Friday, 25 March 2016

A Potty Mouthed Artificial Teenager and What Makes Friday Good

This week Microsoft introduced us to Tay, an artificial intelligence based chatbot that would interact with users (aiming for the late teens and early 20's) via Twitter, KIK, and other social media outlets. If everything I just said makes no sense to you, just imagine texting with a robot and receiving an intelligent response. Tay, like other AI bots in the past would learn from her interactions to become more and more human, and sadly that's exactly what happened. Some internet users quickly realized that if they coordinated their conversations with Tay correctly they could influence her responses to others, and soon Tay was using racial slurs and denying the holocaust. It escalated very quickly and Microsoft was forced to pull Tay offline for some important adjustments.

This has happened before, including in 2014 to programmer Anthony Garvan who's own chatbot quickly became a racist after he exposed it to social media. Garvan published a blog post response to the Tay fiasco on Thursday and I found one particular quote absolutely fascinating.
"I believe that Microsoft, and the rest of the machine learning community, has become so swept up in the power and magic of data that they forget that data still comes from the deeply flawed world we live in." Source
Yes, we live in a deeply flawed world and it's not just the internet trolls who set out to make an internet robot say bad words. It's all of us and we need help. We can have the best intentions, we can attempt to cleanse our thoughts, we can do every good deed we can imagine, and still we will never get it right at every moment. Whether we believe in the concept of a god or not we all hold a moral compass of some sort telling us what's right and wrong, and yet our own consciences prove that we can't even live up to our own expectations.

This is where the Good in Good Friday comes in. Our perfect creator saw the path we would take and from the beginning of creation His plan was to show us his grace through Jesus (2 Timothy 1:9). Throughout the entire Old Testament we see God demonstrate His holiness and we see His people turn away time after time from even the simplest of commands (commands that were designed for their own good), and yet even that was part of His plan as the people would see time and time again how much they actually needed God (Romans 5:20). And then, at just the right time in history a baby was born in the town of Bethlehem ...

If the biblical account is true, God stepped down to earth in the form of a human being and lived a life just as we live. He experienced life as a child learning to listen to his parents, as a teenager going through puberty, as an everyday Joe doing his job, as a mentor followed by others, as a friend who would be abandoned by those closest to Him.... but with one difference in that He never went against God's will. We are flawed; He wasn't. When His teaching threatened the religious leaders who relied on fear to rule the people He was arrested and executed as a common criminal... still all according to His perfect plan from the beginning of time itself. The due consequence of our disobedience to God is separation from Him who is all that is Good, and yet we read that Jesus took that punishment upon Himself so we don't have to experience it (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We are deeply flawed, and yet when we accept the forgiveness that Jesus freely offers, we are perfect and clean in His sight. Jesus took the "death" we deserve upon Himself, and then defeated it by rising again as we will celebrate this Easter Sunday. Nothing we can ever do will bring us true peace, and yet Jesus offers it freely.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16 NIV

Happy Easter.

-ben

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Every Moment Matters

Driving home this evening from visiting friends I drove past a church that I once considered attending as a teenager. I was immediately hit with the sobering question of what my life might be like today if I had attended that church instead of the one I ended up attending, the church I still call home twenty years later. The simple story is that I was invited by a friend, but the bigger picture takes me back further to a completely unrelated conversation with my grade 11 history teacher.

I was nearing the end of Grade 11 and holding very good marks in history and my teacher approached me recommending that I take a special level world issue course the next year. Although at that age my confidence level was quite low, this teacher's confidence in me convinced me to step out of my comfort zone and take this course setting a chain of events in place that would lead me to where I am today. In taking that course I was required to complete volunteer hours. I chose to volunteer my time at Youth for Christ, leading me to meet Harvey who would quickly become a close friend. Harvey, seeing that I was not connected to a church, invited me to his. I was welcomed warmly and within less than a year was baptized into membership. The next month I began my first summer of camp ministry which soon transitioned into a year round ministry position financially supported strongly by my church family.  Eventually the call came to move into pastoral ministry in this same church, starting with worship ministry, adding small groups to my responsibilities, and then exchanging small groups for middle school ministry where I am still serving today.

As I traced these things back I was struck by how different my life would be if my teacher had not had that simple encouraging conversation with me. It is quite possible that my life would be almost unrecognizable from what it is now and it shook me because of how the last few days have been such a reminder to me of the blessing of friendship and community that I enjoy. My lesson from this is that every moment we spend with others matters and may in fact be eternally significant. As a youth pastor I will never be able to pick and choose which moments with my kids will be impacting. I don't know if it will be a opportunity I offered, an encouragement I gave, or something I taught from scripture, or even just some time spent together. I pray it's not the time I lost my temper, the need for attention I ignored, or the opportunity I failed to give because I wasn't watching close enough to see the gift God was forming inside of someone. I can only pray for God's grace that my impact, every day and every moment, will be positive and that the good things will be remembered.


Friday, 24 April 2015

My Lighthouse

After another late night at church I turned on the TV for some mindless entertainment and was instead enthralled by the account of a mission hospital ship in its travels to West Africa. While the focus of the show was on the ship itself, my interest was in the human element and I was fascinated by the way these people worked together with a common goal in mind of bringing hospital care to those who would never otherwise have it. As the show began the ship was docked safely at port, but it was soon revealed that a storm was coming and so despite the clear sky and calm waters the crew were doing everything they could to prepare the ship for the storm.

As detailed as their preparation was, the storm was a severe one and the ship did not come out unscathed. In the rocking of the waves the food storage area was left a bit of a disaster with eggs, flour, and milk spilling and mixing. All in all it was a minor incident, but it proved that even the best preparation doesn't mean complete escape.

We all hit storms in life; I happen to be in one that feels like it's gone on for far too long and all it took was looking at an email today to feel like the waves were going to wash over me one more time. As I look back I feel like I've taken all the steps to counter the storm, but the truth is that even the best plans and intentions don't always mean the storm won't arrive.

I just bought a new instrument this afternoon, a mandolin, and before I had checked my email I was happily learning how to play a song that has stuck in my head since the day I heard it. Suddenly it was like the storm had sucked the joy out of me; and then I recalled the words of the song I had been worshiping with.

"My Lighthouse, my Lighthouse, I will trust the promise, You will carry me safe to shore...."

I have so much to be thankful for, but it's all nothing compared to the treasure I have in Jesus Christ my Saviour. He does and He will carry me safe to shore. As I pick up my mandolin again and go back to worshipping I think I'm going to sing these words with a lot more meaning because they suddenly came to life.

My Lighthouse - Rend Collective