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“Thinking About Thinking”


Some of my best thinking happens in the shower! Yup! There I’ll be and suddenly, unbidden, comes a whole stream of thought that answers a burning question. Often it is an opening story for a sermon! It comes as words that parade forth from my subconscious to a place of consciousness. And in an instant, I find myself saying, “There it is! That’s it!” I try to hold onto it, as at this age some of my thoughts can be fleeting and I find myself chasing after them later on, knowing full well that they will not be coerced back into play and that I’ll need to wait for them!


I was tuned in to a webinar on Jewish Mysticism with Abigail McBride the other night and she said that “the mind is a marvelous computer whose job it is to think,” that we think about six thousand thoughts per day during our waking hours and that many of them are repeats of what we thought yesterday! I used to picture my mind like a giant rolodex that I could flip through to find what I needed! Clearly dating myself here, but perhaps it works for you, too. Just this morning I was reading a Buddhist reflection that reminded me of the teaching that thoughts are not facts. As humans I think we tend to concretize our thoughts once they occur.


We might say that I am a verbal thinker, and it might attest to the chatter that is ongoing in my head. There are other types of thinkers – the visual ones who think in pictures and images. They see things first and then put them into words. I notice that my memories show up this way. I think about them in scenarios unfolding before my mind’s eye, snippets of realities past. Only later do I put words to them and that only if there is a need to share or describe them. There is a third way, a hybrid of sorts, called spacial thinkers. This may better describe me I am realizing as I write! When I am planning something – what to do with all the green beans that my garden is producing or a ritual for one of our services, I see it as a snapshot, the end result flashes before me – little white containers of blanched beans with pale green lids, “French Beans 2023” scrolled in black sharpie, piled up on the counter of in the freezer – “There!” I think. Joshua Rothman, in a January New Yorker Magazine article entitled “How Should We Think About Different Styles of Thinking?” sites several authors on the topic and says that we shouldn’t try so hard to force ourselves into one category or the other; that we are all likely a combination of more than one – there are other nuances if we wanted to dive deeper here – and that we often get it wrong when we try to answer the question of our own style, quickly placing ourselves so firmly in one camp. Like today for instance when I came to the conclusion that I do visualize some of the time. I wouldn’t have said so if you had just asked me.


It was this article and this topic that I intended to talk about today, having squirreled away the copy in my pile of potential future stuff. But life happens and it has certainly been happening since January when it comes to the idea of thinking. It has been happening for a long time, as we know from Frank this morning, but seems to have come to a head more recently. I am, of course, talking about the concept of artificial intelligence! Computers have been thinking for quite some time, but they have entered a new realm as of late. Some of it is exciting and some of it is scary – it can be creative or destructive – just like us – WHAT?! Just like us? What does that mean?


Our reading this morning, which I titled “On Thinking” comes to us directly from the lips – no – the pen – no – the keyboard? I’m not exactly sure, but it was generated by Chat GPT which I warily and with much trepidation downloaded onto my phone last week! My fear acknowledges that there is a certain power in all things tech – we’ll get to that. So, I downloaded and installed and opened, was clear in my decision to forgo the monthly subscription, and paged through to where I could pose a question. And I asked it to “Write 200 words about thinking.” And almost instantly, I barely blinked, there were these few paragraphs of definition and even a bit of analysis about what thinking is, how it comes to be, what it is used for, its importance to our world and its benefits. Nothing I have noticed about dangers inherent in thinking. Interesting. And if I didn’t know better – do I? – I might say that Chat was describing what it does, including itself in the ‘we.’ I was none-the-less, rather impressed. I wasn’t sure if I should respond with a “thank you” or just leave it be! Did I want to embark on a conversation with Chat? Probably not.


As I have pondered this newfound resource I have been thinking (in words) about how we define intelligence. My go-to Google dictionary says it is “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” What I think it is truly talking about is human intelligence. ‘Human’ is the default. We have this new kind – ‘artificial’ – “made or produced by humans instead of naturally occurring, a copy of something natural.” Still, the human piece is underscored. But there are other forms of intelligence, right? Animal intelligence, for example. Some will say that my Emma is just operating on instinct – my first ever sociology professor insisted this was the case – but I see an intelligence there – some thinking going on behind those eyes – even if it is related to survival in the end. Maybe the earth has an intelligence, the cycles of the seasons, the body itself – ours and that of all things bursting forth from seed, knows what it is doing no matter how much thought we put into it. For eons of time, before our thinking brains came on the scene, there was an inherent intelligence there, propelling things forward. Fascinating!


So, when we make the human intelligence the default what are we really doing? Asserting our place at the top of the pyramid? And if artificial intelligence is human made – you know the old adage – garbage in, garbage out – I think that goes for intelligence, too. For decades so much information from encyclopedias and research and library shelves has been fed into the systems that now make up these apps we’ve become so fond of. They know what they know because of what we have told them. They are programmed – is that the right word here? – to put the pieces together when asked a question – programmed to think. And that thinking is colored by what they have been given to work with.


A recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine highlights the story of Timnit Gebru who was not originally planning to work in AI. She studied electrical engineering and then received her Ph.D. in computer vision after becoming interested in image analysis. Gebru is a woman of color, born and raised in Etheopia, and she immediately noticed that something was wrong when shifted her focus. “There were literally no Black people,” she says of AI conferences she would attend; four or fiver per five thousand, maybe. At Google she was a leader in their Responsible AI initiative. She talks about these large language models that are capable of creating their own content based on what they’ve learned and has recognized a danger within them – the biases they would reflect back, reinforcing societal prejudices. She ended up fired after refusing to withdraw a report about such things.

Another colleague of hers, also a woman of color, began to look at facial detection technology, something called “Aspire Mirror” where you stand in front of a mirror and the system projects a celebrity reflection onto your face. She tried Serena Williams and her own ID card, all with no luck. But a white Halloween mask sitting nearby worked. And she found that computers that detect and classify people’s faces either didn’t detect her face or categorized her as male. She fed the system thousands of pictures of famous women of color, the former first lady – all labeled male. The reason beneath this is the lack of diversity in the datasets originally fed into the system. So people of color are mischaracterized or viewed negatively based on the kinds of stories about them that were initially supplied. This effects hiring processes with major companies who use automated tools, and with arrests of innocent folks where police departments use them.


This is just the tip of the iceberg, I am afraid, and you can see where I am headed, no doubt. Concerns are being raised now about AI because the creators are worried about an AI take-over and rightly so I suppose, but where were we with concern five to ten years ago when some of this research I mentioned was coming to the fore? AI owning corporations tend to perpetuate the kind of bias, exploitation and data-colonialism Gebru was calling attention to. The encoding of biases potentially damaging to marginalized groups calls out to us to take a stance around how we interact with each other in our world, and when applied to AI means taking the kind of approach that separates AI from corporate owners and places it in a public interest context, according to Greg Ruggiero in an Op-Ed published by Yes! Magazine this month. It is about the well-being of the many.


I love the creativity available to us when innovations like AI become part of our lives. But I have a hard time trusting that it will always be used for good and wholesome creative pursuits. The people who seem to be holding the reins do not always exhibit the kind of inclusive practices necessary to ensure equity and justice in the outcomes. As a people who espouse these values as a part of our mission, what do we need to be aware of as new technologies are rolled out? What kinds of checks and balances should we be advocating for? It’s a big task and is getting bigger every day.


If all intelligence isn’t human – and we are being shortsighted if we think it is – then what more do we need to know and do about relating to a variety of intelligences across the spectrum? How do our Principles guide us when we are considering an entity that we have never experienced before? They are very human-centric! Perhaps our role involves the assurance of equity so that people like Timnit Gebru, people of color and other marginalized folks are seen and heard in what is produced. Maybe our role is tied to loosing the hold of the one percent on the amazing resources our world has to offer. Each of us will need to decide within our own hearts what feels right and good and holy as a response. Our faith, that which we gather up when we come together, supplies us with the tools we need.

In our rapidly changing world, may we find our place as a voice for the many instead of the few. May we choose creativity that benefits those many and may we have the courage to say ‘no’ to that which does not. May we use our thinking minds alongside our loving hearts and life-giving spirits for the good of our community and our world.


So may it be and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, August 27, 2023

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References:

"How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking? By Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker Magazine; January 16, 2023.

“These Women Tried to Warn Us About AI” by Lorena O’Neil in Rolling Stone Magazine; August 12, 2023.

“The Risky Rise of AI” by Greg Ruggiero in Yes! Magazine; Fall 2023.


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​Unitarian Universalist

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