Is AI better company than books, TV, and pets? Practical spirituality series
Everything new brings with it dangers but also oversized fear and trembling. The less we know, the higher the hysteria. We should always carefully examine new technology’s impact. But we should always keep it in perspective. Is there a role for AI in being a companion to the lonely?
“Adonai, God, said, “It isn’t good that the person should be alone….”” – Genesis 2:18, Complete Jewish Bible
“To love and be loved is the greatest joy on earth.” – Ee Cummings, American poet, painter, essayist, and playwright.
“No matter who you are or what your age, race, religion, or sexual orientation may be, it is a human phenomenon to love and be loved. In fact, the need for love is considered to be one of our most basic needs.” – Why It’s Important To Love People. Better Help
“Babies who are not held, nuzzled, and hugged enough can stop growing, and if the situation lasts long enough, even die. Researchers discovered this when trying to figure out why some orphanages had infant mortality rates around 30-40%.” – Touching Empathy, Psychology Today.
We would likely not find anything in the spiritual and religious world more important than loving others.
Welcome to my Patheos and YouTube New Generations Explore Faith and Substack Our Times Today and Tomorrow spirituality series. The current focus is on practical spirituality—that is, putting our spiritual beliefs into practice.
Links to the podcast and video will appear here when available.
In an amusing scene in one of my favorite Christmas movies, Scrooged, the main character cites friends and events from his past. The Angel of Christmas Past corrects him that those were all TV shows. Most of us can separate fiction from reality. But the need for others in our lives is very deep.
As artificial intelligence advances in its capabilities, it thrusts us into new worlds that either generate fearful reactions or spur us to a greater understanding of the human condition. The need for human contact and love is high among these new challenges presented by AI.
Can we feel human love through sources besides directly from people?
Are people and ideas about love not manifest in the stories we tell? In the information we put online? In the things we see, watch, and interact with?
As a many-decade student and writer about understanding meaning in life and the power of narrative (story) to help create meaning, including in stories, I understand the power of arranging life into meaningful events. It’s essential for us. Religious literature hands us many meaningful stories from over time, and then we add our own.
Google Bard says the following about narrative:
“Narratives are important for understanding who we are as individuals and as a community. They help us:
- Understand our histories, experiences, and humanity
- Entertain, inform, educate, control, understand, heal, clarify, and unify
- Compose ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss
- Ground abstract ideas
- See patterns in numerical data
- Illuminate the human consequences of political action
- Change people’s beliefs and behaviors
- Connect with empathy
- Make things feel more real or more important
“Narratives are developed through a mixture of experiences and personality. They create the lens through which we see the world. They tell us what we can and cannot do, and how we expect to be treated.
“We have a natural inclination to think of ourselves—our past, present, and future—as an ongoing story. Even religious rituals are stories, insofar as they are often symbolic reenactments of something that has happened in the past.”
My experience affirms Bard’s response.
Literature and media in our lives
Our interaction with literature and other media can enrich our life experience. But is it equivalent to human interaction? Much of human interaction is simply, “How about those Pistons? Did you see the game?” It’s conversation without depth of meaning. I am not a lover of chit chat, so often I would rather talk to AI as a richer experience.
Certainly everything around us is an expression of God, love, and others. But we know the difference between entertainment and reality. Movies and other media story forms act as a reflection of us, not our models for behavior.
As I wrote about cognitive research in my Substack column about touch and spirituality, physical contact is fundamental to experiencing life, otherwise, we would simply be spirits. Life is not a virtual world even if you love VR. I think VR is great! We have been thrust into this very physical world as a way to experience emotions like love.
The value of loneliness and the curse of loneliness
We long for others and for purpose that is greater than ourselves. This is expressed well in a Guideposts article, The Spiritual Purpose of Loneliness. Loneliness isn’t always a terrible thing.
Life sometimes throws us curveballs: We lose our companion, others drive us into isolation by their non-acceptance, illness isolates us, or we live lives divorced from human contact. What do we do in those situations?
In my early experience as a pastor I found that when people lose their life companions, they often remain isolated from others. Many would rarely even eat regularly. Eating is a social function.
Being lonely is linked to Worse physical and emotional health outcomes, poorer wellbeing, a 30% increased chance of stroke and heart disease, and a lowered immune system, making you more vulnerable to viruses and disease.
In good company: Why we need other people to be happy. NBC News, Better by Today.
Is AI a solution?
AI is the collective voice of us all. Artificial intelligence knows nothing more than what humans have given it. It might be smarter than any individual, but it’s still only a collection of information assembled for us by computers that are able to arrange information from people through language models.
Several manufacturers create both software and hardware that mimic human beings. It might be a program that communicates through text. It might be an avatar that speaks. It might be a robot that sits opposite you and communicates with you, or has touch and even sexual touch.
In 2007 I wrote a novel, Total Immersion, for New Adults (18 and over) based on hardware and software available at that time. It posed the question of whether a virtual AI friend with haptic (touch) interface could substitute for real human beings and relationships. The answer was that it leaves a lot to be desired.
Can AI be your friend and companion?
We can’t trust AI not to lie to us. I don’t mean to intentionally provide incorrect responses. I mean that AI interfaces may be programmed to be positive and not provide feedback that helps us improve. It doesn’t look for new ways to respond unless prompted. It simply says the same thing over and over. Repetition may not be helpful and may come off as artificial. Repetition and artificiality provide a recipe for ignoring them.
Secondly, a relationship with an actual person isn’t tailored to the individual. Real relationships are based on being real, such as helping each other with needs and progress as individuals, being mutually helpful, and giving 50-50 and sometimes 150-0 in dire times. It’s mutually seeking outcomes that benefit children and child development. It’s about differences as well as similarities that make us compatible.
My wife and I think differently. We have differing opinions. I like that – it makes me think. If I was unchallenged, I would never experience and grow. Our children opted to always have different opinions.
AI can respond with answers and present some canned advice, but that’s it. Maybe at some points in our lives that’s what we need. At other points we need advice that understands us more deeply and is more helpful to our growth.
Can AI be a good companion?
What is AI’s place as a companion in our lives? There are many who are isolated and lonely. Sometimes people are lonely simply because they can’t find others who share their interests or are like fish out of water in their communities. Some are forever sexually isolated from others for one reason or another. As a society we don’t reach out much to these people unless there is something in it for us, such as getting them to attend church. This shows the depth of our caring.
AI and robots can be companion-like. If all you want to do is share echoes of sports teams or find information that opens your eyes, AI can do that. Just as movies and other forms of stories reflect us, AI is a reflection of all of us and our collective reality. That’s huge.
But AI-inhabited robots more commonly lacks the ability to give constructive criticism, is not very able to know us at a deeper level, give us tailored advice … or to actually love. AI can be given emotion, but love is a much deeper thing than emotion.
Before answering, one thing we need to consider very deeply before affirming or condemning AI companions is: if the answer is no, are we willing to do whatever it takes to ensure others aren’t lonely?
What would you do?
There is a Potential Space now where it’s time for something to happen. The moment is pregnant with possibility. Technology has put a lot of pieces in place. The need is huge. AI companions are happening. How would you design a better system?
Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.