in our tech drawers. It’s still a bit of an open playing field when it comes to exactly which kinds of devices will usher in the VR era, but at this point the shift is imminent.

C.T. Casberg wrote a great piece for Christianity Today recently on this, saying,

“VR is set to go from a niche tech-curiosity to a living room staple. Despite some initial hiccups, some Wall Street analysts project that by 2020 VR will reach between $20 billion and $40 billion in sales. One VR developer I spoke with noted that some projections have the virtual reality industry becoming larger than the current film, music, and videogame industries combined. While that falls on the more optimistic side of predictions, it speaks to the tremendous expectations of just how far VR is poised to go.

And that’s just VR. AI is another revolution happening right alongside it.

How close we are to AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is nothing new. What is new is how good it is. And make no mistake, it is good. I know, Siri almost never understands you, but Apple is behind in this area. Google and Amazon currently lead the way. Instead of getting bogged down here, let’s zoom out a little bit and see the bigger picture of what’s going on.

AI is in your smartphone and most of its apps. AI tells you when to leave for your meeting based on the traffic. It tells you the weather for tomorrow. It runs Google Translate.

AI is what makes Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, and other devices like them work. I received an Echo for Christmas, and the thing is downright magical. It’s one of the few devices that makes you feel like you’re living in the future. Now when there’s a house full of kids and every toy in the house is out, I can simply say, “Alexa, play ‘The Clean Up Song’!” and little hands and feet spring to action.

But it isn’t simply my looking up a song to play that’s being automated by AI. It goes much deeper than that. In a recent article for Backchannel Sandra Upson wrote,

“To visit the front lines of the great AI takeover is to observe machine learning systems routinely drubbing humans in narrow, circumscribed domains. This year, many of the most visible contestants in AI’s face-off with humanity have emerged from Google. In March, the world’s top Go player weathered a humbling defeat against DeepMind’s AlphaGo. Researchers at DeepMind also produced a system that can lip-read videos with an accuracy that leaves humans in the dust. A few weeks ago, Google computer scientists working with medical researchers reported an algorithm that can detect diabetic retinopathy in images of the eye as well as an ophthalmologist can. It’s an early step toward a goal many companies are now chasing: to assist doctors by automating the analysis of medical scans.

Also this fall, Microsoft unveiled a system that can transcribe human speech with greater accuracy than professional stenographers. Speech recognition is the basis of systems like Cortana, Alexa, and Siri, and matching human performance in this task has been a goal for decades. For Microsoft chief speech scientist XD Huang, ‘It’s personally almost like a dream come true after 30 years.'”

To give you a sense of the power of what’s going on here, you have to understand that the reason for AI’s recent success is something called deep learning (which is what’s going on with Google’s Deep Mind project, if you’ve heard of that). Deep learning, as Upson writes, “is the reason we’re on the brink of a more general intelligence.” Here’s what that looked like in the case of Google’s overhaul of its Translation service, as Upson reports:

This neural net had taught itself a rudimentary new skill using indirect information. It had hardly studied Portuguese-to-Spanish translation, and yet here it was, acing the job. Somewhere in the system’s guts, the authors seemed to see signs of a shared essence of words, a gist of meaning.

Whereas AI used to require massive amounts of human input on the front end, this is now changing to where that processing of raw information and learning is able to be done by computers.

While AI drives our devices, it’s also close to driving some of our workforce. And if you think that’s alarmist, read through the White House report that starts off like this,

“It is to be expected that machines will continue to reach and exceed human performance on more and more tasks.”

Translation: the White House expects lots of people to lose their jobs soon because their tasks will be able to be completed by AI.

Why we should care

As Casberg’s article mentioned above reasons, we should first care because of ubiquity. VR and AI are simply going to be a part of the fabric of our world, so to remain in the dark is simply not helpful. As Casberg went on to say,

“We are shaped by more than our life experiences. Our media, whether television, film, or literature, also shapes us, and under the right circumstances, can help us become more Christlike. VR is now poised to join the ranks of traditional forms of media, and we must be aware of its potential.”

As parents, citizens, and particularly Christ-followers, we should have a sense of what these digital tools are and know how they affect and change the world around us. What most interests me as we approach this new world is that last part — how Christ-followers come to terms with VR and AI.

screenshot-2017-01-03-20They both present interesting challenges and opportunities. For instance, VR headsets will at the very same time make it possible for you to experience simulated sex, or be immersed in a poverty-stricken country where you can empathize with the people living there. AI will automate some historically difficult tasks, and at the same time deprive millions of the only work they know how to do. And churches will begin to use VR as a way to experience their services as a fully immersive replacement to internet campuses (Life.Church has already released this in beta).

Perhaps more than anything, Christians must wrestle with what it means to have an immersive experience available in each person’s home when their Holy Book calls them to meet together in homes, not forsake meeting with one another, and expresses something unique about a Savior that chose to be incarnated as a human in the flesh. Perhaps we’ll wrestle with some of that here.

But for now, prepare yourself for the road ahead. It will surely be an interesting one.