On Saturday 16th March we were treated to a fascinating talk in St Bartholomew’s Church about the implications of artificial intelligence for society. The contrast between the talk and the medieval setting in which it was given could not have been greater.

It featured as one of a series of talks in country churches sponsored by the Herefordshire Historic Churches Trust. The speaker was John Handby, one of the trustees, who has had an extensive career managing large scale technology based change both within Government and for corporate organisations as well as consulting and advising widely on advanced technology.

John said that AI and related advanced technologies have increasingly been woven into the fabric of our lives and companies such as Google, Amazon and Meta have become integral to the modern world. But vast amounts of data are now held about us and used to track our movements, sell us goods and services and even channel news feeds to us based on our political perspectives.

The so-called ‘internet of things’ is happening around us with technology embedded in everyday objects, humanoid robots are on their way and even 3D printing of body organs is being experimented with. Humans have historically exhibited great creative genius but increasingly this can now be replicated by AI – the latest chatbots, artistic creations etc.

AI makes possible many highly beneficial advances – in health care, drug discovery, and new patient treatments; high levels of automation in manufacture and distribution; drone led agriculture; driverless cars & trucks to name just a few. And the possibilities on the horizon are set to take us all to the world of science fiction as portrayed by Hollywood.

Over the centuries innovations have shaped our world from the arrival of the printing press onwards. These have been driven by mankind’s curiosity, need and opportunities for financial gain. AI and related technologies offer advances on a scale not seen before and it is difficult to see how they will be contained. Certainly the world we grew up in has been consigned to history and the ways in which we live our lives and interact with society are changing dramatically.

The tracking and management of the population in China using AI demonstrates the likely future direction and suggests that George Orwell was right after all: the technology is likely to be used to govern our lives and make decisions about us, ensuring conformity and taking away free will.

The concept of technological singularity was postulated as long ago as the 1950s – essentially that AI would in time outperform human beings to the point where we effectively hand on the baton of creation to such beings.

Homo sapiens’ record has been as a slow starter but in time achieved impressive technological and cultural advances – although at the price of extreme global inequality of wealth together with appalling and continuing levels of violence. Would AI build on our achievements to date to develop a future we cannot even dream of or would our prejudices and inability to live peacefully with each other simply be replicated in a more powerful and harmful way?

Much food for thought!

It was then followed by an excellent afternoon tea courtesy of Much Marcle PCC.

Herefordshire Historic Churches Trust