As BT replaces 55,000 staff with AI, is society in danger of making new gods out of robots?

The announcement this morning that UK telecoms giant BT is going to shed 55,000 jobs has not only sent shockwaves through the economic sector but has raised profound new questions about modern technology and its place in society. BT has said that most of the cuts will fall in its customer services areas, where human beings are going to be replaced with technologies including artificial intelligence (AI). The cuts represent a reduction of more than a third of its 130,000 workforce, which means that by the end of this decade AI could be running at least the customer interface element of UK’s critical telecoms infrastructure.

For those not familiar with AI, and in particular ‘generative AI’, it’s a type of Artificial Intelligence that can create a wide variety of data, such as images, videos, audio, text, and 3D models within a matter of seconds. Many of us have already encountered AI – it’s those annoying and pretty useless chatbots you get on websites that insist they’re there to help you, but actually only have a small bank of bland responses and don’t seem to be capable of understanding any of the obvious, simple questions you put to it.

Annoying chatbots and the like have been around a long time now, but the game-changer came in 2014 with the development of generative adversarial networks, or GANs – a form of high speed learning algorithm that suddenly enabled computers to create fairly complex images, videos and audio of real people. I won’t say ‘authentic’ or ‘convincing’ because we’ve all seen how blatantly wooden these creations can be.

The introduction of this new technology was grasped with glee by the film industry, whose funding and development in pursuit of ever better film animation and CGI effects over the past few decades has catapulted generative AI development into the broader public space.

Coupled to new breakthroughs in transformers and language processing models, AI can now be trained on billions of pages of text with ease, and even has the capacity to track, recognise and interpret connections between words and sentences, leading advocates to claim that AI can now compose poetry, write plays and filmscripts and even engage in meaningful live conversations. In essence AI is the future, and our world is now destined to be controlled by robots, whom we will treat as our new gods simply because they will very quickly acquire superior to human intelligence and reasoning powers, and are not subject to any of the frailties, weaknesses and foibles that beset us ordinary mortals.

If you think this is far-fetched, there are plenty of people who would disagree with you. Take US author Ray Kurzweil for instance, whom BIll Gates once called ‘the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.’ In his book The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil predicted a time very soon when “the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our creations.” The ‘singularity’ would not only be a machine with the sum total of all human knowledge at its disposal, but the ability to use and manipulate that knowledge in whatever it desired, which Kurzweil argued would mean that this machine would effectively replace the human concept of God. If that sounds ominous it won’t help to know that The Singularity is Near was written by Kurzweil bay back in 2006, and a whole lot of AI development has happened since.

There is, however, some good news. Whilst younger generations may froth excitedly about the potential of AI to do and create things that they can’t even dream of, there are a few fundamentals of human nature and behaviour – and indeed the nature of God – that are worth mentioning. If you do wander into a conversation with one of these new AI evangelists, you’ll find that the discussion invariably swings round to what you do for a living, followed by a ecstatic monologue about how AI is either going to take that over and do it better, or is already doing so. In the case of literature, writing and journalism it’s apparently a no brainer that AI is going to be able to mash off the internet every book and article that has ever been written, and then go one better itself. With a rationale that echoes the seemingly unchallengeable logic of Darwinism (A evolved into B, evolved into C – therefore Z must be a product of A) the AI evangelist relies on a simple but erroneous premise that, because humans have had to learn everything and the brain is basically a chemical microchip, then advanced robots will be able to do the same, but far better and faster, with far greater clarity and accumulating infinite knowledge in the process.

Whilst this sounds to me like society is tutoring robots to do what it no longer has the intellectual capacity to do itself, it’s a proposition that is proving particularly attractive to many modern minds, and especially to those who no longer hold any regard for God and the impact of metaphysics on the world we live in. In simple terms, God created the earth and everything upon it, so this divine blueprint is embedded not only in all living things, but in even the most unlikely and inert of objects. Crucially, however much theologians, saints and pontiffs write about this ‘divine blueprint’, it’s not something that humans can every fully define; it is only something that we sense in our innermost being.

And many of us sense it deeply, indeed it’s the very essence of the journey of faith. At its foundation is a deep ‘irrationality and randomness’, in the sense of things that are there but simply not explainable. However removed from God human beings do become, the ‘irrational divine’ remains engrained in human existence, and that’s something that even the most advanced AI machine is never going to be able to assimilate.

As it happens this Sunday is the 57th World Day of Social Communications, when the Catholic Church acknowledges and encourages the Catholic media to continue its work of evangelising – and also acting as a bridge between the faith and society (something that we here at the Catholic Network are particularly committed to!).

In his message on Sunday, Pope Francis will reflect at length on the theme of “Speaking with the heart”, which comes from the writings of St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists. The Pope, who has written often about the influence of de Sales on his life, will quote the famous phrase of St Francis: “In order to speak well, it is enough to love well”.

Francis continues: “I dream of an ecclesial communication that knows how to let itself be guided by the Holy Spirit, gentle and at the same time, prophetic, that knows how to find new ways and means for the wonderful proclamation it is called to deliver in the third millennium. A communication which puts the relationship with God and one’s neighbour, especially the neediest, at the centre and which knows how to light the fire of faith rather than preserve the ashes of a self-referential identity. A form of communication founded on humility in listening and parrhesia in speaking, which never separates truth from charity.”

Unfortunately for AI, preserving ‘the ashes of a self-reverential identity’ is just what this technology is designed to do, hence it’s inability to ever achieve the kind of global domination and divinity that advocates think it will.

Thankfully, so much of what happens in our world is entirely irrational and random, and so often the work of God, which means that solutions to human problems large and small will only ever be solved when we understand that certain things do simply happen, and for divine rather than any particularly predictable human reasons.

Actually, I very much doubt that AI will ever be able to do more than the most mundane of tasks – and it certainly won’t ever be able to predict the more important things, such as winner of the next Grand National, the timing of the next Liverpool FC goal – or indeed the outcome of even the most casual of human conversations. Given this limitation, AI will likely drive us to utter distraction when we’re trying to get our phone line fixed, but it certainly won’t be taking Confessions any time soon.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian



Speaking with the heart
“The truth in love” (Eph 4:15)