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Dylan Doyle-Burke on AI, Religious Studies, and Liberation Theology


Transcript:


KERRY MACKERETH:

Hi! We're Eleanor and Kerry. We're the hosts of The Good Robot podcast, and join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And what does feminism have to bring to this conversation? If you wanna learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list with work by, or picked by, our experts. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Today we’re talking to Dylan Doyle-Burke, a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder and host of the Radical AI podcast, previously a PhD student at the University of Denver in religious studies and a minister at the Unitarian Universalist church, an inclusive and liberal US-based congregation. We’ve explored a couple of spiritual traditions on this podcast so far, for example the episode with Tenzin Priyadarshi on Buddhist approaches to AI ethics. Today we discuss the challenges and advantages of thinking through ethical issues in AI using Christian spiritual traditions, particularly approaches from liberation theology. I hope you enjoy the show.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Great, thank you so much for being here. So could you tell us a little bit about what you do? And what brings you to the topic of feminism, gender, theology and technology?


DYLAN DOYLE-BURKE:

Sure. So my name is Dylan. I'm currently a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Previously, I was a PhD student before I transferred at the University of Denver in religious studies. And before that, I was a minister. So I actively served a congregation. And I also served as a hospital chaplain for a number of years. So I was in the hospital helping folks of many different denominations and backgrounds, make meaning out of their life and death, especially in a burn unit and a neurological ICU. And so from that world, I transitioned into thinking about religious studies and technology. And now I'm thinking more about technological design and holistic technological design, especially around artificial intelligence.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Our podcast is called The Good Robot. So what we ask everyone at the beginning, and what we'd love to hear your take on is, what is good technology? Can we even have it? And how should we work towards it?


DYLAN DOYLE-BURKE:

So I'm realising that I did not answer your first question completely in terms of feminism and, and what I would call liberation. And so what drives me into, into this space, which I think also directly ties to talking about good technology, is that for me, in my experience, especially in religion, there are certain voices that have been historically privileged or historically lifted up and heard and other voices that have either been marginalised or silenced. And you see this in the entirety of Western Christianity, you see this in, you know, I don't know where you where you don't see this, but you essentially see, you know, white European, male voices who are more dominant and centred and defining the terms of the debate. So, you know, even if you go back to the early Christian history, right, they're called the early church fathers, which is already telling, and then you have them saying, okay, this is what truth is, this is what God is. And for me, what I was studying back when I went to seminary was resistance to those narratives and those meta narratives. And this especially took form in my analysis on liberation theology, which now all of that informs the work that I do and the theoretical work that I do, which is hopefully to decenter, those historically privileged voices, and able to create more of a holistic dialogue with people of different identities, which is also why, you know, we're in collaboration, because we had started the radical AI podcast explicitly for this purpose. For me, I think there's a very big difference between how we define good technology and how we define bad technology. So I think that it's almost easier to define when a technology does bad, obviously, you still have like moral differences between different groups and international space sometimes that not everyone agrees on the terms. But I think it's, it's pretty easy for us to say, okay, this technology is killing people or okay, this facial recognition technology is blatantly you know, targeting people of certain races or genders. And it's not touching people of other races and genders. And so I think it's, it's almost easier to do that, at least at this point. Or maybe there's just more of a common language right now around that. In terms of good technology, I think, in a lot of ways, no one has any idea what they're doing. I think that people have like a good sense of maybe for them, what might either feel good or be good or maybe perhaps we have like the United Nations Development Goals where we have these like, big moral super structures in which we're saying, okay, this is what we're moving towards. But we see time and time again, as we put these, you know, ideas of massive scale at play and try to enforce them on the ground, especially in terms of technology development, that we keep missing things. We keep harming the same groups that we were harming you know, hundreds of years ago in terms of the church, we still, there's still all of these patterns. And so the question is like, why, how do we avoid it? And then how do we build good technology out of it? And I think for me, that's where Religious Studies comes in. For me good technology takes into account a holistic human experience that includes spirituality and includes our bodily health, that includes our mental health, and really focuses on the social as opposed to creating technology for technology's sake. Because I think that if you have a problem statement that says, okay, we want this technology because we need to fix technology, or we want this technology, because it's going to make millions of dollars. Like, all that might be true. But there's a lot more room for causing harm, or at the very least, I don't think that you're going to end up with a quote unquote, good technology or a helpful or healthy technology, which is probably how I would reframe that language of it.

E: (6:24) Brilliant. So can you tell us a little bit more about these religious approaches to AI and to other emerging technologies? What can we gain from it? Is religion just relevant when we talk about ethics or at other stages or in other spaces within technology development?

D: (6:43) So I think I need to preface this, because talking about religion can be a rabbit hole, and people will disagree with me, and that's just fine. So I am a, as I said, I'm trained as a Christian scholar. And so although I'm aware, and I've done collaborations with folks from other religious traditions, it's not necessarily my wheelhouse. So I can, I can talk about that a little bit, but it's it's not where my expertise lies. Also, in terms of Christian theology, you know, it's, it's not just one thing. It's, you know, Christian theologies through time. So Catholicism is very different than the religion that I was trained in that I'm a minister. And that said, I do think there are some more general statements that I can make. I guess, last preface, sorry, this topic comes with a lot of prefaces, is that this is still a pretty new field of, at least in the academic world, of people taking theology, so the study of God, especially systematic theology, and applying it to new technology. The church, especially the Christian church, has a history of lagging pretty far behind other areas of society when it comes to thinking about technology, or even like thinking about their definitions of technology. And so that is, that's also present, although I will say on the Catholic side, they're doing a good, you know, the pope is has done a great job of at least talking about AI ethics. All that said, I think that what religion provides is a very explicit moral framework that, especially in the Christian world has, for better or worse, worked its way into most of our legal systems into most of our just, language systems. And there's just some assumptions that our societies make based on the history of the political history as well. And the theological history of the church. And I think that plays into, you know, even looking back at the Enlightenment, as much as people were trying to get away from the church in Western Europe, you have these concepts that are drawn directly from those moral frameworks. You can't separate it from the history and you can’t, unfortunately, you can't separate the history from what's happened with the Christian church, in, in our world just because the footprint has been so big. So, for me, I think the first step is understanding those frameworks and understanding how they impact our lives generally. And then more specifically how those moral frameworks especially that draw from those Christian or religious traditions, how those can be applied effectively, to building technology in general. Yeah, and so my specific area is around liberation theology. And just to give a definition, so liberation theology, originally, it was Latin American liberation theology, and it's a synthesis of Christian theology and socioeconomic analysis that emphasises the social concern for the poor, and the political liberation for oppressed peoples. And so that is core to my understanding of what technology should be doing, but also what our social systems should be doing. And I guess where to begin that conversation, and then I'll throw it back over to you for maybe more specific questions about this. But if our technology is not taking into account or really designing with at centre, a social concern for the poor, and the political liberation for oppressed peoples than it is not doing the job of creating good technology.

KERRY MACKERETH:

Fantastic. This is really, really fascinating, and I would love to expand more on this. So what do you think a liberation theology approach illuminates about the kinds of harms or the kinds of oppressions that get produced by technologies?

DYLAN DOYLE-BURKE:

Sure, so I guess, all of these come with prefaces. So for me as a liberation theologian, a liberation scholar, first, it is important for me to name my own positionality in this space, so I am a white cis man in a United States context. And that comes with, you know, various privileges and everything you know, gets filtered through, through those identities, again, for better or worse, but it is important for me to name that. So I'm trying not to speak for other communities, which is why I also take some of the more like, philosophical stances, which is problematic. Again, we can talk about that but I think that really, for me, it's a matter of intention when it comes to technology design. I mean, I think it always is. But for me, when I've done consulting work, or when I've, again, and the radical AI podcast, when we interview, folks, it's amazing to me the number of stories that I hear about technology, design, AI or otherwise, where no one knows why they're doing it, you know, it's a fun engineering problem, which has its place. It's a like a good way to make money, it's what you know, your shareholders are looking for, but it doesn't usually, in my experience, take into account these bigger and broader concepts, whether those are socioeconomic, or spiritual or otherwise. And so now we've seen this push in recent years towards either human centred computing or human centred design, or these, these various, basically what they are just various strategies of trying to centre again, in the human, although people have pushed back and being like, oh, it's sort of like greenwashing, you're just saying that you're doing that, paying lip service to it, but you're not actually doing it. And so for me, my design question along with the rest of the field is, well, how do we do this design that centres the holistic experience of the human, and not just like the human but humans because much like, you know, Christian theology, it's not just one thing. It's not just one human, like even sitting on the call, right, we all come with our different thoughts, feelings, experiences, etc. And so how do we design for that, not just in a way that we cause harm, but in a way that benefits people and hopefully benefits the people who really need benefit in a society that stacked against them and the socio and economic system that's stacked against them? So for me and my why I begin with religion, besides it being the job I had before, doing this was because again, I think it is an explicit space. So I think it comes with a language that can be used in design, again, beyond the god, beyond the Jesus, like just thinking explicitly, like these are our principles, these are where we're starting from. Even in the Trinity you have like, at least we're saying that this is like the foundation of what we're, what our, what our beginning point is, and I think the lesson that we can learn from religion beyond just it's good to have moral frameworks is to be able to name what those moral frameworks are specifically. And then because of some of these more recent traditions of liberation, I think there's already some language in how to take those systems of belief that we're now hopefully explicitly naming and apply them to something. In liberation theology, especially Latin American liberation theology, there's also black liberation theology and some other liberation theologies. But, but especially in that case, taking that social and then applying it to okay, well, what are we going to do on the ground? Because I think that's right, these, these can't just exist as high flying ideas, they have to be embodied in some way. And one way that we can embody them, which is within our technology development. And I think we have to, honestly, like, I think if we don't, we've already seen some of the consequences. Some of my work is on moral philosophy and robotics, you see what's happened with increased automation. Recently, especially in the past year of the pandemic, and at least in the United States, you have this class of workers who have, basically, you have two classes. This is I think, one of my favourite scholars earlier and he talks about this. And so I don't want to butcher her language, but you basically have the split between the serving class and the and the people who are served essentially. And automation has continued to increase this division, but you have, like, you know, your doordash, or Amazon delivery, you have all these things that have made literally billions upon billions, but trillions of dollars this past year, especially buoyed by these, the increased automation, allowing for people who are already being taken advantage of by the system, to be even further taken advantage of by the system.

E: (18:07) Absolutely. And that's why it's so interesting to see different approaches towards human-robot interactions. And there are so many really interesting ways of approaching how we communicate with, relate to non-human devices. And I love the work that's coming out of animist traditions. And people who are looking into Shinto, and the way that people in Japan interact with care robots. I'm also a Christian and know that, at its best, it can provide influential ways of thinking about radical togetherness and love and equality. But it does have this very complex, also very painful history. So as you have said a lot in this conversation, it involves locating the kinds of theological practice that is grounding this work, and taking into account these very violent histories of colonialism and homophobia that we're also trying to reject, as we take a very old theological tradition that does have a lot to offer. So the relationship between Shinto and animism and robotics is quite obvious, but can you expand on that and tell us what Christian theology is, or different kinds of modes of thinking can contribute to these kinds of interactions and the development of robotics?


DYLAN DOYLE-BURKE:

So, in terms of Christianity, I think that one of the reasons why it's so hard to work with in this space is because there is so much and because you can't divorce the theology, and the thinking about God, or we can even call it the moral frameworks from the immense amount of violence in the history of the traditions. Because as, as you pointed out, Christianity, even to the present day, Catholicism in the US has actively harmed people in the LGBTQIA community, has actively harmed women, has actively harmed many people, and many different identities. And I don't believe that that can be overlooked. And so all of what I'm going to say is, is with an eye towards that, but I do think that there are certain concepts in Christianity, as you already pointed to, that can serve as a backbone for thinking about robotics in a different way. And I think one of those is interconnectedness. So again, going back to this concept of a trinity, or even God, and you have all these different understandings of it. But going back to this idea that there is something greater than ourselves. I think that being intentional and understanding that we can have a sense in our development, even of something greater than ourselves, whether that's what we're trying to impact or make the world a better place, or just that we have a greater meaning in our individual lives. And so our, we can understand that the work that we develop has bigger consequences than just in our like, immediate bubble. I think that is just an important starting point. I think the second side, I would say, is actually that materiality too, which is also impact dependent. So first thing I was saying is like, well, there's more than materialities. Second thing that I'm saying is actually all this is also material. So if we look at like planet justice, or we look at like environmental justice, it's really important for us to understand and To think about the material consequences of our actions in terms of our technology design. And the reason why I think that religious studies can help us with this is because especially Christianity is because for so long, it has been so tactile, right, like you go in you possibly smell incense, or you, you know, take communion, or you get baptised with, with water, or what have you, all of it is, I don't know if we always think about this but like, as someone who's like, given communion, there's something very just embodied about all of it, like not necessarily carnal, but it's very embodied. And I think that's something that is already in our world as a way to think about embodiment and the impact of embodiment, in terms of that connection to something greater, that if there's a way to translate that into us building technology, but, but maybe robotics in particular, because in some ways, robotics is the most like explicitly embodied technology that, that we're working with, then we can possibly create a development model that can be applied to other areas of technology development and AI in general.

ELEANOR DRAGE:

That's really interesting. I hadn't thought about that element of embodiment, and what Christianity says about it, I'd sort of taken that for granted. But you're, you're right, that gave me something to think about. I remembered a conference a couple of years ago, Rosi Braidotti who is a, you know, definitive atheist, brought up in the Catholic tradition, talking about Laudato si, the Pope Francis's encyclical letter for the environment. And she said, It was one of the most important bits of literature to come out on care for the environment in the past decade, which I thought was, was really interesting. As she is a feminist, as are we, and we would love to know about your way of understanding the relationship between feminism and technology, how it relates, also what feminism and gender means to you. It means very different things to different people. And that's something that's so fun for us to experience through this podcast. So can you tell us a bit about that?

DYLAN DOYLE-BURKE:

Yes, and no. In some ways, I think this is a question for me to answer. And again, in some ways, I don't want to be defining feminism for a set of groups that I might not identify as part of. I identify as a feminist, but I also, again, as part of, someone holding a, more like hegemonic perspective in terms of my identity, I want to be clear about that. I spent a lot of time thinking about this, but it's one of the most difficult topics for me to contend with as a white male in the space is for the folks in power to give up that power. And so for me, one of the reasons why I prefaced so much of this is that I think that there's importance in my scholarship. And obviously, I want to have a career. And this is the tension. But I also think it's much more important for like you all to be the host of this podcast, right? And for, like other people's stories to be heard. And so the idea behind our podcast, radically AI, was to say, okay, how can we just like take a backseat as like white academics and be like, okay, these are the stories, but we can use our position of privilege to then create that space to tell those stories. So I would say that the last thing that I think religious studies and religion brings to this entire conversation, including, like, the feminist critique is that it allows us to think systematically about these topics, because religion is a system that we're we're working within, and there's a lot of systems theories, like a lot of psychological systems theories are, have been, in the, in the development directly in communicator and dialogue with the with, with religion, almost by necessity. And so I think that in order to fix any of this, we can't have an isolated set of, I don’t know, solutions, I guess, I want to say like, it has to be a systemic solution, we have to look at the systems that we're in. And the only way to do that is by being a little bit more interdisciplinary. And so my, my cause is to say, hey, you know, religions over here, we've been thinking about some of this stuff, but not all of it. Can we like we've done with some of the other social sciences in the humanities, can we bring it into conversation with engineering, and maybe see what happens because my, I suspect that it can at least teach us something, if not help us be more moral or create better technology, create good technology in a different way.

KERRY MACKERETH:

So you're the host of the Radical AI podcast, which we're both really really big fans of, what are your upcoming plans for the podcast? What are you really excited for?

DYLAN DOYLE-BURKE:

Sure. So yeah, the Radical AI podcast, we've been around for over a year now. And you know, we've been absolutely honoured by the amount of people in the AI ethics space who have taken a chance to come on our show. We don't, we don't entirely understand why we've had these people who have been idols of Jess and I’s for a long time who have said yes to coming on the show. But we again, we are honoured and delighted that they've been willing to share their stories with us. But we, basically the goal of the show, again, like I said, is his storytelling because we believe that storytelling is something that can change our imaginations. And if we change our imaginations, then we can change what we're doing out in the world, including in terms of the development of our technology and responsible technology. And, you know, the podcast is just going to keep going. We moved from, we moved from weekly, which was a lot for us, two PhD students to, to bi-weekly, and, and who knows what's gonna happen with the schedule in the future as we get closer to our dissertation. But we've been really happy with the first part of the podcast was trying to define what radical AI is, through asking people out in the field who are doing that kind of liberative work. And now it's more of, okay, well, how do we put that into practice? And we invite you to check us out. But I don't want to plug my podcast on your podcast, which I just did. So my apologies for that.


KERRY MACKERETH:

No, please do, we really look forward to all the exciting things you guys have in store for the future of Radical AI. So thank you again, so much for joining us. It really has been a pleasure.

DYLAN DOYLE-BURKE:

Absolutely. Thank you both. And I'm very excited to see where your podcasts ends up. So yeah, I will talk but thank you again for having me. It's been a pleasure.


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