Let’s Stay in Touch

By Frederick J. Streets ’75 M.Div.

A student approached me to ask to be allowed to submit the topic for a final paper to ChatGPT and see if the chatbot could generate a meaningful contribution to the course. This request occasioned a significant conversation between us about how such an approach would be a learning experience for the student and also allow me, as the instructor, to properly evaluate the work. Ultimately the student proposed to write a narrative/essay critique of the ChatGPT-created composition based upon the learning criteria a student should demonstrate in a final paper. Thus the submitted final project came in two parts: the ChatGPT-generated paper and the student’s critique of it.

The chatbot version of the final paper was theoretical and impersonal. It lacked the student’s own experiences and reflections. It lacked the human touch.

I was pleased that the student was able, by critically reviewing the AI-created paper, to demonstrate sufficient mastery of the course content and include uniquely particular human perspectives and experiences related the topic. I applauded the student for not attempting to present the AI-created paper as if it were one’s own, which of course would have resulted in a number of ethical concerns and possible violations according to academic guidelines for AI-assisted research and paper writing. As it turned out, not surprisingly, the chatbot version was theoretical and impersonal. It lacked the student’s own experiences and reflections. It lacked the human touch.

Think, Feel, or Click

My concern for student learning in the age of AI is that we keep AI in check as an educational tool and not substitute it for our capacity to feel and think. I am sure that there will be ongoing neuroscientific studies and data on the impact, positive and negative, of AI’s influence on our brain development, emotional learning, and capacity to feel, express emotions, and think critically. What is worrisome is our potential use of AI to increase a sense of rugged individualism that reinforces our isolation from one another and redefines how we think of ourselves as human beings and our connections with others.  

I think about how frustrating it is when I’m on the phone with automated “customer service” and unable to speak with a human being about my specific questions or needs. We cannot thrive or even survive as human beings without being authentically in touch, sensing our mutual humanity. Understanding what it means to have a human identity is derived from our social bonds and relationships. Our meaning and identity are created and embedded in all the social ways of being with one another in the world. It is easy to forget how precious a gift it is for us to be able to make choices—including technological choices—until we abdicate that freedom. We must not allow our virtual ways of communicating to overpower us and become the norm. How we ethically build and use AI is still our choice to make.

Mistaking Tech and Touch

The Imago Dei of Christian teaching has decisive moral implications here. To image God is to demonstrate our empathy and love for one another. How we use technology to relate to one another reflects our awareness of our divine connection, or lack thereof. If we too deeply internalize the technology we use, we risk mistaking it for our own humanity and spirituality. To do so is to tragically deceive ourselves, make an idol of algorithms, and negate our human identity. 

Yet we are increasingly internalizing it, normalizing our experiences with these technologies in ways we don’t understand. I was boarding a plane when in front of me were seated a toddler and his parents. The child was watching cartoons on a children’s iPad. The computer was taken from the child as part of the routine departure check list, and the child threw a prolonged tantrum until the iPad was returned to him. We know how upset we become when our Wi-Fi breaks down and we are suddenly offline for a time. Our dependence on technology is causing us unexpected new levels of discomfort, anguish, and withdrawal symptoms when we don’t have access to them. In fairness to the child, who probably had not yet developed certain coping capacities, the behavior was understandable. We, however, not only have to learn how to practice self-awareness and self-care when this happens, but to approach our use of AI so we don’t internalize and personalize it. Otherwise we risk our own dehumanization.

The Art of Living Humanely

The prophetic voice and pastoral concern of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was cautioning about this very thing 60 years ago. In his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech he warned:

“Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”

The use of AI to improve life and promote social justice happens only if those who create and use AI programs do not lose sight of our common humanity. The face-to-face conversations I had with the student about the final paper project, and what I learned from the student’s insights throughout the course, enriched us both. Our use of technology is a means and not an end. We’re here to preserve and honor what philosopher Martin Buber called the “I-Thou” relationship between people and not an “it-it,” no matter how extensive our use of AI becomes.

The Rev. Frederick (Jerry) Streets ’75 M.Div.former Chaplain of Yale University, is Coordinator of the Divinity and Social Work Joint Degree Program and Adjunct Associate Professor of Divinity and Social Work. He is a Visiting Associate Professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and in the Spirituality, Mind Body Institute in the Department of Clinical Psychology and Education, Teachers’ College at Columbia. Last year he retired as Senior Pastor of Dixwell Congregational Church in New Haven.