Audio interview with Joshua Salaam

Here is an audio interview with Joshua Salaam about Artificial Intelligence (AI).


What is AI? What is the digital or fourth revolution about? What does AI mean for me — my future, my children’s future, the future of humanity? Should I be scared, worried, excited? Will I pee my pants a little? Welcome to AI fears. Join us as we explore the answers to these questions with interviews, panels, and discussions.

Developments in AI are going to impact humanity. We think we all should be a part of it, or at the very least understand what is going on.

Henrik de Gyor:  This is AI fears. I’m Henrik de Gyor. Today I’m speaking with Joshua Salaam. Joshua, how are you?

Joshua Salaam:  I’m good, how are you?

Henrik de Gyor:  Great. Joshua, who are you, and what do you do?

Joshua Salaam:  I am the chaplain for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Virginia. And before that I was a youth director for about nine years. And what I do now is I help coordinate the Friday prays, which is our mass prayers, the largest prayer of the week where everybody comes to the mosque. And I also do counseling for youth and adults. And I try to create an environment where the community feels welcome on an individual level, even though we’re such a large community.

Henrik de Gyor:  Joshua, do you think a robot will take your job?

Joshua Salaam:  I don’t see a robot taking my job, but I’m sure those are famous last words for a lot of people. As far as the coordination of the speakers, yes. If it’s just to book … You know what, I take it back. I do see eventually my job being able to be taken by a computer. Because you know how you call on these phones now, the artificial person sounds like they have emotion and voice. “Hi, my name is Leslie, how can I help you?” You know.

And the more that that grows, I do see people being able to get counseled by a computer. And you can probably program all the scenarios and keywords and possible issues that they may be dealing with, whether it’s anxiety, depression, whatever. And then the computer figures out that they should ask these types of questions, check on this, that they’ll be able to sense things that humans can’t necessarily sense. Body temperature on certain questions that make them nervous, change of tone and voice. They can read facial expressions. You know, it’s all possible. I don’t know how comfortable the person would be with it, but we seem to be growing more and more comfortable with artificial intelligence.

Henrik de Gyor:  Great points. Joshua, do we need ethics in AI?

Joshua Salaam:  Yes. Absolutely, 1000%. We still need ethics in farming. On the basic principles of planting seeds. There’s this whole issue with organizations, a company that has made it so that when you buy the seeds from them and plant it, those seeds cannot reproduce. So you have to go back to them and buy more seeds. So something as simple as planting has to have ethics. And then buying and selling has to have ethics. So of course when you get to something as amazing and unknown as the world of artificial intelligence, it needs ground rules. It needs consistent revisiting to the issue of not just what can we do, but what should we be doing. What’s ethically okay for us to do at this point in time.I think ethics are going to have to travel very closely with this movement as we go.

Henrik de Gyor:  Based on media, books, movies regarding robots and artificial intelligence, what is your favorite doomsday scenario?

Joshua Salaam:  Based on artificial intelligence… Just with doomsday, the first thing that comes to my mind is a big meteor hitting the earth, right? But when it comes to artificial intelligence and computers, it’s those scenarios where the computer accidentally, or maybe not, decides to send off all the missiles. And now what do we do? All the missiles are in the air, humanity’s at a loss. And of course, the famous one is that all goes into the terminator syndrome.

And I think I was reading something online recently where Facebook and Tesla or somebody, I can’t remember who the other company was, they had to turn off some artificial intelligence thing because they started communicating in a language that the developers didn’t teach them. And that got ’em kind of scared.

So it’s all very possible and plausible that … Anybody with a cellphone knows that it sometimes has glitches, sometimes it makes calls. I’ve heard people complain that their phone is just calling people, that their phone is sending text messages. The fact that things can be hacked in more and more sophisticated ways. So yeah, I think the one that scares me the most is building more and more weapons, and then those weapons being easily turned on humanity.

Henrik de Gyor:  And what is your favorite bright day future scenario?

Joshua Salaam:  Well, you know, there’s the cartoon movie, actually. You know, where the robot was kind of the last robot on earth, just cleaning some stuff up because all of the humans had left earth because of how terrible we had treated it. It was no longer livable. We were living in outer space. I don’t remember the name of it.

But this one computer, one robot ended up falling in love with another robot. So I thought that was kind of funny. But the lesson that I learned from that was how precious this earth is and how careful we have to be. If anything the rise in artificial intelligence will remind us of our own humanity and how we need to keep hold of it. Even now people see it with the rise of use of cell phones and video games and blogging, texting, social media. There’s a lot more strong messaging coming out of people saying look up from your phone and talk to people. You know, call them instead of texting them. They’re feeling the lack of social human interaction. And so sometimes there’s something that reminds you of that and how important that is. It actually turns out to be a benefit. So there could be a silver lining to the rise in computers, just reminding people that they should not forget their own real relationships.

Henrik de Gyor:  Great points. Joshua, do you feel secure about your job today?

Joshua Salaam:  I do. Mainly because I believe in the creativity of the human mind, that there might be some difficulty as we transition from one thing to the next. But there’s always something that opens up in the market. Something has to be done, something has to be taken care of. The human mind, I just have a lot of confidence in human creativity.

And worst case scenario I don’t see … I hope I don’t see the situation where humans just decide to lay down and let a robot live their life. So they inject themselves with some type of chemical that allows them to just sleep, and there’s some other thing that’s going to work for them and living for them. I don’t anticipate that. So the worst case scenario for me is just that robots take over all type of service needs and humans would be able to just live comfortably with their families, you know. No need to go to work, so the could go out and play. And you go and try to do something positive in your community or your neighborhood or go visit your mother, your grandmother. Go walk a dog or heal it, heal a pet. Something like that.

You know, as long as people know how to grow food from the earth that’s there and to make a hut or a house. Our lives could be pretty simple. We’ve made it complicated. There’s many villages around the world where their basic life is they wake up, get water, get something to eat, and whatever work goes into doing that. And then they spend the rest of the time with family. And they do it again tomorrow.

It’s in the more developed societies where life has become so stressful. Where you don’t know how to build a hut so you have to buy a $500,000 house. You don’t live close to the farm or anything, so you have to buy an expensive car that gets you around everywhere. And everything costs a lot. But life could be very simple, and I think that artificial intelligence may remind us of that.

Henrik de Gyor:  And how about in two to five years?

Joshua Salaam:  Yeah, I think as time goes on, you know, we’ll see if it becomes cool to not have technology. I even saw, as a person who has been into music for some time, we went from just singing, live performances until they came out with a way to put it on a vinyl record, then it went into like 8 track, then it went into tapes, then it went to CDs, and then it went to just virtual, you could get it on iTunes. And then all of a sudden it became cool to go back. The rise of vinyl records was coming back. I guess people felt like they were getting too far away from it.

So I don’t know what’ll be the tipping point of the two year, five year, 10 year, 20 year mark … That could be a tipping point for people to start going back, where it’s cool to have a phone that you have to put your finger in and rotate it around the dial there to dial 6. I don’t know if it’ll be cool for people to create new communities where you can get everywhere with a bike or by walking. Now communities are developed where you really need a car.

So you ask me, like as these years advance … I’m really unsure if it’ll keep pushing us forward or if at some point in time we will reach a point where it’s the cool thing to go back. Cause for sure now it’s the cool thing to have zero waste, right? So where we were considered cool and technologically savvy to come up and create plastic and all these things that would hold for a while and last forever … and now there’s a movement the other way. Saying let’s try to find things that can … It’s the cool and smart thing to do to find things that would easily degrade back into the environment. And so the technology is planning houses that are environmentally friendly, solar is becoming more popular. So it’s tough to say, you know, where we will see ourselves in 20 years. We’re going to be so much further, or if we’ll be back to really cool huts.

Henrik de Gyor:  I like your retro perspective. That’s a great point. Joshua, we’re living with a prediction that in the next decade 50% of jobs will be removed from the job market. How do you feel about this? Do you believe it’s true? Why or why not?

Joshua Salaam:  Yeah, I think people may be looking at that kind of one dimensional. Maybe 50% of the jobs that we know of will be removed from the job market, but I believe the market is so amazing that it auto corrects very often. And so when something is removed something else opens up. So I don’t doubt that 50% of the jobs that we know of today will be removed. But I’m very confident in human creativity and the power of the market, that that will create… I mean, necessity is the mother of invention. So people may not even really be thinking of what they could do, how they could make money, until they’re forced into doing that. So I think there’ll be other jobs that will open up.

Henrik de Gyor:  Based on your experience, what is the biggest success and challenge with artificial intelligence?

Joshua Salaam:  The biggest success with artificial intelligence is … from a faith perspective, I think it’s hopefully a reminder to humanity of the power of creation and their own creator. Right? So all the thought that is going into us trying to replicate ourselves, and that’s really what we’re trying to do, and I think there’s something innate in the human being to try to create that. We see a tree and then we try to draw it.

But to be able to have the wherewithal and finally the technology to say, okay, we have a human brain. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could cause something else to think like us and feel like us? And all these experiences are really just to see how close we can match ourselves. I mean, that’s the … I think that’s one of their gauges. Can this computer make a decision like I would make a decision? Is it able to triage in different scenarios like I would? And if the computer doesn’t, if it can’t decide that it’s going to save this little girl versus saving a glass that’s falling off the counter, you would say okay well that’s a fail. Even though it did save it, it didn’t see that the human life was more important. It went for the glass.

So we’re going to keep judging it by how close it can come to our own emotional, our own moral guide and our moral compass. And I think in that struggle is like a testament of the God Almighty who has created us with all of our intricate scenarios and how we get through struggle and trials and tribulations when we’re younger and how that effects us when we get older. Sometimes it makes us stronger, sometimes it makes us weaker. The power of forgiveness. You know, when somebody tells you it’s okay, you’re going to be okay, it’s going to be alright, don’t worry about it. What that does to a human being. It makes them rise above. The power of willpower and team spirit that makes even a special forces person in the military or just a mother working with her children, would give them this adrenaline to go above and beyond the capability of their own human muscles.

All these things, when we study the human body it’s absolutely amazing. And so as we try to replicate I think that’s, again, maybe a silver lining. It’s a reminder of our own creator and how much we have to be thankful.

Challenges is when I talk about the moral compass of humanity, right? I don’t know if you saw the last Iron Man or Avengers or something. When they had this artificial intelligence, and he kind of made the decision that he had to take out humanity cause they were just too much trouble for their own good. And for him this was a logical scenario. And they had to put him down for the sake of all humanity.

If humans and robots follow the moral compass of their creator, that gets a little scary. Cause we have proven that we’re willing to drop a bomb on a whole city and kill all of its inhabitants. Now, of course, there was a justification for it. But the fact that we can get to that point lets us know that we have to keep ourselves in check and keep the things that we create in check. And this goes back to your question about ethics as we move forward with artificial intelligence.

Henrik de Gyor:  What are your hopes for artificial intelligence?

Joshua Salaam:  I would hope that… I think anybody hopes to create more, feed more people, save more people, reduce the cost of healthcare and medicine and protection. Keep more people safe. That’s everyone’s hope. Although in the grand master plan of things I don’t know how that will affect the dynamics of society.

What do I mean by that? When I go out on the street and I see someone get robbed or get assaulted, it does something to me that is transformative. It makes me want to do more to keep the neighborhood safe. And somehow God has put into my DNA that I become more active. I become a better father sometimes, I can become a better husband by seeing negative things. People like Dr. Martin Luther King, people like Mother Teresa, people like … brother from South Africa who became president. Help me out here.

Henrik de Gyor:  Nelson Mandela?

Joshua Salaam:  Nelson Mandela. I was going blank, sorry.

Henrik de Gyor:  It’s okay.

Joshua Salaam:  You know these people went through horrible situations that caused them to… Either they went through it or they saw it. That caused them to become more than they ever thought they would be. And when people say why would God allow this, why would God allow this. No one really knows, but I think there’s something in the way that he has created us where when we do see problems and when we do go through hardship it either transforms us or it transforms the people who witness it to cause them to do more. To be more and want to be better.

So even though my hope is that artificial intelligence would address these things, once we start playing around with nature, as we’ve seen in, like I said, the farming industry, a lot of our illnesses are coming from us playing with food. You can buy a watermelon with no seeds now, an orange with no seeds, grapes with no seeds. You can get stuff that had fat in it with no fat. You can inject chickens with something and make them grow bigger and fatter and cows can produce more milk. All these things that we’ve been doing to food has been affecting it and therefore affecting us, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Let’s make this cow fatter so that it gives more milk. But if we don’t think everything through sometimes there’s a residual effect somewhere down the line that hurts your children or their grandchildren.

I think it may be something like that with artificial intelligence that we’ll have to look at as we move forward. What will this do to the fabric of our society? I don’t know. So we hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Henrik de Gyor:  When thinking of robots and AI, what are you excited or downright afraid of?

Joshua Salaam:  I mean, as a human you’re just excited about the possibilities, right? You’ve got to see how far you can go, you know, can we get to the moon? Can we get to Mars? Will we ever be able to visit a different solar system? How cool would that be?

You know, there’s no real point in it other than just seeing if we can do it, you know. Adventures and that creative mind is just … Hey, I wonder if it’s possible to do this. Scientific experiments start with this thesis. You have this hypothesis. And it’s really like, I wonder. That’s kind of where it begins. I wonder. And that wonder of humanity is just absolutely amazing. Referring back to what I said before, that’s what I’m most confident in is that creative mind of humans. So I think that’s exciting, that we’re just going to keep pushing, see how far we can go.

Hopefully the ethicists will stay close to us and say whoa whoa whoa, don’t open that door. Not until 2035, it’s not time yet. And what’s scary is, like I said, it’s like playing with fire, a child. It seems exciting in their hands, the color, look it burnt this leaf. That was cool. But if unchecked and if the ethicists are not close enough, you can burn the whole forest down. You can burn the whole neighborhood down. Just when you were excited about how far you could go with your own little experiment. Sometimes it can just become a wildfire. And so normally that fear doesn’t stop us, but it should be there, I think, to at least balance us.

Henrik de Gyor:  Joshua, what advice would you like to give us for those who are fearful of losing our jobs to an AI?

Joshua Salaam:  I would say be confident in yourself and in the mind that God has given you. And be confident that you have what it takes in your DNA to survive. Survival is in your DNA, and your creative juices are part of that survival.

And it’s the same thing as going to the gym. Those who do go the the gym, they find that on their first day when they get home or when they wake up in the morning, they’re extremely sore. And it’s because they’ve used muscles that they haven’t used in a while. Even though they were walking around at a job 15, 20 years, had a family. It’s the fact that they didn’t push themselves in the gym. And so they got sore.But after repeated visits to the gym they find that those muscles that they haven’t been using actually get developed and their body’s able to do things that they never thought they would be able to do. Lift things that they couldn’t lift before.

And I think the human mind is similar, and our creative juices are similar. Sometimes we kind of get into a cookie-cutter lifestyle. We’re on track to go to this school and then get this job and then buy that house and then have this car and just get through life. And you can get comfortable, but sometimes the pressures of will I have a job, should I try to learn something else or learn how to do something … Did you see that movie? What was it called, Hidden Figures?

Henrik de Gyor:  I haven’t, but it’s okay.

Joshua Salaam:  Yeah, it was a movie about the black women who helped send the first man to the moon. And one of the women that they had in there was really good at computers. And everybody was about to be put out of a job with this new computer. I forget what it was called. I don’t know if it was HP or something. But this new computer that was able to calculate things a lot faster than the mathematicians. So you know, we don’t need all these mathematicians to run these numbers. This computer can do it for us. And they were about to lose a whole wing of people.

And she saw it as an opportunity. She said, okay, I’ma learn how to talk to this computer. And so she taught herself the language of the computer, to become a computer programmer. And then she taught all of the ladies that were in her department. So when it came time for everyone to lose their jobs to the computer, it turned out that the market had a new area for people who knew how to talk to computers and communicate with computers. And so her whole team was able to keep a job and move on. And so that’s a good example of what I’m … and I encourage people to watch that movie because it’s a good rating and part of history.

But in there is something exactly what we’re talking about from 50, 60 years ago. Of computers coming to take people’s jobs and a human being having the creative wherewithal to say let me figure something out. I can adapt. And she learned how to talk to computers and kept everyone in a job.

Henrik de Gyor:  Great. Well, thanks Joshua.

Joshua Salaam:  Thank you.

Henrik de Gyor:  For more on this visit Thanks again.

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