To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, gains in machine learning technology are a “known unknown.” Unlike some other future changes and development, we are reasonably confident that the machine learning revolution (also known as artificial intelligence, but that is a loaded term) of the past 10 years will continue at least over the medium-term. I’m skeptical that we’ll ever reach “artificial intelligence” in the sense of being able to create a feeling, thinking being from a computer because, as I’ve discussed before, I don’t think our brains are just meat calculators.
Still, the machine learning revolution is exciting enough without Skynet. Recent machine learning models produce content that is uncannily human-like, and it is going to continue to continue improving. The GPT-3 system that produced the cited essay has 175 billion neural network parameters, whereas the GPT-4 system that will probably roll out sometime in the next couple of years will have over 500 times as many. While the computer might not be able to feel, it will certainly be able to perform sophisticated tasks that we now think of as requiring human intuition for.
So what does this mean for the Church? I can think of a few possibilities.
Gospel Information and Research
In 2022 we can ask Alexa to tell us a joke, generate a random number between 1 and 10, or “play some country music.” However, with future advances in Natural Language Processing we’ll eventually be able to ask things like “Alexa, email me a document with copies of everything ever written by Joseph Smith, Jr.’s own hand.” Right now Google answers such requests by directing you to websites where other people have done the work, but in the medium future the AI programs will be able to do the original, customized analysis itself, essentially giving everybody a free research assistant. For example, I’m vaguely aware of a project at BYU several years ago to document all references to Heavenly Mother in official Church materials that took much time and many research assistants. It is likely that in the future a GPT-4 system or its equivalent can basically do the same thing instantaneously. (Similar revolutions will happen with, for example, coding and data analysis, where people will be able to use natural language to describe to the computer the game or analysis that they want).
In much the same way that Google opened up access to Church history that before you needed a BYU library card for, advances in information retrieval will continue to make Church information more accessible and useful, whether you want to find the perfect Conference quote for somebody in your life going through a hard time, own your TBM family members, or respond to your family members that are trying to own you. It will be fun.
My understanding is that at this point Google Translate is getting close to professional quality for developed-country languages with a large amount of material for the algorithms to train on. A few weeks ago out of curiosity I ran the Church’s professional translations of 1 Nephi 1:1 through Google Translate for a variety of languages:
1 I, Nephi, was born of good parents, and therefore received some instruction in all science from my father; and having known many afflictions during the course of my life, yet being highly favored of the Lord all my days; yea, having attained a great knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God, I therefore write the history of the events of my life.
Igbo (Nigerian Language with 30 Million speakers)
1 I, Nephi, having been born of a good father and mother, was therefore taught in the manner of my father; having seen many persecutions all my life, however, since I have been blessed in the Lord all the days of my life; yea, because I know all the goodness and wisdom of God, therefore I have written this account in the same order as I have done it all my days.
Waray (Indonesian Language with 3.5 Million Speakers)
1 I, Nephi , was born of good parents , therefore taught me in the manner of my father; having seen many afflictions all my life, however, since I was blessed in the sight of the Lord all the days of my life; yea , because I know the goodness and the mystery of God, therefore I have written this account in the order which I have done it all my days.
As you can see, occasionally there’s a weird word here or there, but it basically reads like scripture. That’s what we have now, with further advances in AI-based translation the ability for everybody hear the gospel “in the fullness of the gospel in their own tongue” will accelerate. In terms of the more esoteric critic versus apologist debates, it is becoming less and less restricted to the relatively privileged English online spaces. If you are a Japanese member who wants to get to the bottom of the Kinderhook plates, the latest research is now available to you, and this trend will continue..
Some people read at a 3rd grade level, I draw at a 3rd grade level. I’ve always been jealous of people who can use art to communicate moving, powerful messages.
With AI that playing field is already starting to flatten. In the future we’ll be able to ask the computer to “Paint the Jesus in the Red Robe Painting by Del Parsons, but in the style of Arnold Frieberg,” or upload a piece of iconic artwork and generate its cubist or pointillist version. While in the past Church art was limited to a few big, brand names, now we have hundreds of artists and personalized styles creating art for Latter-day Saint themes (I especially love perusing the submissions to the Church’s International Art competition), and the ability to use AI to create art could exponentially accelerate this trend as the possibility of artistic expression is extended to even rubes like me.
Analysis of Church Data
Years ago a local Church leader asked me to use Census data to generate a color coded map of native Spanish-speakers in the area to inform their decision making process about Spanish ward boundaries. While this was a one-off case, questions like “given the distribution of active members in the stake, the locations of stake centers, and concern X, Y, and Z, what are the optimal boundaries?” Is the kind of question that is now systematically and mathematically “solvable.” Similarly, missionaries around the world are sending a significant amount of data to Church headquarters; in addition to the weekly reports, with the rise of digital area books they now have geolocation data for investigators and members (where are the effective proselytizing hot spots in a given area?)
The social media implications are fairly obvious. As algorithms become more refined the Church can better tailor specific its online advertisements and content (I still get Facebook ads for a free Bible from the Church, so there’s evidently still some algorithmic work to do in separating non-members from members based on online activity,but then again presumably the risk of sending a message to a member is lower than the risk of missing a non-member, so sending ads to anyone who searches or clicks on Church-related topics might not be a bad strategy overall).
One of the implications of having Church leadership that often come from the ranks of the business world is that the useful data-based methods that are being adopted by industry will likely migrate over to Church operations. (Indeed, some of this is already happening as individual Church departments are now hiring data scientists.) Advances in machine learning in the next 10-20 years will open up whole new worlds of possibilities at the individual and institutional level.