Noreen Herzfeld on “”I Can’t Breathe”: Bonhoeffer, the Bible, and the Death of George Floyd”

“I can’t breathe.”  These were the last words of George Floyd, suffocated on the streets of Minneapolis with a policeman’s knee on his neck.  Floyd’s death has sparked more than a week of protests, first in Minneapolis, and then spreading to cities across the nation, including Washington DC, protests both peaceful and violent.

Fearing protesters around the White House, President Trump retreated to a basement bunker.  In a gesture meant to counter this unflattering image, he and his advisors decided on a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House on Lafayette Square, a church that had suffered minor damage from a fire in a prior demonstration.  A half hour before curfew, the square was crowded with peaceful demonstrators (image, Rosa Pineda), among whom circulated clergy from St. John’s, giving aid and handing out bottles of water.  Police were ordered to clear the square, which they did, using pepper spray and rubber bullets.  Trump gave a brief speech in the Rose Garden, then marched across the square, posed briefly in front of the boarded-up church, awkwardly holding a Bible as cameras clicked, then returned to the White House.

Episcopalians were outraged.  The Reverend Gini Gerbasi, who had been in Lafayette Square when police cleared it, noted the violation of the demonstrators’ Fourth Amendment rights of peaceful assembly, adding, “They turned holy ground into a battleground.”  Episcopal Bishop of Washington DC, The Reverend Mariann Budde, told CNN, “Let me be clear, the president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. . . We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”

Many Evangelical Christians, however, hailed the symbolism of the moment.  Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook:   “President Donald J. Trump made a statement by walking through Lafayette Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church that had been vandalized and partially burned Sunday night. He surprised those following him by holding up a Bible in front of the church. Thank you, President Trump.  God and His Word are the only hope for our nation.”  Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, praised Trump’s visit: “His presence sent the twin message that our streets and cities do not belong to rioters and domestic terrorists, and that the ultimate answer to what ails our country can be found in the repentance, redemption, and forgiveness of the Christian faith.”

Other conservative Christians were less impressed.  Many noticed that Trump never opened the Bible, nor offered words of either prayer or comfort.  Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention regretfully noted, “More important than politics and optics is that all of us should be listening to what the Bible says — about the preciousness of human life, about the sins of racism and injustice, about the need for safety and calm and justice in the civil arena, all of it.”  The American Bible Society issued a statement on the Bible being “more than a symbol.”

Clearly, Christian responses are divided, and not merely on denominational or right-left lines.  Was Trump’s walk to St. John’s a pious or a self-serving act?  To get some perspective on this, I turn to the words of pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, like George Floyd, died as a young man at the hands of his government.   Bonhoeffer would tell us that judging Trump and his motives is asking the wrong question.  He would have us turn our eyes back to George Floyd.  In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes, “While we distinguish between pious and godless, good and evil, noble and base, God loves real people without distinction.”  For Bonhoeffer, “[an] attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.”  While Trump told governors “if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time,” Bonhoeffer, writing from his cell in Tegel prison, called on both Church and government to exist “for others…not dominating, but helping and serving.”

Christianity tells us we cannot put our individual selves first.  Jesus, according to Bonhoeffer, calls us to follow him in espousing a solidarity in which we “see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”  From the perspective of George Floyd.

“I can’t breathe.”  These words are not among the seven last words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.  Yet they could have been, for this is precisely how one dies when crucified.  The stretched-out arms hyper-extend the chest, making inhalation difficult.  The victim needs to pull himself up, using either his arms or pushing up with his legs, at each breath.  Exhaustion eventually occurs, followed quickly by asphyxiation.  This is the death Jesus died.  The grace we are all given by virtue of this death is, and was, for Bonhoeffer, costly:  “Costly grace . . . is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. . . Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”  Incarnated in George Floyd, and in each of us when we suffer and stand in solidarity with the suffering.

Black Friday to Cyber Monday: On Climate Change, Computers, and Our Embodied Selves

noreen-herzfeldOn Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, the Trump administration issued a massive new report on climate change, the National Climate Assessment, compiled by thirteen federal agencies.  The report clearly states that climate change is an intensifying danger, not just to the landscape of the US, as evinced by the recent Camp Fire in California, but also to our overall economy and infrastructure.  Donald Trump’s assessment of the report was blunt: “I don’t believe it.”

While Trump might be an outlier, I fear he is not.  My reasoning is connected to another post-Thanksgiving tradition, Cyber Monday.  Cyber Monday represents the trend away from physically shopping at “brick and mortar” stores toward shopping on-line.  With computer technology many activities that once took place in real space now take place in the bodiless world of cyberspace:  we communicate via messenger and text, we shop, bank and do research on the internet, we amuse ourselves with video games and streamed videos.  We project our minds across vast distances or into fictional realms and have experiences in those places that form us as persons.  In cyberspace we don’t need bodies; we conceive of ourselves as pure mind.  Silicon Valley types speculate that computers could bring us the ultimate “biohack”—to live without any “wetware” at all by uploading our minds to the computer.

Noreen article

Camp Fire burning in California.

Of course, this last option is still only a dream, despite predictions by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil that we will be able to upload our minds into computers by 2045.  Kurzweil writes:

“Up until now, our mortality was tied to the longevity of our hardware.  When the hardware crashed, that was it.  For many of our forebears, the hardware gradually deteriorated before it disintegrated . . . As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file.  We will be software, not hardware . . . As software, our mortality will no longer be dependent on the survival of the computing circuitry . . . [as] we periodically port ourselves to the latest, evermore capable “personal” computer . . . Our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups.”

Well, not quite yet.  We are embodied creatures.  In a recent interview with Christianity Today editor Douglas Estes, I make a case for our remaining embodied creatures, at least so long as we wish to remain human.  Yet, as Estes notes, while “movement toward cyborg (cybernetic organism) applications sounds like a leap into dystopian science fiction, Businessman Elon Musk aims to connect the brain to computers, and one neurologist was even willing to hack his own brain to further research on human speech, hoping to one day attain life extension itself.”

I doubt that we need fear such a future, for several reasons.  Here is a part of my response:


One reason it’s not going to work is due to the complexity of the brain and the entire human being. There are projects to map the connectome of the brain. The idea is that if we can do the human genome, then why can’t we do the connectome? But the connectome of the brain is much more complex than the human genome. We have billions of neurons, and each of those neurons can possibly be connected to thousands of other neurons. Plus, these connections are plastic; they change. We kill neurons off, we grow new neurons, we reconnect, we end connections that are not being used, and we build new connections in other places. Plus, we’re now finding out that we’ve got an awful lot of neurons in our gut as well. There’s a strong connection between the brain and the gut, and it’s not one way—brain to gut; gut to brain is connected as well.

You can find the entire interview, “Your Brain in Not a Computer,” at

What I do fear is that our movement toward the on-line world, epitomized by the move from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, deadens us to our surroundings by making the natural world less salient to our everyday lives.  As Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods, “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”  I hope the National Climate Assessment will help us all to recognize our embeddedness in both our body and the nature that surrounds us and awake to such a passion.  I fear, however, that, like our president, too few of us will look away from our screens to do so.

Noreen Herzfeld on “The Sorcery of Artificial Intelligence (AI)”

When I think of Artificial Intelligence (AI) the image that first comes to mind is is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  Mickey, left with the task of filling the workshop water tank, pages through a book of magic and casts a spell on a broom, giving it the task of toting the water from well to tank.  Relieved of his chore, Mickey goes to sleep dreaming of power and glory, while the broom dutifully brings in bucket after bucket of water.  The broom, having but one instruction, brings in more and more water, flooding the workshop and waking a hapless Mickey, who does not know how to stop it from its single-minded devotion to its task.

In an article entitled “The End of the Enlightenment,” published in the June edition of The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger fears that AI might bring a similar tragic result.  Kissinger begins by noting the basic flaws we already experience in the Internet age—how computers lead us to treat people as data, overwhelm us with too much information, separate us by catering to our preferences, and provide an all too tempting diversion from deep thought and reflection.  “The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection.”  Kissinger then turns his lens more specifically on AI.  Here, he makes three key observations.  He also makes one key mistake.

First, what Kissinger gets right.  After nodding to the possibilities for “extraordinary benefits” in medical science (AI is already better at detecting cancer than many clinicians), clean-energy provision, and other environmental issues, Kissinger warns of AI’s potential for unintended consequences, especially those that may arise from the inability of an AI to contextualize.  Like Mickey’s broom, which was told nothing about the size of the water tank or the undesirability of a flooded workshop, AI may not be able to “comprehend the context that informs its instructions.”  He asks, “Can we, at an early stage, detect and correct an AI program that is acting outside our framework of expectation? Or will AI, left to its own devices, inevitably develop slight deviations that could, over time, cascade into catastrophic departures?”  The latter is, perhaps, what should worry us most.  As Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of computer science at Oxford, recently noted, “The danger is clearly not that robots will decide to put us away and have a robot revolution. . .  If there [are] killer robots, it will be because we’ve been stupid enough to give it the instructions or software for it to do that without having a human in the loop deciding.”

Second, Kissinger worries that AI is likely to change our own thought processes and values.  He notes that the recent champion Go-playing program, AlphaGo, does not play the way humans do and suggests that AI has changed the nature of the game in that “winning” no longer seems tethered to strategies we humans have thought of, strategies that seem also to apply to other parts of life.  Though he does not say it outright, it seems easy to surmise that AI could easily change the way we think about a number of human endeavors.  My fear is that, just as Go might be reduced to “winning”, so in other areas the single-mindedness of AI, like the single-mindedness of Mickey’s broom, might narrow the way we think of our tasks, and our world.  Mickey never thought about the exercise he was losing or the joy he might have found in going out to the well and looking at the sky.

Third, Kissinger rightly notes that machine learning programs have a certain opacity.  We start them up and evaluate them on their results, but we do not in the end know exactly how they reach the conclusions they do nor what they have learned.  The classic story from the early days of machine learning is of a program devised by the Department of Defense that was given the task of learning to locate hidden tanks.  The machine got quite proficient at identifying all the pictures with tanks in its initial set, but when given a new set of pictures, totally failed.  It turned out that the photos in the training set harboring hidden tanks were all taken on cloudy days.  The machine had learned nothing about tanks, but knew how to distinguish a cloudy from a sunny day.  Whether true or apocryphal, this story illustrates how machine learning programs may reach conclusions that we do not understand.  Explaining those conclusions is often a more challenging task than reaching them, one we may not choose to bother with.  Kissinger writes, “[AI] algorithms, being mathematical interpretations of observed data, do not explain the underlying reality that produces them. Paradoxically, as the world becomes more transparent, it will also become increasingly mysterious.”

Will all this bring an end to Enlightenment thinking?  Kissinger sees the last 200 years as a time when humans moved from reliance on faith and authority to reliance on reason.  However, in a world that has seen fascism and communism rise and fall, one busily producing leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and groups like ISIS, I suspect reason’s supremacy over faith and authority has been tenuous at best.  AI’s effect on this has, so far, been minimal.

Kissinger goes one step too far.  He ascribes computers with agency: “[AI] goes far beyond automation as we have known it. Automation deals with means; it achieves prescribed objectives by rationalizing or mechanizing instruments for reaching them. AI, by contrast, deals with ends; it establishes its own objectives.”  Really?  Not any AI I know of.  We tell AI what to do.  Without significant breakthroughs in our understanding of both consciousness and emotion, AI will not and indeed cannot have volition, for volition depends on both knowing what we are doing and wanting to do it.  AI can do neither.

To many, AI is likely to be as inscrutable as the spells in the sorcerer’s magic book.  We know it works, but we don’t know how—thus we may find it as hard to control as Mickey’s industrious broom.  The broom had no intention of causing trouble.  It did what it was told.  AI will do the same.  The problem is that we, like Mickey, are filled with dreams of power and glory while being mere beginners in casting our spells over our mechanical servants.  There will be unintended consequences, challenges to our way of thinking, and an element of mystery.  We had better stay awake.

Noreen Herzfeld on “Artificial Intelligence: An Existential Risk?”

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk recently issued a warning regarding the future of artificial intelligence.   “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.” Claiming access to cutting-edge AI technology, Musk called for proactive government regulation, noting that while such regulation is generally “irksome, . . . by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.”

Elon Musk

“I think people should be really concerned about it,” Musk said. “I keep sounding the alarm bell.”  Musk is not alone in sounding this alarm.  Several years ago physicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Really?  How might this happen?  According to Hawking, AI could “take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. . .. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

This concern has been a staple of science fiction for decades (see The Terminator or 2001).  However, those with a more intimate knowledge of AI disagree.  As MIT computer scientist Rodney Brooks has wryly pointed out, Musk and Hawking “don’t work in AI themselves. For those who do work in AI, we know how hard it is to get anything to actually work through product level.”  Virtual reality pioneer and Microsoft guru Jaron Lanier says anyone with experience of modern software should know not to worry about our future robotic overlords. “Just as some newborn race of superintelligent robots is about to consume all humanity, our dear old species will likely be saved by a Windows crash. The poor robots will linger pathetically, begging us to reboot them, even though they’ll know it would do no good.”

So does AI pose an existential risk?  Not for the reasons Hawking and Musk imagine.  We are unlikely to have “strong AI,” one that thinks in ways we humans think, ways as versatile as the human brain, for many, many years, if ever.  Our brains are vastly more complex than our present technology.  However, that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods.

“Weak AI,” programs that do only one thing and do that thing very well (think Deep Blue) are progressing by leaps and bounds and stand to undermine, or at least drastically change, our economy, our politics, and our personal lives.  In fact, as several studies published in just the last few weeks and months show, they are already doing so.

First, the economy.  A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US have been taken over by automation since the 1990s.  Only one new job in the computer industry is created for every three jobs lost.  It is automation, far more than governmental regulations or off-shoring, that has decimated industrial sector employment. No matter what President Trump says, jobs in coal or manufacturing are not coming back.  Moreover, automated vehicles and Amazon are poised to take over transportation and retail.

Nor are blue-collar workers the only ones who should worry.  A 2013 University of Oxford report estimated that 47 percent of American jobs will likely be threatened by automation in the coming decades, including many white-collar jobs in the legal, health, and educational sectors. A report from the World Bank estimates that this proportion is even higher in developing countries.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of Western capitalism.

Obviously, this has ramifications for our political systems, and we have seen the first of these in the election of Donald Trump in the US and the vote for Brexit in the UK.  Beyond the restiveness of the working class, AI also played a role in our last election through the spread of fake news on social media by bots..  Artificial intelligence makes the development of fake evidence remarkably easy.  A recent study published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found that people could not identify whether or not a photo had been Photoshopped with any more accuracy than guessing.  Author Sophie Nightingale warns, “Photos are incredibly powerful. They influence how we see the world. They can even influence our memory of things. If we can’t tell the fake ones from the real ones, the fakes are going to be powerful, too.”

And it is not only Photoshop.  A recent article in Wired, entitled “AI Will Make Forging Anything Entirely Too Easy,” notes that video and audio are subject to similar falsification.  “In the future, realistic-looking and -sounding fakes will constantly confront people. Awash in audio, video, images, and documents, many real but some fake, people will struggle to know whom and what to trust.”  This has led to a new form of espionage, one the Russians pioneered in our last election.  While in the past espionage was about obtaining information, in the future it will also be about inserting information wherever one can.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of our trust in our media and our political campaigns.

Our private lives stand to be shaken as well.  Meet Roxxy.

A 2016 study from the University of Duisenberg-Essen found that 50% of men surveyed said they could imagine purchasing a sex robot within the next five years.  Sex robots are already selling well, particularly in Japan, where their use has already led to a decline in human-human sexual encounters.  While I will save an examination of the ramifications of this for a future post, here is one threat to humanity that might truly fall under the rubric of “existential.”

AI is unlikely to threaten human existence, as Hawking fears.  There will be no super-intelligent robot apocalypse.  But AI has already begun to upend our economy, our politics, and even our sex lives.  And this is only the beginning.  While no threat to “the human race,” as Hawking fears, AI does pose a threat to the structure of “human civilization” as we know it.  Perhaps Elon Musk got his terms right.



Noreen Herzfeld on “The Balkanization of the Media”

noreen-herzfeldTo those who are familiar with the wars in the Balkans, much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric sounds eerily familiar.  Trump’s promise to his base that “You will never be ignored again” brings to mind Slobodan Milošević’s promise to the Serbs on the field of Kosovo Polje: “You will never be beaten again.”  Milošević, like Trump, was an old hand at presenting “alternative facts.” Reporter Peter Maas writes, “Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts.”

Sound familiar?  How are these leaders able to bring so many others into their twilight zone?  What makes neighbor turn against neighbor? Continue reading

Noreen Herzfeld on “Apocalypse, But Not Now”

noreen-herzfeldThe Syrian town of Dabiq is neither populous (having fewer than 3500 inhabitants) nor strategically located.  On October 16, after a short battle, it fell to Syrian rebel forces.

A short battle for a small town should hardly have been noticed.  But Dabiq matters, for it represents the Islamic State’s version of Armageddon.  A hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad to his companion Abu Hurayrah, describes a future apocalyptic battle between Muslims and an infidel coalition led by Rome to take place on a plain outside the town.  According to the prophecy, one third of the Muslim forces will flee and another third be killed, but the remaining third is destined to prevail and go on to conquer Constantinople (called Rome, for at that time it was the seat of the Roman empire, thus representing the West and Christendom).  Jesus will then return to earth to lead the Muslims in the final battle with Satan that will usher in a new era of God’s rule.  Continue reading