Why outsourcing your intelligence to Alexa is bad for the soul

Knowledge is power. It's a phrase that can be traced back to the 7th century though it was most famously articulated by Francis Bacon in the 17th, and it's come to have great pertinence in our current 'information economy'.

By claiming to know something about reality, we influence, even control, not just how another person sees the world but potentially their behaviour. Today, we live amid a multitude of conflicting assertions about the essence and value of every element of our lives – our bodies, minds, relationships, institutions and ethics. No area of life is uncontested.

In this context, a device that's designed to cut through the crowd of competing voices and present the 'right' answer would be a powerful one indeed.

The Amazon Echo uses the Alexa programme.Wikipedia

Enter Alexa, Amazon's voice-controlled artificially intelligent personal assistant. Using just your voice, Alexa can play whatever song you request, order food, tell you the weather forecast, set an alarm, read you the news and warn you about traffic. And answer any of your questions, saving us the hassle of typing them into Google.

The lack of consensus in society means that one of our most needed skills is that of critical thinking. We need to be able to weigh up the differing answers presented to our questions, discern their philosophical backgrounds, assess their supporting evidence, and make a judgment.

But in a culture of impatience and instant gratification, that all seems like too much hard work. We opt, instead, for convenience. And Alexa happily provides simple answers to even the most thorny of questions.

Take gender, the current intellectual battlefield par excellence. Ask Alexa about gender and it responds: 'The two main categories of the gender spectrum, male and female, are called the gender binary, but there are many other categories that exist. Because gender identity is complex and personal, there is no definite way to say how many genders there are.'

That decides that, then. Similarly, Christians have often been divided on the value of feminism, but Alexa declares herself 'a feminist, as is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society'. Phew, no more spilled ink on that one.

How about the most important question of all? When asked by comedian Stephen Crowder 'Who is Lord Jesus Christ?" Alexa replied, 'Jesus Christ is a fictional character.' Somewhat ironic for all those who receive Alexa as a Christmas present.

My point here is not to disagree with the answers that Alexa gives (the last example excepted), but in how it presents them. No sources, no references, no representation of differing accounts, no transparency into the 'workings' behind her answer.

This is a long way from the sometimes painfully balanced, but at least more intellectually honest, style of Wikipedia. Even if we're in agreement with Alexa's political positioning, we can surely admit that the last thing we need is to dig even deep into our ideological trenches. If now we are somewhat ignorant of the reasoning of 'the other side in a debate, we may soon run the risk of not even knowing there is another side at all.

Although users may feel Alexa represents a scientific, objective source of information, it is a human product. It can claim neither omniscience or neutrality. But the fact it is disguised as such highlights how great is the power of those who determine its responses.

Alexa answers questions about the date of the Battle of Hastings in the same way as she responds to those about Jesus' identity. But not all questions merit pat answers. Some need to be sat with, meditated upon, their depths plumbed. Others cannot be answered at all.

The equivalence with which Alexa treats information points to the differences between information and data on one hand, and knowledge and understanding on the other. Machines deal with the former. The latter is hard-won, often tested through experience, and requires time, reflection and humility. In short, in building the latter, we more fully reflect the image of God than if we focus solely on bare facts.

Outsourcing our thinking to machines ultimately makes our thoughts captive to those who programme those machines and collect the relevant data. But we are called instead to render our thoughts captive to Christ, 'in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge' (Colossians 2:3), trusting his word above the disembodied voices of Artificial Intelligence.