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On Collaboration, Creation, Destruction, AI, and the Green Party Candidacy of Cornel West
Last night I saw a concert featuring famed trumpet player Chris Botti, his excellent band, and some great guest performers. If you don’t know Botti, he’s a Grammy-winning jazz musician who frequently collaborates with famous artists to present jazz versions of popular songs. For example, in 2005 he released an album called “Duets,” on which he recorded with Sting, Gladys Knight, and Michael Buble, among others. He and the band members that I heard last night are some of the best jazz musicians I’ve ever heard (with special kudos to his amazing drummer, the heartbeat of the ensemble).
Collaborating to Create and to Destroy
Listening to this incredible music took me back to thinking about the contradiction that is the human spirit. As a species, we are so good at creating beautiful things - music, visual artwork, poetry and literature, landscapes, magnificent buildings, outdoor spaces, and so much more. We also are good at collaborating with our fellow humans, the way Botti and his band did last night (jazz is, after all, an immensely collaborative art form). While each of us is capable of individual creativity, together we can move mountains. We do that every time a good band performs or a talented acting troupe takes the stage.
Collaboration isn’t limited to art and architecture. It’s also the key to many other things that are good and necessary in this world, from education to farming to food distribution to healthcare to emergency response to law making to law enforcement to home building to environmental protection to competitive sports to air travel to space exploration to computer programming, and so on. So many of the good things we enjoy in contemporary society yet often take for granted are available only because others worked together in productive ways to make them happen.
How sad it is, then, when our creative and constructive energies are redirected to destroying what others have built. From the first weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I was dismayed by the senseless destruction of buildings and neighborhoods that Ukrainians had taken great pains and many years to design, build, and maintain. With the destructive force of Russian weapons, a city block that had been developed over years or decades could be wiped out in a matter of seconds. People of all ages have been killed or wounded, and countless families separated and left homeless, because of one man’s monstrous ambition.
This is hardly the first time that a lust for territory has led to a form of genocide. For all of humanity’s drive to build, there seems to be a countervailing and equally powerful urge to destroy, especially when destruction holds the promise of satisfying a nation’s or leader’s malevolent self-interest. Despite the immense time and effort that go into the establishment of international laws, norms, and treaties, the push of one group to dominate another and take from them what is rightfully theirs too often cannot be contained. And as much as I’d like to think the use of force to conquer new territory and dominate people of other races and nationalities characterizes only foreign powers and not our own, American history presents its own examples of such transgressions.
Which brings me to two separate but in some ways related thoughts.
The Frightening Prospect of AI
The first has to do with AI (I think we’re getting past the point of having to use the long-form “artificial intelligence” for others to know what we’re talking about). The other night I saw a senior executive of a large tech company (I think it was Google) interviewed on a national news network. He suggested that, to the extent AI poses a danger to humanity, the risk can be controlled through government regulation. My immediate reaction was, “Have you never seen Jurassic Park?” To understand my point, please watch this short clip:
Despite the fictional scientists’ assurances that they could prevent the dinosaurs from reproducing and otherwise contain them within high-tech fences, the creatures managed to “find a way.” And while AI is not, and hopefully never will be, “life,” what assurance do we have that the super-intelligence we are creating won’t ultimately dominate or even destroy human civilization? A number of scientific experts in AI have already sounded that alarm. Unfortunately, the human race does not have a good track record of responding when alarms sound. (Don’t even get me started on climate change, which we’ve been warned about since at least the early 1970s.)
So is government regulation the answer? Let me respond with this analogy. How comfortable would you be if any person, group, or organization in America that could afford to buy a nuclear weapon were allowed to have one, so long as the government passed laws and regulations prohibiting their detonation? Not very comfortable, I suspect, for the simple reason that not everyone can be trusted to comply with the law.
By many accounts, AI could become no less destructive than a nuclear bomb. So yes, while laws and regulations governing AI sound like possible solutions, we can never be certain that the technology won’t be misused to serve malicious purposes, and indeed, history suggests that it will be. Just like Putin couldn’t be trusted not to violate international law by invading Ukraine, so any number of state and non-state actors can’t be trusted to comply with new laws and regulations designed to prevent the misuse of AI.
More will need to be done than passing laws to protect us from our own potentially destructive inventions. And if there were a foolproof way of keeping us safe, I think someone would have told us by now.
The Surprise Appearance of Cornel West
My second issue has to do with Presidential politics. The other night I saw Kaitlan Collins interview Cornel West on CNN. I’ve never paid much attention to Mr. West, though he’s popped into my peripheral vision a few times over the years. The scholar, whose work focuses on race, gender, and class studies, has taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Union Theological Seminary. He is now running for the nomination of the Green Party to be its candidate for President, and reportedly is being helped by former Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
Most of the press about West concerns whether he will attract enough support from progressive voters who otherwise would vote for Biden to essentially throw the election to Trump (assuming Trump manages to win his party’s nomination). But who is West, and what does he stand for?
He is the grandson of a Baptist preacher, and to hear him speak, he inherited his grandfather’s vocation. He has had it with both Trump and Biden, and sees himself as the savior of working class and poor Americans (expressly trying to pick up that torch from Bernie Sanders). He views America as an empire, an empire he says he wants to use his sought-after Presidential power to dismantle. By that, he doesn’t mean he wants to dismantle America. Rather, he means he wants to stop spending taxpayer dollars on wars and the military and divert them instead to domestic spending that can improve the lives of Americans struggling to make ends meet.
West approaches politics with a religious zeal. He describes himself as a Christian and cites the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew as his guide. That’s the chapter where Jesus emphasizes through parable the importance of feeding the hungry, providing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned, frequently cited as part of “the Social Gospel.” On CNN, West described the message as teaching us to care for “the orphan, the widow, the fatherless, the motherless, the marginalized, the subjugated.” He speaks of love and views himself as carrying on the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet he also refers to himself as “a cracked vessel,” thus not exempting himself from the fallen nature that his faith teaches afflicts all people.
As a Christian myself, and having spent most of my life studying and considering matters of faith, I was struck by West’s use of the political spotlight to preach this version of the Christian message. I appreciated his expression of the Gospel, the one that’s focused not primarily on what God can do for us but more on what God calls us to do for others. After all, Jesus’ message was one of faith combined with action, and the action was most often action to help those in physical or spiritual distress.
Where West loses me is in his assumption that, by running for President, he can advance the causes he believes in. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t recall Martin Luther King, Jr. ever expressing an interest in becoming President (although his protege, Jesse Jackson, eventually did). As much as I share some of West’s views about how faith calls us to action, he is hardly qualified to lead this country in its secular undertakings. His views about how to end the war in Ukraine seem downright naive, and he has no training or experience that would qualify him to manage the economy, get Congress to pass significant legislation (though that has become increasingly difficult for any President), screen candidates for administrative posts and judgeships, command the military, or credibly represent the United States anywhere on the world stage. Although aspects of his message may be admirable and his heart may be in the right place, he does not communicate his views in a way that would appeal to most voters. Fundamentally, he likely knows he’s not electable, and may be using his candidacy only as a vehicle to spread the message he so passionately believes in.
What West gets, though, and what we all should remember, is that every human life is precious, yet every human being is flawed. Every one of us has the capacity for both good and evil, and while the vast majority of people spend their lives residing on the good side of that spectrum, we shouldn’t be surprised when the leader of a former empire takes evil to an extreme and decides to bomb the living daylights out of his country’s tranquil, non-aggressive neighbor. Nor should we expect that regulating AI will eliminate whatever threat it poses, or that a philosopher with little or no political experience who has spent his life in academia is capable of stepping in and fixing the biggest and most complex problems of the day.
And so . . .
Where does that leave us? I hope it leaves us working together to make the wisest and most compassionate decisions we can make, always seeking to build rather than destroy, to uplift rather than put down, and to contribute to the beauty of creation, leaving destruction in the hands of only nature and time. As those great jazz collaborators I saw last night might say, “More music, less noise.”
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