Abed Zien El Dien
I was around 8 years old in the early ’90s when I got my first video game. It was the all-new Atari. I was amazed with how I could use a joystick to move characters on the TV. In a few years, I got an upgrade: a Nintendo. I still remember with excitement shooting flying ducks on my TV screen using the electronic light gun. The next big thing happened when I first used a computer at the school lab. It was a game-changer for me and for many of my generation. Computer tech advancements have increased like a snowball since then and continue to grow.
Many people nowadays look at technology with suspicion; others find it beneficial. For example, you might be reading this blog through your laptop, tablet, or mobile. All you need to access information is simply such a device and reliable Wi-Fi. But as you are receiving information, some other party might be collecting your information through the same device right now. Technology is helpful and harmful. As followers of Christ, and in light of how God the creator reveals himself through his created order, and how he bestowed creativity into humans made in his likeness, we look at technology as a good gift of God that aims toward human flourishing. But it also can be harmful when used in a sinful, broken world. Accordingly, how can we advance technology in a way that is obedient to God?
As I write these words, tech-savvy people are talking about AI as the next big thing. AI is developing much faster than we anticipated. Who would have thought that cars could drive themselves, or that Amazon warehouses across the US would be using AI to optimize supply chains to predict demand for products, optimize inventory levels, and direct orders to the most efficient fulfillment centers. AI can help in medical surgeries and even in counseling!
ChatGPT is but one example of AI that can answer your questions, compose poems, and even write a sermon on a topic of your choosing. AI has direct impacts on different fields, and higher education is but one. AI is disruptive if you think in terms of how many jobs will be taken from us and given to robots over the next few years. AI today can use a certain program (programmed by humans but able to develop itself thereafter) to sort through job applications and filter out unwanted applicants. This is helpful for huge business firms, yet it can also be discriminative. The term is “encrypted discrimination.” AI could even become weaponized: trained to identify a class of targets, then to pick out and attack a particular person or thing from within that class with little or no human input. Simply put, AI has good and bad potential at the same time. This is the AI Dilemma.
Allow me to suggest a few thoughts as a Christian living in the era of AI reality. From a theological point of view, and if we believe that AI will only develop in the future to mimic humans without becoming fully independent from human control, looking at technology as totally good or totally evil is unhelpful. Reducing our worldview into a materialist one might turn to believing in technicism: technology becomes our savior. This would be a new form of paganism. On the other hand, there is a shining side: the possibility of AI being part of God’s gift to creation as we maturely handle its potentials. Theologically speaking, God is still involved in his created order, still creating, still guiding and holding all things together through Jesus, and at the same time and in light of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, the creation mandate pushes humans as God’s agents on earth to partake in God’s mandate by being creative stewards who take care of God’s creation. This includes creativity in different domains, including, I believe, AI. However, we must be careful: sin interrupts God’s good creation in order to destroy it and adds an utterly new dimension to the established system; anything in creation, including AI, has the potential to be oriented in the direction of or away from God.
From an ontological side, the starting point might be to compare humans and machines. Some learned Christians like Christopher Benek are beginning to entertain the question of whether AI robots in the future will become equal to humans. Might AI robots become more intelligent than humans and evolve on their own? Might AI become independent in terms of cognitive abilities and perception, and thus develop an “awareness”? If we can digitally encode our brains, then we might develop a digital version of our selves: an “awareness” that will evolve even beyond us.
In other words, if AI intelligent beings become more like humans, then a whole set of moral questions must be revisited: the nature of religion, free will, sin, salvation, morality. Or would AI only mimic humans? Some would say yes, while others would disagree. This might be a fundamental question to ponder as AI develops exponentially. It is also worth mentioning here that people like Bill Gates, Noam Chomsky and the late Stephen Hawking have been suspicious about AI. When he warned that, “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Stephen Hawking cautioned on BBC that AI would launch itself and redesign itself at an accelerating rate. Because of their biological limitations and slow rate of evolution, humans would lose out and be surpassed. Even AI predicted that AI evolution could potentially lead to a scenario of human demise.
Where do I personally stand on the AI dilemma so far? I do not think that AI will ever develop moral reasoning, not now, nor in the year one million. God created us, and we are his children. We made AI. AI is our creation, not God’s child. Now, as a Christian, I think that AI has its advantages and its drawbacks when viewed from a practical lens.
Can we program AI in a redemptive way that reflects love for our neighbors and cares for creation? Surprisingly, beneficial applications of AI have been found in the fields of medication research, environmental monitoring, animal preservation, aiding the disabled, and improving traffic safety. Christian scientists can join organizations like AI and Faith to push further the agenda of such groups for the common good. AI can help you enhance online worship services, create personalized Bible study materials, support pastoral care, improve communication, generate social media content, organize events, provide education, fundraise, create sermons, and generate Christian literature.
On the other hand, and as alluded to above, AI can spread injustice, a real threat as big data is employed in a wide variety of fields including insurance, policing, marketing, loans, and politics. Furthermore, and in contrast to its ministerial advantages, if Christians, for example, depend on AI in ministry to write their sermons, Christian ministers may become lazy. Their ministry may become less personal and more mechanical, since Christian ministry is at its very core an embodied dynamic presence of love relationship with God and others.
Finally, I would resonate with Fred Brooks, a late respected Christian computer scientist, that AI is one of the fascinating possibilities in creation that Christians may help lead to develop in ways that glorify God, despite the potential for sinful distortions. Christians will need to increasingly contribute to the larger conversation surrounding these potent new technologies by sharing their perspectives on what it means to be human and by speaking with a voice that is both biblical and timely.
By the way, this article was NOT generated by AI!
Abed is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at ABTS. He is a member of the Church of the Nazarene and enjoys watching movies, listening to music and taking walks.
Very insightful reflection. I always enjoyed asking my students what will the theological debates/questions look like in the future. I also ponder this question often. Although I don’t know what type of awareness AI itself will develop over time, I think a more acute problem will be the intersection of human bodies with AI. A rich person, perhaps, in the near future, will be able to stay “alive” with robotic parts. Or, as you alluded to in your blog, copy their awareness onto a computer program. The Netflix series “Black Mirror” tries to grapple with what such a reality will look like.
I think we should have a robust theology able to answer new questions with ancient wisdom. I look forward to the future. Although, most probably, this will be the reality that my grandchildren will face and not me.
Blessings on those thoughts Abed.
Yes, Abed, very nice and timely post. I recently had a conversation with my high school students about this new AI “tool”- particularly ChatGPT. We recognized that at the start of the academic year no one knew it even existed, but by April the vast majority of students had used it to “help” complete a recent project for class. That’s how fast things change. Can our theology keep up? You show us here how we can try to do this. Thanks Abed!
Thank you, Nabil.
Although AI has some benefits, but on the other side AI is already causing discrimination between people in various fields. The medical field is but one. You might want to read Yuval Noah Harari’s article on AI. Harari argues that AI has hacked the operating system of human civilization!
Thank you, Brent. It seems that AI is accelerating the pace of change even fates than we’ve experienced within the last few decades. AI will impact more facets of life. Education is one of them.