Faith leaders explore ethics, morality of growing artificial intelligence usage in US

By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Some 70 years ago, the question that kept computer pioneer Alan Turing up at night was, “Can machines think?”

Today, we still don’t know the answer to that question, though most of us are surrounded by devices that understand instructions, process commands and even anticipate our next need.

Christian ethicists wonder about the ethical implications of such technology.

“No issues keep me awake at night like those surrounding technology and artificial intelligence,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Artificial intelligence — or AI for short — has vast implications for humankind’s future, Moore believes.

“It is critical that the church be proactive in understanding AI,” Moore said. “It’s also critical that the church insist AI be used in ways consistent with the truth that all people possess dignity and worth, created as they are in the image of God.”

Prompted to take action

To that end, the ERLC last year released a statement signed by more than 30 leaders and experts across the fields of economics, public policy, business, technology, ethics, biblical theology and medicine.

The statement (published in full at www.tabonline.org/AI) lays out the ethical issues surrounding AI in an effort to prompt evangelical Christians to action.

Humans, not machines, are created in the image of God, the statement asserts, and technology must not be placed on equal footing with human identity, worth, dignity or morality.

“Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create,” the statement reads. “While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.”

It’s a fairly recent phenomenon that faith leaders are addressing the social and ethical challenges embodied in this rapidly advancing technology. While artificial intelligence can certainly be used for good — such as medical advances, Bible translation, education and research, and connecting people of faith throughout the world — it also brings new opportunities for evil.

Child pornography is now available at the touch of a button. Robots are used as sexual partners. Facial recognition technology tracks Christians in anti-Christian countries in order to persecute them, such as in China, where registered churches are required to allow cameras in services to monitor congregants. Personal information is collected and used to defraud individuals, propagandize, destabilize governments, distort truth, and promote criminal, terrorist and immoral/unethical enterprises.

Even the uplifting memes circulated on Facebook may be used by foreign governments to divide and conquer U.S. citizens.

Faith leaders warn Christians not to just shrug and think that artificial intelligence is something that doesn’t personally affect them.

“AI is everywhere in our society and is often working behind the scenes,” said the ERLC’s Jason Thacker. “As Christians, we need to be prepared with a framework to navigate the difficult ethical and moral issues surrounding AI use and development. This framework doesn’t come from corporations or government because they are not the ultimate authority on dignity issues, and the church doesn’t take its cues from culture. God has spoken to us in His word and as His followers, we are to seek to love Him and our neighbors above all things (Matt. 22:37–39).”

Thacker has authored a new book, “The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity,” set for release in March, focused on applying God’s word to the issues of AI’s impact on our bodies, sexuality, work, economics and privacy.

The ERLC’s efforts are part of a growing national effort to bring ethical and moral considerations to the technological table.

Many such movements are starting in the nation’s tech centers.

Emerging debate

AI and Faith, for instance was organized two years ago “to bring the fundamental values of the world’s major religions into the emerging debate on the ethical development of artificial intelligence and related technologies.” What started as a Seattle-based consortium of organizations, individual AI professionals and ethicists, theologians and philosophers is now expanding to other parts of the U.S. and the world.

In another Silicon Valley-based effort, Seattle Pacific University formed the “AI and Faith Research Group” composed of a theologian, ethicist, philosopher, neuroscientist educator and a computer scientist “to explore how Christian faith informs the way that we interact with the rapidly changing world of AI.” The group’s facilitator, Michael Paulus, contends a larger need exists for more theological reflection on technology.

“Everyone is thinking about recent AI developments,” he said. “AI raises so many hopes and fears about the future. Christian hope can offer a lot more than these tech hopes and fears. What we’re really hoping for in all of this is to create a better future.”

‘Hyperconnected yet lonely’

The isolation, sinful thinking and behavior wrought by modern technology is cause for alarm, California pastor John Jay Alvaro wrote in 2019.

“Our connected technologies (social media, online commerce, smart phones, cryptocurrency, transhumanism, etc.) threaten our primal, sacred bonds. We are hyper-connected and still so lonely. Our humanity is under siege by anti-human forces at work in our technologies,” Alvaro wrote.

The algorithms that drive AI, Alvaro contended, “seek efficiency and profit” at the expense of human unpredictability and freedom. “Every simple conversation on Facebook becomes a screaming match. Twitter constantly bums us out. Amazon is getting too good at reading our minds with its perfect suggestions for our endless consumption,” he said. “None of this is accidental. You are being manipulated by forces deeply embedded in our connected technologies. The goal is to keep you scared, anxious, disconnected and always hungry for more,” Alvaro said. “That way, we keep buying stuff we don’t need trying to solve a crisis deeper than we want to admit.

“It turns out being lonely is painful, and all the iPhones in the world cannot solve that crisis.”

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