Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Christian Faith

Sometimes called machine intelligence, Artificial intelligence (AI), is the intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence displayed by humans and other animals.

Cleverbot is a chatbot modelled after the human behaviour and able to hold a conversation by remembering words from conversations. Also, Artificial intelligence is built to be pervasive. It’s embedded in iPhone’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, which are apps designed to answer questions (albeit in a limited way).

Just as Christians seek wisdom and offer leadership on other basic issues, we also need ways to understand Artificial intelligence.

As Christians who study the social impacts of technology, we do not pretend to have answers. We offer this overview of issues raised by AI in the hope that Christians will be inspired to find new ways to follow Christ faithfully and serve the common good using artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence powers the code that translates Facebook posts into multiple languages. It is part of the algorithm that allows Amazon to suggest products to specific users. The AI that is enmeshed in current technology is task-based, or “weak AI.”

Weak AI is the code written to help humans do specific jobs, using a machine as an intermediary. It is intelligent because it can improve how it performs tasks while collecting data on its interactions. Speculation about the future of intelligent machines has run rampant in the intervening decades but recently has taken a more critical turn.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer imaginary, and the implications of its future development are far-reaching. As computer scientists confirm their intent to push the limits of AI capabilities, religious communities and thinkers are also debating how far AI should go and what should happen as it becomes part of the fabric of everyday life.

When researchers coined the term “artificial intelligence” (AI), they hoped that every feature of learning and intelligence could be conducted by a machine. Over six decades later, their question remains unanswered, even as AI has become a common presence in our everyday lives and our visions of the future. Artificial intelligence is fast becoming a basic fact of our lives, an invention like money or democracy that poses complex, enduring questions for practical life, the common good, and our basic ideas of personhood.

At this point, artificial intelligence is simply a tool for improving human experience.

Strong AI, by definition though, is human-like in intelligence and ability. Its development would force humans to reconsider how to appropriately interact with this technology—what rights the machines should be afforded, for instance, if their intelligence affords them a designation beyond that of mere tools.

While concerns mostly centre on economics, government, and ethics, there’s also “a spiritual dimension to what we’re making,” Kevin Kelly an advocate for the development of “a catechism for robots” argues. “If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur.”

According to the Bible, technology is humanity’s age-old way of extending power over creation, of imposing order on the created order and “subduing” it as God commanded in Genesis. This is a good and right endeavour.

But as with all good things, technology can be abused and used for sinful purposes. If we are not careful, AI can easily become a modern attempt to achieve what those who constructed the Tower of Babel, and indeed Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit, sought – the attributes of God.

In Genesis 3, there are a multitude of sins wrapped into Adam and Eve’s disobedience. But behind their disobedience was a basic sinful desire: to achieve equality with God.

The Bible teaches that we are to be God-like in a moral sense, but not in an axiological sense (that is, in terms of absolute value). Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are taught to imitate God in character — to “be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 20:26).

This carries over into the New Testament where Christians are exhorted to “imitate Christ” (Philippians 2). But this moral obligation rests on a basic ontological fact: We ourselves are creatures, not God. We are to imitate God’s moral nature precisely because he is God, and we are not.

The fact that we are simply creatures next to the creator God is echoed in the Tower of Babel. There, humanity together conspires to “make a name” for itself by constructing a great tower toward the heavens.

Sure, technology was employed in this project, but the motive was not merely to impose order on creation or to make life easier. This was a statement of self-importance, a project that reflected a hunger for supreme status in the universe.

What happened next is instructive for AI. God would not be mocked; seeing that humanity was conspiring against Him, He thwarted their goals by confusing their language, thereby condemning their project to ruin. This resulted in a judgment on humanity that brought humanity lower than it previously was. Just as Adam and Eve sinned and were cursed, the nations sinned at Babel and were driven apart from one another. In grasping for divinity, they pushed themselves further from God.

This curse is most fully manifest in Revelation 19 with the destruction of Babylon. There, the city of man crumbles to decay under God’s judgment, whereas the city of God in Revelation 5 is blessed for all eternity.

When humanity grasps for God-like status, it is condemning itself to God’s curse. This applies for all history, including today in the pursuit of AI. In conspiring to create AI that takes on divine attributes, such as omniscience, the only outcome can be failure — and judgment.

Christians must be at the forefront of figuring out where we stand in this brave new world, and AI is one front to which we have given far too little thought.

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