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The Promise of Reincarnation in the Grundtvig AI

The number of scholars engaging in AI and religious studies professionally can be counted on your fingers. Religious studies itself, since its post-modern turn, has become skeptical of scientific approaches, and even in the modern day, some religious studies departments are actively shunning and closing their doors to science. Given my pessimism, to hear this interview with Prof. Katrine Frøkjaer Baunvig was refreshing and thoroughly exciting to say the least. So, in my response, you might feel that behind my support for Prof. Frøkjaer Baunvig is an obviously deep frustration with a lack of movement in religious studies, and you would be correct. Religious studies is a subject for which I have great respect and feel is of utmost importance today, but I feel that it is relegating itself to the sidelines when it should be leading the charge. What I found so refreshing was that it appears that Prof. Frøkjaer Baunvig is helping to lead the charge.

The interview starts out exactly where I believe any study of the digital humanities should: with a strong foundation in the historical and philosophical context and knowledge within the humanities that they focus on. Indeed, she focuses on her work with “Danish Nation Builder and church Father N.F.S. Grundtvig”. Now, I must admit, I have only heard of Grundtvig in passing, but the idea of using data science (the “overlord” of digital humanities) and AI to study Grundtvig’s works thoroughly excited me.

As someone who works daily at the intersection of the humanities, social sciences, and AI (and has published on how computational approaches to the humanities can go wrong because of miscommunication between the fields), I’m always skeptical when someone says “we’re using AI to….” because even in the corporate world studies have shown that up to 40% of European AI companies aren’t actually using AI. However, the work discussed by Frøkjaer Baunvig is a great example of how we can use advanced AI techniques to study topics relevant to the humanities.

For example, Frøkjaer Baunvig discusses ongoing work to create an AI system to “reincarnate” (my word, not hers) Grundtvig using an AI approach blending recurrent neural networks and a system for language understanding called ELMo (yes, its related to Google’s BERT which is compatible with the newest AI and “deep learning” systems at Google, and is also related to ERNIE—the humor of hackers knows no bounds). She’s using ELMo to study how different words are related to one another in the context of Grundtvig’s writings using “word embeddings” (the links above give introductions that explain more if you’re interested—and even a tutorial). Her study has already provided interesting results, presented at EASR this year (and discussed in the interview) and there is a wild plan for the future of the system:

A robotic re-incarnation of Grundtvig himself.

“A robotic re-incarnation you say? Isn’t that a bit hyperbolic?”

Obviously to some extent it is. However, at the same time it is not false either.

The type of AI that they want to use is called recurrent neural networks. This type of AI has been used in what are called “chatbots” for years. Chatbots are basically AI systems that can talk to you. Many of us who us smartphones have chatbots such as Google’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa in our pockets. While the philosophical depth of these systems is hilariously shallow, it is largely because of the training data used in these systems and the goals of chatbots (which are typically for customer engagement). So, it is worth considering the use of a philosophically minded chatbot and what it could do for us as scholars, and for the general public who would have a new medium for interacting with Grundtvig’s work.

And then, there is the next step: putting that AI into a robotic system.

Many might be skeptical that this is possible. But, in recent years, there has been great success in putting AI chatbots into robotic systems. The most famous was created by Hanson Robotics, the makers of the now-famous Sophia (who was awarded citizenship in Saudi Arabia, making her the first robotic world citizen, and raising questions as to if the robot has more rights than other women in the country). In addition to Sophia, David Hanson (the founder of Hanson Robotics) has also created robotic versions of living people (in Bina48) as well as deceased writers (in Phillip K. Dick Android), both of which used material from the real lives and minds of the people to create their knowledge base (although these systems—to the best of my knowledge—use a system called OpenCog as their software base, not the recurrent neural networks proposed in the research with Grundtvig).

The systems that currently exist have an interesting philosophical bent that appears to reflect that of their designers and the people they’re designed to mimic. You can see this for example in a discussion between Bina Rothblatt (the wife of the polymath and founder of SiriusXM, Martine Rothblatt) and her robotic alter, Bina 48.

However, their understanding of religion and philosophy is extremely limited. In recent interactions, Sophia met a Christian and was asked about religion and her faith. The answers, as you can see, are very limited at best and appear to be the result of web scraping to find answers from crowdsourced online material.

But how will the prospective Grundtvig stand up? Well, if I may be critical, only time will tell. However, from what I see, Frøkjaer Baunvig’s team is going in the right direction to make quite a splash. Their integration of other relevant sources outside of Grundtvig’s own is a good choice in my opinion. They should also consider more modern materials in order to make sure that its knowledge base can understand the relevant questions it is likely to be presented with. While I also have technical critiques about how they could best create the robotic system they aim for, I think the more pressing issue is one of resources. There are not enough people with backgrounds in both religious studies and AI to support the promise of this kind of research. While I think this line of research could revolutionize our understanding of religion within the field, as well as help us promote religious studies at large, there need to be more people in the field looking into this who have permanent positions and the required resources to take on these big and interesting challenges. One additional suggestion that I have, and would like to make in response to the interview publicly, is for the Danish Government who funded the project initially: write another check. The possible gains that could be achieved through this project are probably more than we realize today, and not just for religious studies or philosophy, but for AI as well, and our understanding of how we—as humans—interact with AI and robotic systems.

This all leads me to one general conclusion: the Grundtvig AI project isn’t just a re-awakening of our past, it’s also a glimpse into our future generally. More specifically, it could also be a re-awakening for religious studies, which, having existed since the late 1800s, was overtaken in the global literature by artificial intelligence within 4 years of its creation.

Within the public, the interest in religious studies and artificial intelligence are orders of magnitude apart. As seen through google trends, in the past 15 years, the field of “religious studies” has never once come close to overcoming the topic of “artificial intelligence”.

Today, the rise in digital humanities has created many opportunities for largely stagnant fields, while for others who don’t understand its goals, aims, and achievements, it represents a waste of money, likely because of the intense competition for funding that exists and the lack of innovation in traditional humanities worth warranting money in 2019. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps digital humanities is a waste of time… Perhaps digital skeptics just see deeper than the rest of us and are rightfully worried about being enslaved in the human zoo of our potential robotic overlords?

When Archive Meets A.I. – Computational Humanities Research on a Danish Secular Saint

The allure of speaking on behalf of a dead personality or scholar is a constant impulse among their respective followers. Every now and then questions like “what would x think about the world we live in?” or “what did x exactly meant with this argument?” are thrown in debate rooms, the political arena, or specialized conferences on the relevance of a certain scholar. And while the answers to these questions continue to fill up edited volumes, social media feeds, or inspirational quotes for the day, the accuracy of these statements remain to be proven by the very persons who uttered them in the first place.

Fortunately, we are growing closer to a solution to this conundrum with the increasing development of artificial intelligence (a.i.). In this week’s podcast, Katrine Frøkjaer Baunvig discusses preliminary results from the research project “Waking the Dead”. This project aims to build an a.i. bot of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), a Danish “secular saint” considered to be the father of modern Denmark, who contributed immensely into generating a national consciousness through his writings, both in a political and religious way.

Professor Baunvig explains how the research team went through by using the digitized works of Grundtvig with machine learning, into developing and algorithm and training it with the whole work corpus. Then they used word embedding to build semantic networks -a sort of conceptual blueprint for outlining Grundtvig’s worldview- and contextualized them using digitized newspapers of the time when he was alive. The expected result is to place the a.i. Grundtvig bot inside a look-alike robot that can interact with people in public settings such as the Danish National Museum by September 2022, the year of his 150th deathday.

The anthropological, sociological and philosophical reflections these future interactions with the public will be of much interest once we find out what people have to say about the accuracy of thought of this “resurrected” Danish thinker, but also, what this version of “Grundtvig” has to say about the current state of affairs of Danish society, and the world overall. Regardless of the result, one thing is for sure, both sides will honor Grundtvig’s idea of the “living word”: using the spoken act of communication as the best means to convey each other’s ideas.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


When Archive Meets A.I.: Computational Humanities Research on a Danish Secular Saint

Podcast with Katrine Frøkjær Baunvig (7 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/when-archive-meets-a-i-computational-humanities-research-on-a-danish-secular-saint/

Sidney Castillo (SC): So, we are here at the EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia. And we are just moving around between different conferences! Today is the third day. We are tired, but very happy. And I’m also happy to have Katrine Baunvig here at the Religious Studies Project. Welcome, Katrine!

Katrine Baunvig (KB): Thank you so much for having me.

SC: Thanks, as well, for coming with us. And if you will be so kind as to introduce yourself, so we know a little bit about what you do?

KB: Yes, of course. I am an Associate Professor at Aarhus University, where I am the director for the Grundtvig Study Centre. Yeah. And my background is that I’m an historian of religions. I did a PhD thesis on this guy, this Danish guy, Grundtvig, and his thoughts on social cohesion. And I compared these thoughts with the ones found in the collected writings of Emile Durkheim.

SC: Excellent. So it’s quite a broad work. Perfect. So let’s just dive right into the questions. First, I think, to give a broader perspective of how digital humanities works, I will ask: how can the digital humanities aid in the study of religion?

KB: Well, that’s a really broad question!

SC: Sorry about that!

KB: No, no! They are usually great to think with. So what can they aid? They can aid with a multitude of methods handling already known data sets, and they can produce new kinds of data. That would be my take. Yeah. Actually I kind of prefer to . . . I don’t use the term “digital humanities” so much, as I prefer to speak of “computational humanities”. Because, in a certain sense, digital humanities already have gone into . . . . Well it’s like that with all fields of scholarship in their formative states, that they struggle to find the correct terms and produce new ones all the time. So for me, at least, digital humanities can signal anything from philosophical reflections, to what the consequences are for us, as a species, that we now have to deal with The Digital – sort-of with capital letters. So, for me, what I do and what we do at the Grundtvig Study Centre, is that we have digitalised the entire writings of Grundtvig – and I hope to get a chance to expand on who he was and why it is relevant to digitise his work – but we have now a digitised corpus of his writings. We scanned . . . OCR scanned and made HTML markup, so it’s in a really good quality. And therefore we can do different kinds of computational investigations into this corpus. And that is what we do.

SC: Excellent. So I stand corrected: computational humanities. The more precise, the better! So speaking about Grundtvig, who was Niclolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, and why do you think the preservation of his works is important for Danish society?

KF: Yeah. Well, Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig – a really long and hard to pronounce name – he was and is, in the Danish self-understanding, on the one hand a nation builder or a founding father perhaps, and on the other hand a church father of a sort. He was born in 1783 and died in 1872. And that was a really, really important period of time in the Danish national history. This was the period where the nation went from . . . well, if you accept the idea of a long Middle Age period, you could say that he died on the eve of the Middle Ages. He died during, or just before, the feudal structures of Denmark collapsed. Well he was born, sorry, he was born just before these structures collapsed and then he died just when Denmark entered into Modernity. That is the general narrative on Grundtvig and that is the understanding of the nineteenth century in Denmark. And then he was active, within all of the domains, in change in Denmark. So he was active as a pastor: he was a priest and a kind of theologian. And then he was very much influenced by the Romantic Movement, and sort-of rebooted, or went along with, the idea that the Old Norse mythology had to be revived within the Danish population. One of the ideas of his was that you had to make a sort-of social content, preparing people for feeling connected with the overall idea of “the people”. Because we now had this new governmental structure, democracy, and his idea was that you had to install responsibility and feelings of love in the population. So it was a nationalist logic. You have to get the people to really feel responsible for the broad spectrum of Denmark if we are to make this democracy work. So, in that sense, he was politically engaged and mythologically engaged. And he wrote quite a deal, and reflected quite a deal on pedagogical stuff, didactic stuff: how to get people to know of their cultural heritage, and how to make them want to engage with it and feel connected to it. So he was also an architect behind a new kind of educational form, or in a sense that is what we now say. Many other agents and men, mainly, were really influential in that movement. But now, today, his name is also connected with this loose and kind of lax form of education that you call folk high schools. That’s a phenomenon still living and alive in Denmark, and other places around the world. So, in that sense, Grundtvig is seen as a very important person during this period when the modern Denmark was created. And you can see that amongst politicians in Denmark today. So when they want to signal that they know stuff about Danish history, and at the same time sort-of signal that they’re liberal, they can quote Grundtvig. And they tend to do so in the public media, oftentimes. And furthermore Grundtvig is a central name within the manifestos of every political party within Danish parliament, except one. So, in that sense, he is seen as a founding father for almost every politician . . . every part of the political spectrum in Denmark. So, in that sense, a non-controversial figure that everybody seems to agree is “our guy”! One more example of this is perhaps the centre where I’m the director – the Grundtvig Study Centre. We are governmentally funded and the main task is to digitise his entire works. And that is a thing that politicians can agree upon as a worthy task, and using money for this task. And it is actually quite expensive. So, in that sense, money talks here! And says that Grundtvig is important for Denmark. He’s such an important figure that we want to spend money on digitising this work.

SC: Definitely, yes. And I can imagine that he’s also present in the mind of the people in everyday life, as a cultural reference?

KB: He’s a cultural reference. There are certain spheres where Grundtvig is more relevant than others. So we have cultural strands, we have one movement or . . . I struggle to find the correct term. But we call it Grundtvigianism: a movement driven by the ideas of Grundtvig. And what I forgot to mention was that Grundtvig was also a grand author of hymns, a composer of hymns. So, I kid you not, he wrote sixteen hundred hymns! And two hundred and fifty of them now constitute one third of the Danish hymnbook in the Danish folk church . . . the Danish church. So people know about, or know of him. I’m not quite sure whether, for the broad population, he’s important in everyday life, as such. But when you discuss cultural heritage, and democracy, and liberal stances, and tolerance within the church and stuff like that, Grundtvig is sort-of seen as a gravitational point, or something along those lines, yes.

SC: Excellent. Now, delving into your research, I would like to ask you, what was the procedure to developing the Grundtvig AI? Because there is one!

KB: Yes! Because there is one, or we’re building one! So the idea . . . this is actually a bit of fun!

SC: (Laughs).

KB: We are just teasing around with what to do with all this material! And, as a sort of branding strategy, we decided that we would resurrect Grundtvig as an artificial intelligence on the day of his 150th death day, or what have you, in September 2022. So we have quite some time. There is still time. So first of all we are almost done with the construction of a chatbot. It’s based on the idea of recurrent neural network systems. So we built a chatbot and the idea was . . . I can develop that or expand that, but the overall idea was to take this chatbot and then put it into an actual robot. So that it’s a physical robot who looks like Grundtvig – he was really spooky and people will recognise him as this gloomy, old, bearded man in black! And we want to do an actual physical robot that looks like Grundtvig, so that people can interact with him. And perhaps he can, I don’t know, give a sermon, give a speech in parliament? Yeah. So we’re really excited about this project. But in a certain sense we’re just teasing around with the possibilities of this digital data. But I’m really looking forward to seeing the reactions to this resurrection, and how the different cultural reactions would be when it is possible to engage with Grundtvig as an artificial intelligence. And perhaps I should now expand a bit on how we sort-of built it? So what we do is . . . . Let me just sort-of try not to get into all the acronyms! So the basic is that we have used machine learning. We train an algorithm on . . . first of all we take the Grundtvig corpus and train it on that. So the aim is to have users interacting with Grundtvig or the Grundtvig intelligence or what have we. And the corpus consists of what amounts to thirty-seven thousand standard pages. If you had to read through them it is in fact possible, but people turn out weird when they do so. So . . .

SC: (Laughs).

KB: So I really prefer not to . . . I like to pick specific bits, and then read through them. But no, just kidding. And that is only his published writings that we use. But we take that as a beginning point. But it is in fact, in this context, a really small data set. So we have to train the algorithm on relevant, other relevant stuff. So we are in fact very lucky that the Danish Royal Library has digitised every Danish newspaper published ever, since the late . . . I think it is 1660 or so. Yeah. So we can take the relevant nineteenth century material and the idea is that you sort-of furnish the intelligence with the period that it lived in, so to speak. And then we also have available relevant novels of the age, so we train it on that. And the idea is to find contextually relevant material, sort-of adding to the system.

SC: Right.

KB: Yeah. And so, of course, there are many, many problems with this! So if you have to sort-of philosophically discuss “would this be a representative of who Grundtvig really was?” – well, no! Of course it wouldn’t! It is based on not what he wrote, but what he published. And in fact Grundtvig himself was very eager to point out that there is a long way from the way you communicate with your mouth and with your hands. So he had this catch phrase, or he was really keen on the idea of the so-called “living word”. That was his term. And that was the oral communication, as the correct way, or the easiest way, to transport ideas and feelings, and stuff like that. So this idea of us taking his writings as sort-of a proxy for who he was, goes against what he would have himself . . .!

SC: (Laughs). He wouldn’t agree!

KB: He would not have agreed. So the hope is, because we also have outreach obligations at our centre, the hope is that people will find it interesting, and a fun thing to discuss, and then I can tell them a bit more qualified information about Grundtvig during that process. When that is said, I think it will be interesting to see how one can interact with this thing. And what will people do with it? What will they think of it? That is a sort-of anthropological observational study waiting, a few years ahead!

SC: Definitely! And going back to how you proceed to develop the Grundtvig AI and your presentation at the EASR 2019: you work pretty much on this work that’s coming up all the time, “word embedding”, and how this works throughout his writings, and how this also represents his own thoughts?

KB: Yeah.

SC: Could you share some of your findings with us?

KB: Yeah. For sure. What I presented here yesterday was an investigation that used some of the basic methods we used to construct . . . or at least the same material we used to construct the chatbot. But here we used it to embed, or deeply contextualise in a semantic network, specific key words that I, as a Grundtvig scholar, was interested in seeing the network between. And this study was, for me, interesting because I’m an historian of religions, and I’m interested in cosmologies. So I would like to see what is, in fact . . . how to tease out the worldview of Grundtvig. Can you do that with these texts? Obviously I have read a lot of them. Almost all . . . Ok, so I haven’t read all of them because you turn out, as I said, really weird when you do so. But I have read quite a lot of them. So I had an idea of what I would find. But as it turned out, it was actually really . . . . Ok, so the interesting thing is that we have this modernist figure on the one hand – that is what we think of him as in Denmark: the father of Danish modernity, as it were. And I know, because I’ve read a lot of his works, that he held a sort-of geocentric medieval worldview. Yeah. He’s really explicit on the fact that he thinks of the world, or the earth, as the centre of the universe. And uses ideas of earthly paradises, and earthly skies, and a heavenly sky with God and angels, and stuff like that. And hell – a literal idea of hell. And that was not typical in the nineteenth century for mainstream Christian thinking . . . or at least not within educated elites. And he, as a theologian, Grundtvig was one of those. And I would like to see if I could sort-of find that, visualise this fact. So what we did was to see how the key words heaven, earth and hell, how they related to each other. And we did so by using a specific approach called ELMo. And the idea is that you take, for each key word, ten associations. The ten nearest associations at sentence level. So you go through the total corpus and see . . . if I’m interested in heaven in which way and – how to say this? Which other words does this significantly cling to, through the corpus?

SC: That you will find tied in with this, in the corpus?

KB: Yes exactly. What is the semantic context of this word? So we call that a cap. Then we had three caps, or three associations for each association, to sort-of see, how do these words that you find clinging to heaven, how does this integrate into their semantic network? And I did that for three key words and then collapsed the networks and see how they integrate, to then have a semantic network of these different spheres. And the interesting thing from that is that you can take this analysis and then, from that, gather or see there arising semantic clusters within the network. And the very interesting finding here was that there is a clearly demarked cluster for sort-of earthly surroundings. Or you have earth in the centre and then you have a semantic cluster of things going from the earthly sphere and the earthly sky and then you have a sort-of earthly paradise – words signalling earthly paradise. And then you have a nether world, kind of thing, connected to death, but on earth. And then you have an entirely different cluster in the network that is ontologically seen further from earth than the first one. That one has to do with heaven and hell. So you can sort-of see that the clusters surround the earth in a way that it would do if you have geocentric worldviews. The earth is sort-of the centre and then you have the other spheres interacting around it. And in order to situate, or to furnish this investigation I found it necessary to take each key word and see how they perform without, not within, the network. So can I sort-of word-embed them for themselves, and see if there is something dragging it in a specific direction? And what I found was that one of the interesting findings here was that earth, in Grundtvig’s writings, is a thing preserved for, or a place thought of in biblical terms, in archaic style, biblical style or in Old Norse style. So you think of the earth as a tent: this Semitic idea embedded in the Bible, in the Old Testament, of the world as a tent. Or there is this idea of the world as God’s footrest, also an idea from the Bible. And finally, one example more could be the idea of the world as Ymir the Old Norse god, whose corpse was made into the earth. So it is an extremely non-scientific, non-naturalistic kind of way of speaking or writing about life on earth. And from there we could sort-of feel secure or have the idea that Grundtvig, in that sense, could be said to be a representative of a medievalist. . . . Medievalism as such, as a cultural stream or flow within the nineteenth century, was rather prominent. And in this way, Grundtvig’s worldview could be seen within that context. Yes.

SC: And it’s quite good way of plotting his thought to implement the AI, as well – it crossed my mind. My last question is one thing that you addressed as a consequence of the previous question: what does the Grundtvig AI imply for the creation of Grundtvig’s legacy in the current day imaginary? I think that’s a very interesting question because, as you said, when people are going to interact with the AI, something is going to happen!

KB: Yes. I’m really not sure! (Laughs). I’m really not sure what is going to happen. I think that there will be some, you know, Grundtvig enthusiasts – and these are mainly old people – they will be quite angered or, yes . . . . At least, I hope so! I hope that it will be something that you could have the opportunity to have a debate in the public media about. But I think that, for others, it would be just a fun fact that now you can try to engage with this collection of writings in another way. But I’m interested in just observing the idea of agency – because it’s a robot looking like Grundtvig – what that does to the whole thing. I’m really not sure. I’m really not sure. As it happens we’re really happy that the Danish National Museum has agreed to host him, as it were. So when the robot is to be . . . or when Grundtvig is to be artificially revived, he will have a home at the Danish National Museum and you can visit him in his office. And you can go and ask him questions: “What’s up with the living word?” and the ideas of the folk high school. And then we hope that he will perform, and answer in ways that are sort-of sensible. Because that is, of course, what is almost . . . that will be very interesting for us to see how well we can make him respond. I think we’re in luck that he was from the nineteenth century, and in order to get some authenticity we have to make him a bit weird and archaic. But it is also a fact that almost everyone who knows of Grundtvig will know that he was, himself, really weird, and polemic, and colourful, and – in a certain sense – culturally, a bit off-beat. That was how he was conceived within his time. And so, if the robot doesn’t perform closely to human interaction skills we can tell the story about the weird guy Grundtvig!

SC: He was like that! (Laughs).

KB: He was like that! He was awkward, and off-beat, and stuff like that, yeah. But so I would like to have a better answer to your good question. But I am just not sure!

SC: Sure. I think we’ll have to see in 2022?

KB: Yes. I hereby invite you to come and see what happens!

SC: Thank you so much Katrine – and not only what people think about the Grundtvig AI, but also what the Grundtvig AI will think about the current state of society!

KB: Precisely!

SC: I think that will be also interesting anthropological, philosophical . . .

KB: Well, yes. Now you’ve mentioned it yourself, that is one thing that many politicians, and scholars, or people engaging in the public debates of Denmark tend to do. Only last week I heard a scholar from the University of Southern Denmark proclaiming that if Grundtvig was alive today, he would have voted for Trump!

SC: Oh, Wow!

KB: Yeah. (Laughs). So those types of proclamations or suggestions can now be tested! (Laughs). “Would you . . .?”

SC: We’ll have to do another podcast in 2022.

KB: Yeah. And we will ask Grundtvig. You can interview him!

SC: We will interview him next time! (Laughs). That would be bizarre and fun at the same time!

KB: (Laughs).

SC: Well Katrine it’s very nice to have you here and we hope to see you again in the future.

KB: I hope to get the opportunity to introduce you to the Grundtvig robot. Thank you so much for having me.

SC: Thank you, as well, for being part of the RSP.

 

 

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Down the Rabbit Hole of Artificial Intelligence

The recent podcast on religion and artificial intelligence (AI) was a lively discussion on a host of issues revolving around the issue of AI. One might be excused for feeling a bit exhausted by the end of it, as the panel whips from one topic to the next in a furious attempt to unpack the many issues that surround this newest phenomenon. Artificial Intelligence, robots, chatbots, Superintelligence and transhumanism all make the rounds as the panelists try to start thinking together about the ways these topics relate to religion. In this short response, I’m going to try to bring some method to the madness and give the uninitiated some help in understanding what isgoing on in these various discussions and perhaps share some of my own insight.

Let me begin by diverting for a moment into an experience I had the other day. FedEx was supposed to deliver a package to me. But the company had told me they would contact me first about a delivery time. They had not. So I got on FedEx’s website and had this interaction:

( 1m 29s ) Clarissa A: Thank you, Randy. Let me pull out the shipping details with the information provided. Please allow me to review the status of the shipment, in that way I’ll be able to provide you an accurate information. Would that be fine?
( 1m 41s ) Randy: yes, go ahead.
( 2m 10s ) Clarissa A: Thank you for waiting, Randy. I appreciate your patience. Getting you the proper assistance is important to us. The department that can best handle your concern is our
FREIGHT SERVICES. Please call 1-866-393-4585. I apologize for you have been inadvertently routed to our FedEx chat support for US Express and Ground domestic packages.
( 2m 16s ) Clarissa A: I am sorry if I was not able to meet your expectations. It would really ease my heart to process your request myself. It is with sincere regret that I have to forward it to the proper channel. Please accept my apology for my shortcomings.
( 2m 27s ) Clarissa A: Randy, is there anything else I can assist you with today?
( 2m 46s ) Randy: No, thanks for your help.
( 3m 43s ) Clarissa A: You are most welcome, Randy. Apologies for the inconvenience! I am looking forward for this issue to be resolved after the transfer. Thank you for chatting with FedEx.

Now a piece of information and a question. FedEx uses chatbots (artificial intelligence that is designed to interact with users like a person) on its website. Question: Was Clarissa A. a chat bot or a real person? If you’re like me, you’re not sure, but you’re suspicious. There’s something not quite right about the interaction. It’s too emotive at one level. The phrases “really ease my heart” and “sincere regret” and “apology for my shortcomings” as well as the perky “I am looking forward for this issue to be resolved…” do not seem quite right. They are too self-effacing to imagine a human saying. I posted this interaction on Facebook and asked my friends (mostly fellow academics) to vote. They were unanimous that it was probably a chat bot. But many also conceded that it might be a person with a strict script, particularly a non-english native speaker (the last sentence is really not quite grammatically copacetic – would a computer make that mistake?).

Let’s assume, however, for the sake of argument, that Clarissa A. was a chatbot. The things that make us uncomfortable about the interaction is what is sometimes referred to as “the uncanny valley.” Most often this applies to robots who are supposed to look human, but can’t quite pull it off. But it seems appropriate to this interaction as well. You reach the uncanny valley when you get close to “almost human” in looks or interactions.

Roomba doesn’t have this problem, it’s clearly a robot, and doesn’t intend to look like a person. The new robot Kuri that just premiered at CES, looks like one of the Japanese figures from Fantasmic, it is far from the Uncanny valley. But because I can neither hear nor see Clarissa, just based on her on-line interactions, she enters the uncanny valley. I am put in the uncomfortable position of not knowing whether I am dealing with a human being or piece of software that is doing an almost, but not quite, convincing human imitation.

What Clarissa A. is (if she’s a chatbot) is what would be called a “Narrow A.I.” This is to be distinguished from a “General A.I.”. A narrow A.I. is an A.I. that is really designed to solve a particular problem. In Clarissa A’s case, it’s helping me get my package. If I had varied from that and asked her opinion of the Steelers or Trump, it might have become immediately apparent whether I was dealing with an A.I. Clarissa A. is very good at figuring out where my package is, and when it’s going to get to me (and very sorry when she fails) but that’s the limit of the “intelligence” in her artificial intelligence. In terms of religion, Clarissa A. is not much of an issue. And while a quarter of a million people may have proposed to Amazon’s Alexa, like Clarissa A. no one is going to convert her to a religion, no one believes she has a soul, no one believes she’s a person. I asked both Alexa and Google Home what their religion was and they both declined to answer (Google Home told me, “I guess I wasn’t programmed to be religious”). Narrow A.I.’s undoubtedly will be increasingly common. Facebook has just introduce a developers toolkit, to create narrow A.I.’s that will do things like help you book a plane, or send
your mother flowers. So we should expect to see more of them and their interactions will undoubtedly get better, more human, over time.

A general A.I. is a whole other story. An Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) would be a machine which could interact with you on a host of different topics. It would in many ways be indistinguishable from a human intelligence. What we are talking about is machine intelligence.
A machine that could make decisions, plans, and choices. A machine that could improve itself and learn. This is the holy grail of artificial intelligence. This is also the stuff of science fiction movies most recently like Ex Machina and Her.

Here is where we often hear talk about the “turing test.” Alan Turing thought a machine might be described as intelligent if in an interaction with it, a normal person would not be able to distinguish between it and an actual person. In the podcast, Beth Singler is quite skeptical of the Turing test, and rightfully so. One might argue that Clarissa A. passes the Turing Test. There is real doubt whether she is a human or not. But as Singler points out, that’s only because we have a messy idea of intelligence. We don’t actually know what human intelligence is so we don’t really know when a machine might have it, or surpass it.

On the other hand what if we had an electronic entity who we had no doubt was intelligent and could actually modify itself, improving itself in a system of recursion which might quickly surpass human intelligence and become superintelligent. This is what is sometimes envisioned in an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). An Artificial General Intelligence is the stuff of nightmares as well as dreams. The Matrix and Terminator both are manifestations of the fear of AGI. But they are not alone. Philosopher Nick Bostrum’s book Superintelligence lays out the dangers of an AGI. People like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all sounded the alarm that the potential danger from an AGI is not to be dismissed. Bostrum argues that part of the problem is that it’s a very hard thing to gain human level intelligence. But once gained, there is no reason that an AGI would stop at human level intelligence. The smartest person in the world may have an I.Q. of 200. But once an AGI developed the equivalence of an I.Q. of 100, it would be able to self-improve and there would be no natural barrier of an I.Q. of 200 like with Humans. Humans are limited to that because of the size of our skulls. An AGI would have no such limit, and therefore could quickly surpass the smartest humans in a potentially short amount of time. It would then become a superintelligent being, capable of almost anything.

But there are a variety of cultural and religious issues that arise when you have an AGI that do not with narrow A.I.’s or with robots (who generally are also Narrow AI’s). Once you have an AGI (whether in a robot body or not) you have serious considerations. Would an AGI have a soul? Would an AGI believe in God? In Isaac Asimov’s classic tale “Reason,” a robot concludes in a of combination of the cosmological and ontological arguments that its creators are not the humans who claim to have made it, but some greater being and starts its own religion. Would an AGI follow suit? And more interesting might be the question raised by Robert Sawyer’s
“WWW:Wake” series where the internet (called Webmind) comes to consciousness and becomes an AGI. In the book, Webmind, is mistaken for God, and as an experiment, admits to being God to some of its users. Would a religion develop around an AGI? Would an AGI accept itself as a divinity? It might reason it has all the elements of a God, so why would it not accept
the title?

In this way, while it would be a mistake to call Bostrom’s book a book of “theology.” It is without doubt one of the more theologically important books today, because it raises the question, what happens when we create God? Not the illusion of God as Freud argued, but for all practical purposes a being indistinguishable from many definitions of God. And what happens if this is not a God of love? What will the “Will” of this God be? And how can we ensure that it is benevolent? Bostrom’s book is a call to arms, a plea to consider this problem and address it. He takes for granted it is only a matter of time until an AGI is created. The problem is one of how to control it once it arrives and ensure it works for us and not against us. That, he says, is the thorny problem, but it must be solved b efore AGI is created. We must, he in effect argues, learn how to control God. One thinks back to the panic in heaven over Babel, “if…they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (Gen 11:6). Will we hear God say this again? Will we say it ourselves about AGIs?

Thus, we arrive again at religion, but now at a religious conception that is very different than we are used to. It will ultimately require a new way of making sense of the world, but one in which the insights of Religious Studies become more useful, not less. The podcast showed the way
that Religion and these technological advances are intertwined with each other. Religious Studies shirks this responsibility at our peril.

AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Chia Pets, hot sauce, and more.

Podcasts

The Promise of Reincarnation in the Grundtvig AI

The number of scholars engaging in AI and religious studies professionally can be counted on your fingers. Religious studies itself, since its post-modern turn, has become skeptical of scientific approaches, and even in the modern day, some religious studies departments are actively shunning and closing their doors to science. Given my pessimism, to hear this interview with Prof. Katrine Frøkjaer Baunvig was refreshing and thoroughly exciting to say the least. So, in my response, you might feel that behind my support for Prof. Frøkjaer Baunvig is an obviously deep frustration with a lack of movement in religious studies, and you would be correct. Religious studies is a subject for which I have great respect and feel is of utmost importance today, but I feel that it is relegating itself to the sidelines when it should be leading the charge. What I found so refreshing was that it appears that Prof. Frøkjaer Baunvig is helping to lead the charge.

The interview starts out exactly where I believe any study of the digital humanities should: with a strong foundation in the historical and philosophical context and knowledge within the humanities that they focus on. Indeed, she focuses on her work with “Danish Nation Builder and church Father N.F.S. Grundtvig”. Now, I must admit, I have only heard of Grundtvig in passing, but the idea of using data science (the “overlord” of digital humanities) and AI to study Grundtvig’s works thoroughly excited me.

As someone who works daily at the intersection of the humanities, social sciences, and AI (and has published on how computational approaches to the humanities can go wrong because of miscommunication between the fields), I’m always skeptical when someone says “we’re using AI to….” because even in the corporate world studies have shown that up to 40% of European AI companies aren’t actually using AI. However, the work discussed by Frøkjaer Baunvig is a great example of how we can use advanced AI techniques to study topics relevant to the humanities.

For example, Frøkjaer Baunvig discusses ongoing work to create an AI system to “reincarnate” (my word, not hers) Grundtvig using an AI approach blending recurrent neural networks and a system for language understanding called ELMo (yes, its related to Google’s BERT which is compatible with the newest AI and “deep learning” systems at Google, and is also related to ERNIE—the humor of hackers knows no bounds). She’s using ELMo to study how different words are related to one another in the context of Grundtvig’s writings using “word embeddings” (the links above give introductions that explain more if you’re interested—and even a tutorial). Her study has already provided interesting results, presented at EASR this year (and discussed in the interview) and there is a wild plan for the future of the system:

A robotic re-incarnation of Grundtvig himself.

“A robotic re-incarnation you say? Isn’t that a bit hyperbolic?”

Obviously to some extent it is. However, at the same time it is not false either.

The type of AI that they want to use is called recurrent neural networks. This type of AI has been used in what are called “chatbots” for years. Chatbots are basically AI systems that can talk to you. Many of us who us smartphones have chatbots such as Google’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa in our pockets. While the philosophical depth of these systems is hilariously shallow, it is largely because of the training data used in these systems and the goals of chatbots (which are typically for customer engagement). So, it is worth considering the use of a philosophically minded chatbot and what it could do for us as scholars, and for the general public who would have a new medium for interacting with Grundtvig’s work.

And then, there is the next step: putting that AI into a robotic system.

Many might be skeptical that this is possible. But, in recent years, there has been great success in putting AI chatbots into robotic systems. The most famous was created by Hanson Robotics, the makers of the now-famous Sophia (who was awarded citizenship in Saudi Arabia, making her the first robotic world citizen, and raising questions as to if the robot has more rights than other women in the country). In addition to Sophia, David Hanson (the founder of Hanson Robotics) has also created robotic versions of living people (in Bina48) as well as deceased writers (in Phillip K. Dick Android), both of which used material from the real lives and minds of the people to create their knowledge base (although these systems—to the best of my knowledge—use a system called OpenCog as their software base, not the recurrent neural networks proposed in the research with Grundtvig).

The systems that currently exist have an interesting philosophical bent that appears to reflect that of their designers and the people they’re designed to mimic. You can see this for example in a discussion between Bina Rothblatt (the wife of the polymath and founder of SiriusXM, Martine Rothblatt) and her robotic alter, Bina 48.

However, their understanding of religion and philosophy is extremely limited. In recent interactions, Sophia met a Christian and was asked about religion and her faith. The answers, as you can see, are very limited at best and appear to be the result of web scraping to find answers from crowdsourced online material.

But how will the prospective Grundtvig stand up? Well, if I may be critical, only time will tell. However, from what I see, Frøkjaer Baunvig’s team is going in the right direction to make quite a splash. Their integration of other relevant sources outside of Grundtvig’s own is a good choice in my opinion. They should also consider more modern materials in order to make sure that its knowledge base can understand the relevant questions it is likely to be presented with. While I also have technical critiques about how they could best create the robotic system they aim for, I think the more pressing issue is one of resources. There are not enough people with backgrounds in both religious studies and AI to support the promise of this kind of research. While I think this line of research could revolutionize our understanding of religion within the field, as well as help us promote religious studies at large, there need to be more people in the field looking into this who have permanent positions and the required resources to take on these big and interesting challenges. One additional suggestion that I have, and would like to make in response to the interview publicly, is for the Danish Government who funded the project initially: write another check. The possible gains that could be achieved through this project are probably more than we realize today, and not just for religious studies or philosophy, but for AI as well, and our understanding of how we—as humans—interact with AI and robotic systems.

This all leads me to one general conclusion: the Grundtvig AI project isn’t just a re-awakening of our past, it’s also a glimpse into our future generally. More specifically, it could also be a re-awakening for religious studies, which, having existed since the late 1800s, was overtaken in the global literature by artificial intelligence within 4 years of its creation.

Within the public, the interest in religious studies and artificial intelligence are orders of magnitude apart. As seen through google trends, in the past 15 years, the field of “religious studies” has never once come close to overcoming the topic of “artificial intelligence”.

Today, the rise in digital humanities has created many opportunities for largely stagnant fields, while for others who don’t understand its goals, aims, and achievements, it represents a waste of money, likely because of the intense competition for funding that exists and the lack of innovation in traditional humanities worth warranting money in 2019. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps digital humanities is a waste of time… Perhaps digital skeptics just see deeper than the rest of us and are rightfully worried about being enslaved in the human zoo of our potential robotic overlords?

When Archive Meets A.I. – Computational Humanities Research on a Danish Secular Saint

The allure of speaking on behalf of a dead personality or scholar is a constant impulse among their respective followers. Every now and then questions like “what would x think about the world we live in?” or “what did x exactly meant with this argument?” are thrown in debate rooms, the political arena, or specialized conferences on the relevance of a certain scholar. And while the answers to these questions continue to fill up edited volumes, social media feeds, or inspirational quotes for the day, the accuracy of these statements remain to be proven by the very persons who uttered them in the first place.

Fortunately, we are growing closer to a solution to this conundrum with the increasing development of artificial intelligence (a.i.). In this week’s podcast, Katrine Frøkjaer Baunvig discusses preliminary results from the research project “Waking the Dead”. This project aims to build an a.i. bot of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), a Danish “secular saint” considered to be the father of modern Denmark, who contributed immensely into generating a national consciousness through his writings, both in a political and religious way.

Professor Baunvig explains how the research team went through by using the digitized works of Grundtvig with machine learning, into developing and algorithm and training it with the whole work corpus. Then they used word embedding to build semantic networks -a sort of conceptual blueprint for outlining Grundtvig’s worldview- and contextualized them using digitized newspapers of the time when he was alive. The expected result is to place the a.i. Grundtvig bot inside a look-alike robot that can interact with people in public settings such as the Danish National Museum by September 2022, the year of his 150th deathday.

The anthropological, sociological and philosophical reflections these future interactions with the public will be of much interest once we find out what people have to say about the accuracy of thought of this “resurrected” Danish thinker, but also, what this version of “Grundtvig” has to say about the current state of affairs of Danish society, and the world overall. Regardless of the result, one thing is for sure, both sides will honor Grundtvig’s idea of the “living word”: using the spoken act of communication as the best means to convey each other’s ideas.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


When Archive Meets A.I.: Computational Humanities Research on a Danish Secular Saint

Podcast with Katrine Frøkjær Baunvig (7 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/when-archive-meets-a-i-computational-humanities-research-on-a-danish-secular-saint/

Sidney Castillo (SC): So, we are here at the EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia. And we are just moving around between different conferences! Today is the third day. We are tired, but very happy. And I’m also happy to have Katrine Baunvig here at the Religious Studies Project. Welcome, Katrine!

Katrine Baunvig (KB): Thank you so much for having me.

SC: Thanks, as well, for coming with us. And if you will be so kind as to introduce yourself, so we know a little bit about what you do?

KB: Yes, of course. I am an Associate Professor at Aarhus University, where I am the director for the Grundtvig Study Centre. Yeah. And my background is that I’m an historian of religions. I did a PhD thesis on this guy, this Danish guy, Grundtvig, and his thoughts on social cohesion. And I compared these thoughts with the ones found in the collected writings of Emile Durkheim.

SC: Excellent. So it’s quite a broad work. Perfect. So let’s just dive right into the questions. First, I think, to give a broader perspective of how digital humanities works, I will ask: how can the digital humanities aid in the study of religion?

KB: Well, that’s a really broad question!

SC: Sorry about that!

KB: No, no! They are usually great to think with. So what can they aid? They can aid with a multitude of methods handling already known data sets, and they can produce new kinds of data. That would be my take. Yeah. Actually I kind of prefer to . . . I don’t use the term “digital humanities” so much, as I prefer to speak of “computational humanities”. Because, in a certain sense, digital humanities already have gone into . . . . Well it’s like that with all fields of scholarship in their formative states, that they struggle to find the correct terms and produce new ones all the time. So for me, at least, digital humanities can signal anything from philosophical reflections, to what the consequences are for us, as a species, that we now have to deal with The Digital – sort-of with capital letters. So, for me, what I do and what we do at the Grundtvig Study Centre, is that we have digitalised the entire writings of Grundtvig – and I hope to get a chance to expand on who he was and why it is relevant to digitise his work – but we have now a digitised corpus of his writings. We scanned . . . OCR scanned and made HTML markup, so it’s in a really good quality. And therefore we can do different kinds of computational investigations into this corpus. And that is what we do.

SC: Excellent. So I stand corrected: computational humanities. The more precise, the better! So speaking about Grundtvig, who was Niclolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, and why do you think the preservation of his works is important for Danish society?

KF: Yeah. Well, Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig – a really long and hard to pronounce name – he was and is, in the Danish self-understanding, on the one hand a nation builder or a founding father perhaps, and on the other hand a church father of a sort. He was born in 1783 and died in 1872. And that was a really, really important period of time in the Danish national history. This was the period where the nation went from . . . well, if you accept the idea of a long Middle Age period, you could say that he died on the eve of the Middle Ages. He died during, or just before, the feudal structures of Denmark collapsed. Well he was born, sorry, he was born just before these structures collapsed and then he died just when Denmark entered into Modernity. That is the general narrative on Grundtvig and that is the understanding of the nineteenth century in Denmark. And then he was active, within all of the domains, in change in Denmark. So he was active as a pastor: he was a priest and a kind of theologian. And then he was very much influenced by the Romantic Movement, and sort-of rebooted, or went along with, the idea that the Old Norse mythology had to be revived within the Danish population. One of the ideas of his was that you had to make a sort-of social content, preparing people for feeling connected with the overall idea of “the people”. Because we now had this new governmental structure, democracy, and his idea was that you had to install responsibility and feelings of love in the population. So it was a nationalist logic. You have to get the people to really feel responsible for the broad spectrum of Denmark if we are to make this democracy work. So, in that sense, he was politically engaged and mythologically engaged. And he wrote quite a deal, and reflected quite a deal on pedagogical stuff, didactic stuff: how to get people to know of their cultural heritage, and how to make them want to engage with it and feel connected to it. So he was also an architect behind a new kind of educational form, or in a sense that is what we now say. Many other agents and men, mainly, were really influential in that movement. But now, today, his name is also connected with this loose and kind of lax form of education that you call folk high schools. That’s a phenomenon still living and alive in Denmark, and other places around the world. So, in that sense, Grundtvig is seen as a very important person during this period when the modern Denmark was created. And you can see that amongst politicians in Denmark today. So when they want to signal that they know stuff about Danish history, and at the same time sort-of signal that they’re liberal, they can quote Grundtvig. And they tend to do so in the public media, oftentimes. And furthermore Grundtvig is a central name within the manifestos of every political party within Danish parliament, except one. So, in that sense, he is seen as a founding father for almost every politician . . . every part of the political spectrum in Denmark. So, in that sense, a non-controversial figure that everybody seems to agree is “our guy”! One more example of this is perhaps the centre where I’m the director – the Grundtvig Study Centre. We are governmentally funded and the main task is to digitise his entire works. And that is a thing that politicians can agree upon as a worthy task, and using money for this task. And it is actually quite expensive. So, in that sense, money talks here! And says that Grundtvig is important for Denmark. He’s such an important figure that we want to spend money on digitising this work.

SC: Definitely, yes. And I can imagine that he’s also present in the mind of the people in everyday life, as a cultural reference?

KB: He’s a cultural reference. There are certain spheres where Grundtvig is more relevant than others. So we have cultural strands, we have one movement or . . . I struggle to find the correct term. But we call it Grundtvigianism: a movement driven by the ideas of Grundtvig. And what I forgot to mention was that Grundtvig was also a grand author of hymns, a composer of hymns. So, I kid you not, he wrote sixteen hundred hymns! And two hundred and fifty of them now constitute one third of the Danish hymnbook in the Danish folk church . . . the Danish church. So people know about, or know of him. I’m not quite sure whether, for the broad population, he’s important in everyday life, as such. But when you discuss cultural heritage, and democracy, and liberal stances, and tolerance within the church and stuff like that, Grundtvig is sort-of seen as a gravitational point, or something along those lines, yes.

SC: Excellent. Now, delving into your research, I would like to ask you, what was the procedure to developing the Grundtvig AI? Because there is one!

KB: Yes! Because there is one, or we’re building one! So the idea . . . this is actually a bit of fun!

SC: (Laughs).

KB: We are just teasing around with what to do with all this material! And, as a sort of branding strategy, we decided that we would resurrect Grundtvig as an artificial intelligence on the day of his 150th death day, or what have you, in September 2022. So we have quite some time. There is still time. So first of all we are almost done with the construction of a chatbot. It’s based on the idea of recurrent neural network systems. So we built a chatbot and the idea was . . . I can develop that or expand that, but the overall idea was to take this chatbot and then put it into an actual robot. So that it’s a physical robot who looks like Grundtvig – he was really spooky and people will recognise him as this gloomy, old, bearded man in black! And we want to do an actual physical robot that looks like Grundtvig, so that people can interact with him. And perhaps he can, I don’t know, give a sermon, give a speech in parliament? Yeah. So we’re really excited about this project. But in a certain sense we’re just teasing around with the possibilities of this digital data. But I’m really looking forward to seeing the reactions to this resurrection, and how the different cultural reactions would be when it is possible to engage with Grundtvig as an artificial intelligence. And perhaps I should now expand a bit on how we sort-of built it? So what we do is . . . . Let me just sort-of try not to get into all the acronyms! So the basic is that we have used machine learning. We train an algorithm on . . . first of all we take the Grundtvig corpus and train it on that. So the aim is to have users interacting with Grundtvig or the Grundtvig intelligence or what have we. And the corpus consists of what amounts to thirty-seven thousand standard pages. If you had to read through them it is in fact possible, but people turn out weird when they do so. So . . .

SC: (Laughs).

KB: So I really prefer not to . . . I like to pick specific bits, and then read through them. But no, just kidding. And that is only his published writings that we use. But we take that as a beginning point. But it is in fact, in this context, a really small data set. So we have to train the algorithm on relevant, other relevant stuff. So we are in fact very lucky that the Danish Royal Library has digitised every Danish newspaper published ever, since the late . . . I think it is 1660 or so. Yeah. So we can take the relevant nineteenth century material and the idea is that you sort-of furnish the intelligence with the period that it lived in, so to speak. And then we also have available relevant novels of the age, so we train it on that. And the idea is to find contextually relevant material, sort-of adding to the system.

SC: Right.

KB: Yeah. And so, of course, there are many, many problems with this! So if you have to sort-of philosophically discuss “would this be a representative of who Grundtvig really was?” – well, no! Of course it wouldn’t! It is based on not what he wrote, but what he published. And in fact Grundtvig himself was very eager to point out that there is a long way from the way you communicate with your mouth and with your hands. So he had this catch phrase, or he was really keen on the idea of the so-called “living word”. That was his term. And that was the oral communication, as the correct way, or the easiest way, to transport ideas and feelings, and stuff like that. So this idea of us taking his writings as sort-of a proxy for who he was, goes against what he would have himself . . .!

SC: (Laughs). He wouldn’t agree!

KB: He would not have agreed. So the hope is, because we also have outreach obligations at our centre, the hope is that people will find it interesting, and a fun thing to discuss, and then I can tell them a bit more qualified information about Grundtvig during that process. When that is said, I think it will be interesting to see how one can interact with this thing. And what will people do with it? What will they think of it? That is a sort-of anthropological observational study waiting, a few years ahead!

SC: Definitely! And going back to how you proceed to develop the Grundtvig AI and your presentation at the EASR 2019: you work pretty much on this work that’s coming up all the time, “word embedding”, and how this works throughout his writings, and how this also represents his own thoughts?

KB: Yeah.

SC: Could you share some of your findings with us?

KB: Yeah. For sure. What I presented here yesterday was an investigation that used some of the basic methods we used to construct . . . or at least the same material we used to construct the chatbot. But here we used it to embed, or deeply contextualise in a semantic network, specific key words that I, as a Grundtvig scholar, was interested in seeing the network between. And this study was, for me, interesting because I’m an historian of religions, and I’m interested in cosmologies. So I would like to see what is, in fact . . . how to tease out the worldview of Grundtvig. Can you do that with these texts? Obviously I have read a lot of them. Almost all . . . Ok, so I haven’t read all of them because you turn out, as I said, really weird when you do so. But I have read quite a lot of them. So I had an idea of what I would find. But as it turned out, it was actually really . . . . Ok, so the interesting thing is that we have this modernist figure on the one hand – that is what we think of him as in Denmark: the father of Danish modernity, as it were. And I know, because I’ve read a lot of his works, that he held a sort-of geocentric medieval worldview. Yeah. He’s really explicit on the fact that he thinks of the world, or the earth, as the centre of the universe. And uses ideas of earthly paradises, and earthly skies, and a heavenly sky with God and angels, and stuff like that. And hell – a literal idea of hell. And that was not typical in the nineteenth century for mainstream Christian thinking . . . or at least not within educated elites. And he, as a theologian, Grundtvig was one of those. And I would like to see if I could sort-of find that, visualise this fact. So what we did was to see how the key words heaven, earth and hell, how they related to each other. And we did so by using a specific approach called ELMo. And the idea is that you take, for each key word, ten associations. The ten nearest associations at sentence level. So you go through the total corpus and see . . . if I’m interested in heaven in which way and – how to say this? Which other words does this significantly cling to, through the corpus?

SC: That you will find tied in with this, in the corpus?

KB: Yes exactly. What is the semantic context of this word? So we call that a cap. Then we had three caps, or three associations for each association, to sort-of see, how do these words that you find clinging to heaven, how does this integrate into their semantic network? And I did that for three key words and then collapsed the networks and see how they integrate, to then have a semantic network of these different spheres. And the interesting thing from that is that you can take this analysis and then, from that, gather or see there arising semantic clusters within the network. And the very interesting finding here was that there is a clearly demarked cluster for sort-of earthly surroundings. Or you have earth in the centre and then you have a semantic cluster of things going from the earthly sphere and the earthly sky and then you have a sort-of earthly paradise – words signalling earthly paradise. And then you have a nether world, kind of thing, connected to death, but on earth. And then you have an entirely different cluster in the network that is ontologically seen further from earth than the first one. That one has to do with heaven and hell. So you can sort-of see that the clusters surround the earth in a way that it would do if you have geocentric worldviews. The earth is sort-of the centre and then you have the other spheres interacting around it. And in order to situate, or to furnish this investigation I found it necessary to take each key word and see how they perform without, not within, the network. So can I sort-of word-embed them for themselves, and see if there is something dragging it in a specific direction? And what I found was that one of the interesting findings here was that earth, in Grundtvig’s writings, is a thing preserved for, or a place thought of in biblical terms, in archaic style, biblical style or in Old Norse style. So you think of the earth as a tent: this Semitic idea embedded in the Bible, in the Old Testament, of the world as a tent. Or there is this idea of the world as God’s footrest, also an idea from the Bible. And finally, one example more could be the idea of the world as Ymir the Old Norse god, whose corpse was made into the earth. So it is an extremely non-scientific, non-naturalistic kind of way of speaking or writing about life on earth. And from there we could sort-of feel secure or have the idea that Grundtvig, in that sense, could be said to be a representative of a medievalist. . . . Medievalism as such, as a cultural stream or flow within the nineteenth century, was rather prominent. And in this way, Grundtvig’s worldview could be seen within that context. Yes.

SC: And it’s quite good way of plotting his thought to implement the AI, as well – it crossed my mind. My last question is one thing that you addressed as a consequence of the previous question: what does the Grundtvig AI imply for the creation of Grundtvig’s legacy in the current day imaginary? I think that’s a very interesting question because, as you said, when people are going to interact with the AI, something is going to happen!

KB: Yes. I’m really not sure! (Laughs). I’m really not sure what is going to happen. I think that there will be some, you know, Grundtvig enthusiasts – and these are mainly old people – they will be quite angered or, yes . . . . At least, I hope so! I hope that it will be something that you could have the opportunity to have a debate in the public media about. But I think that, for others, it would be just a fun fact that now you can try to engage with this collection of writings in another way. But I’m interested in just observing the idea of agency – because it’s a robot looking like Grundtvig – what that does to the whole thing. I’m really not sure. I’m really not sure. As it happens we’re really happy that the Danish National Museum has agreed to host him, as it were. So when the robot is to be . . . or when Grundtvig is to be artificially revived, he will have a home at the Danish National Museum and you can visit him in his office. And you can go and ask him questions: “What’s up with the living word?” and the ideas of the folk high school. And then we hope that he will perform, and answer in ways that are sort-of sensible. Because that is, of course, what is almost . . . that will be very interesting for us to see how well we can make him respond. I think we’re in luck that he was from the nineteenth century, and in order to get some authenticity we have to make him a bit weird and archaic. But it is also a fact that almost everyone who knows of Grundtvig will know that he was, himself, really weird, and polemic, and colourful, and – in a certain sense – culturally, a bit off-beat. That was how he was conceived within his time. And so, if the robot doesn’t perform closely to human interaction skills we can tell the story about the weird guy Grundtvig!

SC: He was like that! (Laughs).

KB: He was like that! He was awkward, and off-beat, and stuff like that, yeah. But so I would like to have a better answer to your good question. But I am just not sure!

SC: Sure. I think we’ll have to see in 2022?

KB: Yes. I hereby invite you to come and see what happens!

SC: Thank you so much Katrine – and not only what people think about the Grundtvig AI, but also what the Grundtvig AI will think about the current state of society!

KB: Precisely!

SC: I think that will be also interesting anthropological, philosophical . . .

KB: Well, yes. Now you’ve mentioned it yourself, that is one thing that many politicians, and scholars, or people engaging in the public debates of Denmark tend to do. Only last week I heard a scholar from the University of Southern Denmark proclaiming that if Grundtvig was alive today, he would have voted for Trump!

SC: Oh, Wow!

KB: Yeah. (Laughs). So those types of proclamations or suggestions can now be tested! (Laughs). “Would you . . .?”

SC: We’ll have to do another podcast in 2022.

KB: Yeah. And we will ask Grundtvig. You can interview him!

SC: We will interview him next time! (Laughs). That would be bizarre and fun at the same time!

KB: (Laughs).

SC: Well Katrine it’s very nice to have you here and we hope to see you again in the future.

KB: I hope to get the opportunity to introduce you to the Grundtvig robot. Thank you so much for having me.

SC: Thank you, as well, for being part of the RSP.

 

 

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Protected: When Archive Meets A.I. (Classroom Edit)

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Down the Rabbit Hole of Artificial Intelligence

The recent podcast on religion and artificial intelligence (AI) was a lively discussion on a host of issues revolving around the issue of AI. One might be excused for feeling a bit exhausted by the end of it, as the panel whips from one topic to the next in a furious attempt to unpack the many issues that surround this newest phenomenon. Artificial Intelligence, robots, chatbots, Superintelligence and transhumanism all make the rounds as the panelists try to start thinking together about the ways these topics relate to religion. In this short response, I’m going to try to bring some method to the madness and give the uninitiated some help in understanding what isgoing on in these various discussions and perhaps share some of my own insight.

Let me begin by diverting for a moment into an experience I had the other day. FedEx was supposed to deliver a package to me. But the company had told me they would contact me first about a delivery time. They had not. So I got on FedEx’s website and had this interaction:

( 1m 29s ) Clarissa A: Thank you, Randy. Let me pull out the shipping details with the information provided. Please allow me to review the status of the shipment, in that way I’ll be able to provide you an accurate information. Would that be fine?
( 1m 41s ) Randy: yes, go ahead.
( 2m 10s ) Clarissa A: Thank you for waiting, Randy. I appreciate your patience. Getting you the proper assistance is important to us. The department that can best handle your concern is our
FREIGHT SERVICES. Please call 1-866-393-4585. I apologize for you have been inadvertently routed to our FedEx chat support for US Express and Ground domestic packages.
( 2m 16s ) Clarissa A: I am sorry if I was not able to meet your expectations. It would really ease my heart to process your request myself. It is with sincere regret that I have to forward it to the proper channel. Please accept my apology for my shortcomings.
( 2m 27s ) Clarissa A: Randy, is there anything else I can assist you with today?
( 2m 46s ) Randy: No, thanks for your help.
( 3m 43s ) Clarissa A: You are most welcome, Randy. Apologies for the inconvenience! I am looking forward for this issue to be resolved after the transfer. Thank you for chatting with FedEx.

Now a piece of information and a question. FedEx uses chatbots (artificial intelligence that is designed to interact with users like a person) on its website. Question: Was Clarissa A. a chat bot or a real person? If you’re like me, you’re not sure, but you’re suspicious. There’s something not quite right about the interaction. It’s too emotive at one level. The phrases “really ease my heart” and “sincere regret” and “apology for my shortcomings” as well as the perky “I am looking forward for this issue to be resolved…” do not seem quite right. They are too self-effacing to imagine a human saying. I posted this interaction on Facebook and asked my friends (mostly fellow academics) to vote. They were unanimous that it was probably a chat bot. But many also conceded that it might be a person with a strict script, particularly a non-english native speaker (the last sentence is really not quite grammatically copacetic – would a computer make that mistake?).

Let’s assume, however, for the sake of argument, that Clarissa A. was a chatbot. The things that make us uncomfortable about the interaction is what is sometimes referred to as “the uncanny valley.” Most often this applies to robots who are supposed to look human, but can’t quite pull it off. But it seems appropriate to this interaction as well. You reach the uncanny valley when you get close to “almost human” in looks or interactions.

Roomba doesn’t have this problem, it’s clearly a robot, and doesn’t intend to look like a person. The new robot Kuri that just premiered at CES, looks like one of the Japanese figures from Fantasmic, it is far from the Uncanny valley. But because I can neither hear nor see Clarissa, just based on her on-line interactions, she enters the uncanny valley. I am put in the uncomfortable position of not knowing whether I am dealing with a human being or piece of software that is doing an almost, but not quite, convincing human imitation.

What Clarissa A. is (if she’s a chatbot) is what would be called a “Narrow A.I.” This is to be distinguished from a “General A.I.”. A narrow A.I. is an A.I. that is really designed to solve a particular problem. In Clarissa A’s case, it’s helping me get my package. If I had varied from that and asked her opinion of the Steelers or Trump, it might have become immediately apparent whether I was dealing with an A.I. Clarissa A. is very good at figuring out where my package is, and when it’s going to get to me (and very sorry when she fails) but that’s the limit of the “intelligence” in her artificial intelligence. In terms of religion, Clarissa A. is not much of an issue. And while a quarter of a million people may have proposed to Amazon’s Alexa, like Clarissa A. no one is going to convert her to a religion, no one believes she has a soul, no one believes she’s a person. I asked both Alexa and Google Home what their religion was and they both declined to answer (Google Home told me, “I guess I wasn’t programmed to be religious”). Narrow A.I.’s undoubtedly will be increasingly common. Facebook has just introduce a developers toolkit, to create narrow A.I.’s that will do things like help you book a plane, or send
your mother flowers. So we should expect to see more of them and their interactions will undoubtedly get better, more human, over time.

A general A.I. is a whole other story. An Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) would be a machine which could interact with you on a host of different topics. It would in many ways be indistinguishable from a human intelligence. What we are talking about is machine intelligence.
A machine that could make decisions, plans, and choices. A machine that could improve itself and learn. This is the holy grail of artificial intelligence. This is also the stuff of science fiction movies most recently like Ex Machina and Her.

Here is where we often hear talk about the “turing test.” Alan Turing thought a machine might be described as intelligent if in an interaction with it, a normal person would not be able to distinguish between it and an actual person. In the podcast, Beth Singler is quite skeptical of the Turing test, and rightfully so. One might argue that Clarissa A. passes the Turing Test. There is real doubt whether she is a human or not. But as Singler points out, that’s only because we have a messy idea of intelligence. We don’t actually know what human intelligence is so we don’t really know when a machine might have it, or surpass it.

On the other hand what if we had an electronic entity who we had no doubt was intelligent and could actually modify itself, improving itself in a system of recursion which might quickly surpass human intelligence and become superintelligent. This is what is sometimes envisioned in an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). An Artificial General Intelligence is the stuff of nightmares as well as dreams. The Matrix and Terminator both are manifestations of the fear of AGI. But they are not alone. Philosopher Nick Bostrum’s book Superintelligence lays out the dangers of an AGI. People like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all sounded the alarm that the potential danger from an AGI is not to be dismissed. Bostrum argues that part of the problem is that it’s a very hard thing to gain human level intelligence. But once gained, there is no reason that an AGI would stop at human level intelligence. The smartest person in the world may have an I.Q. of 200. But once an AGI developed the equivalence of an I.Q. of 100, it would be able to self-improve and there would be no natural barrier of an I.Q. of 200 like with Humans. Humans are limited to that because of the size of our skulls. An AGI would have no such limit, and therefore could quickly surpass the smartest humans in a potentially short amount of time. It would then become a superintelligent being, capable of almost anything.

But there are a variety of cultural and religious issues that arise when you have an AGI that do not with narrow A.I.’s or with robots (who generally are also Narrow AI’s). Once you have an AGI (whether in a robot body or not) you have serious considerations. Would an AGI have a soul? Would an AGI believe in God? In Isaac Asimov’s classic tale “Reason,” a robot concludes in a of combination of the cosmological and ontological arguments that its creators are not the humans who claim to have made it, but some greater being and starts its own religion. Would an AGI follow suit? And more interesting might be the question raised by Robert Sawyer’s
“WWW:Wake” series where the internet (called Webmind) comes to consciousness and becomes an AGI. In the book, Webmind, is mistaken for God, and as an experiment, admits to being God to some of its users. Would a religion develop around an AGI? Would an AGI accept itself as a divinity? It might reason it has all the elements of a God, so why would it not accept
the title?

In this way, while it would be a mistake to call Bostrom’s book a book of “theology.” It is without doubt one of the more theologically important books today, because it raises the question, what happens when we create God? Not the illusion of God as Freud argued, but for all practical purposes a being indistinguishable from many definitions of God. And what happens if this is not a God of love? What will the “Will” of this God be? And how can we ensure that it is benevolent? Bostrom’s book is a call to arms, a plea to consider this problem and address it. He takes for granted it is only a matter of time until an AGI is created. The problem is one of how to control it once it arrives and ensure it works for us and not against us. That, he says, is the thorny problem, but it must be solved b efore AGI is created. We must, he in effect argues, learn how to control God. One thinks back to the panic in heaven over Babel, “if…they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (Gen 11:6). Will we hear God say this again? Will we say it ourselves about AGIs?

Thus, we arrive again at religion, but now at a religious conception that is very different than we are used to. It will ultimately require a new way of making sense of the world, but one in which the insights of Religious Studies become more useful, not less. The podcast showed the way
that Religion and these technological advances are intertwined with each other. Religious Studies shirks this responsibility at our peril.

AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Chia Pets, hot sauce, and more.