Bots, Things That Grow, and Being Alive

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 10.27.57 AM.png
Things that grow, right here in the Pioneer Valley.
[View of the Connecticut River, Mt. Tom Range & Holyoke Range from Mt. Sugarloaf,
South Deerfield, MA]

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

I’m sometimes blown away by the amount of anxiety technology produces: whether we’re worried about kids and screen time, or other adults and screen time, we worry, we get anxious, we get angry, we feel neglected.

Places like this church, and moments like this one — religion, spirituality, and ritual — can provide a respite from technology. We read ancient texts and perform ancient rituals and put our phones away for a minute. As we talk about the kingdom of God as things that grow, we feel our anxiety ease: here, we are fully alive, without a screen in sight.

Some of us may worry about a complete technology takeover, and no wonder: artificial intelligence can do lots of things these days. “Bots” can learn, after all: they can learn our habits and speech patterns, and they can even generate speech. This has become most relevant these days in terms of political influence: bots have been trained to pose as real people on social media, and they can be trained to sound like everything from Bernie Sanders’ most far left supporter to the most conservative Republican to ever Republican and everything in between. Bots can misrepresent, intentionally, entire points of view online, making you think that your worst fears are true: there are more of those people than you think, and they’re even dumber than you imagined.

Whether your worries are primarily political or not, considering the speed at which these bots seem to be learning and posing as real people, the subject of an artificial intelligence takeover doesn’t seem quite as sci-fi-distant these days as it used to.

Well, we were put at ease about that this week when a Twitter user named @KeatonPatti posted the following.

This person writes:
“I forced a bot to watch over 1,000 hours of Olive Garden commercials then asked it to write an Olive Garden commercial of its own. Here’s the first page.”

Attached was a photo of the Olive Garden commercial script that the bot had generated, pulling together language the the bot thought humans would recognize as an Olive Garden commercial. You look like humans. See what you think.

“INT. AN OLIVE GARDEN RESTAURANT

A group of FRIENDS laughs at a dinner table. A WAITRESS comes to deliver what could be considered food.

WAITRESS: Pasta nachos for you.
We see the pasta nachos. They’re warm and defeated.
FRIEND 1: The menu is here.

WAITRESS: Lasagna wings with extra Italy.
We see the wings. There’s more Italy than necessary.
FRIEND 2: I shall eat Italian citizens.
WAITRESS: Unlimited stick!
We see the unlimited stick. It is infinite. It is all. 

FRIEND 3: Leave without me. I’m home.
WAITRESS: Gluten classico! From the kitchen.

FRIEND 4: Says nothing.

FRIEND 3: What’s wrong, Friend 4? 

FRIEND 4: Says nothing.

FRIEND 2: What is wrong, Friend 4?
Friend 4 smiles wide. Her mouth is full of secret soup.
ANNOUNCER: Olive Garden. When you’re here, you’re here.

So I think we’re safe for now.

After all, there are some things you can only know and do by being alive. Apparently writing an Olive Garden commercial is one of them.

If you hear or read the Bible for very long, you soon begin to notice that different things jump out at you at different times, depending on what’s going on in the news or what’s going on in your life at the time.

Lately, as I’ve been living in this community with abundant farmland, all the while watching people everywhere become ever-obsessed with technology, I can’t help noticing how often the Bible compares the reign of God to things that grow.

In the Ezekiel reading, God’s people are like a tender shoot that God makes into a mighty cedar. In the psalm, the righteous are like a palm tree — flexible and strong, and strong because they are flexible — and such people spread out like mighty cedars. In the Gospel reading, the reign of God is like a grain harvest: it grows, and it’s a miracle the way that it grows, and then the harvest comes, and the sickle comes out, and the grain has to die to feed the people.

In the Gospel, the reign of God is also like a mustard seed: it’s tiny, but it grows and spreads so that it offers shade and shelter to many creatures, especially those that fly.

But I always get angry at Paul for messing things up. Yes, the 2 Corinthians passage is lovely, but I wanted trees because I was getting this whole growth and life vibe. Instead, what we do get is one of the best known passages in the Bible, one I had to memorize as a teenager: [do it without notes]

“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation! The old is gone, and behold, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

It sounds promising, but of course, there’s a lot of dying in the verses that precede it. Also, becoming new — that is, changing — is hard and painful.  

To be alive is to die. What’s more, to be alive is to change and adapt and learn.

There are things that technology cannot do because it is not alive, but there are also things that we have to do in order to be alive, literally and metaphorically. 

We have to eat. We have to drink water. We have to sleep. We have to move from time to time, to have companionship, to learn to ask for what we need. Being alive means experiencing pain and conflict, too. Being alive means change. The old has to go, and the new has to come.

This affects everything from politics to relationships. We have to get our heads around our own complicity in children being separated from their parents seeking asylum at the border. We have to be willing to really see the ways in which we make shows of honoring our military but then do not care for adequately for them when they come home. We have to really see and weigh the importance of what happened in Singapore with North Korea, while not forgetting the importance of both human rights and peace. Rather than looking away after coming to a quick conclusion, being alive means that we have to challenge ourselves to really see the results of what is happening in the world, realizing that the things I have named go far beyond partisanship and into justice. 

After all, artificially intelligent bots are able to imitate far left and far right trolls on Twitter because we’ve become so robotic in our partisanship. We all know exactly how to make our neighbors shut down with our words and catchphrases, but this doesn’t produce solutions. It doesn’t make us alive and adaptive. It harms life.

Beyond politics, in our personal relationships, we have to be able to really see our own weaknesses and insecurities. Machines are always strong. They do not fail, they are not weak. They are also not alive. To be alive is to face your stuff and feel what you feel and to have needs and to care for the needs of others. To be alive is to “give and receive comfort,” even when it’s hardest to do the latter. 

To be alive is to see and be willing to take out the old in favor of the new. To adapt. To change. To be righteous, as the psalmist says, is to be a palm tree: flexible, but rooted.

To be alive is to feel conflict and pain. But every one of our readings this morning speaks of being alive in a unique way: that change and even death are painful parts of life, but they aren’t the end of everything the way that our brains may say that they are. That God compares God’s kingdom to things that grow not because the kingdom dies, but because God has redeemed life and death and change and pain. That being alive is a struggle, but God has made the struggle holy by promising that we will not be alone — that God tends us through the struggle, sends us nourishment along the way, and watches us grow.

While being a stoic machine might mean seeming strong, and while feelings may be inconvenient and uncomfortable for entire seasons of our lives, we were created for freedom and adaptation and love and life. We were not created for robotic answers to questions political or relational. 

Because we are so much more alive when we embrace life for all that it is, realizing that even the worst of it all is redemptive, even if clouds obscure the view.

In other words, yes, you can go through life like a robot, but you won’t really be alive and your Olive Garden commercials will be terrible and that your life’s motto will simply be “When you’re here, you’re here.” 

No. Welcome to the church, where we gather around a different kind of table with the one who showed us how to really be alive. Where we challenge each other to be free and whole and adaptive, where we support each other when it’s painful, where we struggle with things like truth and justice and basic humanity, where we give and receive comfort and nourishment an grow strong together.

Because, to borrow a phrase a real human wrote, when you’re here, you’re family. Amen.

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