Who can you talk to in a virtual world?

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Photo by Jeremy Cai on Unsplash

Before long, AI will be making phone calls for us. Google demonstrated  this reality a few weeks ago when Google Assistant called and made an appointment with a human stylist. The typical stilted electronic sounding voice of automation has been refined to sound just like a real person, complete with pauses, “ums” and “ahs.”

This opens up so many possibilities and challenges. Previously, we would ask, “With whom am I speaking,” to get a name to refer to later. Now we ask, “Where are you calling from?” knowing that we may be talking to someone in a call center on the other side of the earth. In the future we’ll wonder, “Is this a real person or a computer?”

I can think of a few future scenarios in my own line of work. In the not too far off future, the guest sign in book at church will be an iPad. I won’t have to try and decipher the handwriting anymore since you’ll type in or speak your name and email. Later that afternoon or evening, you’ll get a phone call that sounds like me, but will actually be my digital assistant who has found your phone number and contacted you. On Monday morning when I check my calendar, I’ll have an appointment with that’s week’s visitors, all arranged by AI. I’ll be able to glance over information about you and your family gleaned from your social media accounts, fuel for our conversation. (And yes, my self-driving car will take me to your home so I can download my computer-generated sermon on the way.)

I know, that scenario is out there, but it made me wonder about our pursuit of avoiding human contact. Just think of all the ways we no longer have to talk to a person.

  • I get my cash from an ATM, no longer interacting with a teller inside the bank.
  • I order food or coffee with an app or at a kiosk in the restaurant, and then grab it off a shelf.
  • I do the majority of my shopping online. I rarely see anyone drop packages off at my door. They just magically appear!
  • I ask my phone for directions instead of a person. It routes me around accidents and traffics snarls, too.
  • I wonder what percentage of my human interactions take place via text or email? Honestly, I’d guess more than half.

My experiences only scratch this reality that isolates us more and more each day.

  • Virtual schools now replace some brick and mortar classrooms and flesh and blood teachers.
  • Your resume or application has been vetted by AI long before someone in human resources or a loan officer ever lays eyes on it.
  • How many people diagnose their own ailments and treat their own diseases by consulting online resources rather than going to the doctor?
  • You no longer have to go to the store for groceries, dealing with all those annoying people who clog up the aisles and make you wait in line. Your digital order will arrive later this afternoon.

I love the possibilities of AI, am fascinated by the technology, and love to discover what I can do. But how many have adopted these technologies to avoid human contact? Do those who don’t like or fear their classmates, teachers, and coworkers find refuge in a virtual world? No doubt. What about those seeking to avoid illness, judgment, conflict, prejudice or hatred? Probably. Or if you just want your own way, without having to persuade, convince or compromise, it can be quite satisfying, I guess.

Well, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to infiltrate just about every area of our lives. And even though I tend to be a private person who enjoys alone time, I can’t stay there. Not for too long, anyway.

I get so much more accomplished when I actually talk to a person. A few minutes of conversation can be so much more productive than an endless volley of texts or emails over several hours or days.

Talking to someone in person is the best. Whether it’s a difficult visit or one I’ve looked forward to, face-to-face is always better than my anticipations. I think we’re wired that way.

Laughter, sorrow, anger, enthusiasm, inspiration, and calmness all seem to be contagious. Catching emotion from those around us makes me feel something. It makes me feel alive.

I enjoy teaching. Which means I like being with someone or a room full of students, asking questions, giving examples, sharing experiences, listening to ideas and conveying understanding. Classrooms are alive!

I love music, too. I can sit and play for hours. But it’s so much more fun to play in a band or sing with a group!

I know too many widows and widowers who now have to eat alone. It’s no fun. I know too many young people whose human interaction has been so limited they have a hard time with conversation. That’s frustrating. Too many have surrendered to abusive behavior because they had no one to tell, and no one to teach them differently. That’s tragic. Too many have turned to violence because they knew no other way to relate to the world around them. That is frightening.

Don’t worry, you won’t become obsolete in a digital world. There’s someone who needs you to talk to them. Someone real. Someone just like you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will your pastor be human in the future?

lionel preacherbotAfter I read “Your Future Doctor May Not be Human. This Is the Rise of AI in Medicine”  by Abby Norman on Futurism.com, a strange thought entered my mind: your future pastor may not be human,  either.

The article describes AI that can identify blood infections with amazing accuracy. While a radiologist will do better at making cancer diagnoses when they have adequate time to review cases, AI did better when time was short.

AI can detect mental health concerns by monitoring your phone. If you haven’t left the house for several days, or haven’t called or texted anyone for a week, you may need some help. AI can also pick up certain speech patterns that indicate stress or even depression.

And of course, robotic surgery is already here.

So at what point will AI begin to replace the clergy, or at least parts of my job?

I’ve got an archive of thirty years of sermons. With that kind of data, AI should be able to emulate my style of writing, cross reference bibles and commentaries, and produce a sermon that sounds like I wrote it. Bots already write poetry and reports that a majority of readers attribute to human writers. How far off is the day when I simply type in a text or a topic, and my computer produces a 2,000-word sermon for the coming Sunday?

A chatbot therapist like Woebot on Facebook Messenger is currently available to provide counseling and help you work through some of your issues. There, I just freed up some time on my calendar. I might even use it myself to decompress after dealing with some ministry challenges.

I suppose some bots might even pose as actual members of the church. What if that member who you call and talk to, who sometimes contributes, but never attends church isn’t a real person after all?

A driverless car will take me to the hospital, a nursing home, and your home for a visit. I won’t get lost and can use the travel time to read or nap or snack.

AI will analyze data about the businesses, people and issues in the community to shape the goals and long-range planning of a congregation. Demographic studies already provide some of this.

AI already aids my study with bible software, corrects my grammar and spelling, and searches for relevant current events to illustrate my sermons. Apps that can translate your conversation on the fly has opened doors for cross-cultural ministry. Online classes have changed the face of continuing education.

The church won’t be exempt from AI. It will happen more quickly than we think and in ways we can’t even imagine!