Guest Blog Post: Artificial Intelligence and Human FlourishingJanuary 31, 2017
By Michael Graham
Later this year over 1/3rd of the world will own a smartphone and the majority of those devices will have some form of on-board digital assistant. Other categories of intelligent devices are close the reaching tipping points – personal assistants (Amazon Echo), robots of all kinds, machine learning thermostats (Nest, Ecobee…), and self-driving vehicles. Artificial Intelligence are already upon us. As Christians, what are some questions that we should be asking now concerning A.I. and what are some principles by which we can assess the merits of these emerging technologies?
Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a number of sub-fields with a variety of overlapping ends. Mainly A.I. seeks to create computer based networks that mimic human ability to learn, problem solve, communicate, and perceive.
The mediums of literature and film are often the spaces where humanity beta-tests the implications of yet-to-be invented technologies. Some of these scenarios are utopian (Jetsons, Data [Star Trek], JARVIS/FRIDAY [Iron Man]) and some are dystopian (Skynet, HAL, Halo, Ultron, I, Robot, WarGames, Ghost in the Shell). There is significant debate regarding how far AI can progress, yet the issue remains: how are we to understand A.I. in light of the Christian worldview?
Most of AI is making technology in our own image, therefore, in order to look into the future we must look into the past. Much of what Christians need to know about humanity, identity, gender, family, vocation, meaning, and purpose is expounded in Genesis 1:26-28:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In this passage, humanity is given the task to numerically and geographically spread God’s covenant keeping image bearers over the face of the Earth. We accomplish this process by creating families, executing vocation, and making culture. Can A.I. serve a role in this divine mandate?
The answer is “yes,” but not without caveats. The Christian worldview is about applying truth, goodness, and beauty, understood through general and special revelation to all of life. There are numerous ways that A.I. could be utilized to promote human flourishing and the expansion of God’s kingdom:
Can you imagine a world where things function autonomously – cars, appliances, lights, appointment setting, and basic email responses?
Can you imagine a world with far fewer advertisements and with only relevant ones shown to you?
Can you imagine AI that would aid in more accurately diagnosing medical problems?
Can you imagine a translation engine that could provide a rough first pass translation of the Bible in a matter of minutes expediting years of initial linguistic legwork?
There are also A.I. developments that would not promote human flourishing – drones that kill via algorithm, viruses with AI, sex robots, humans wishing to marry robots, roko’s basilisk and other scenarios where A.I. rejects the society of her creators. Further, understanding the notion that all of creation is fallen, we must understand that this can and will apply to emerging technologies. This should give us reason to pause, ponder implications, consider new laws, and develop healthy cultural postures toward said technologies.
A.I. also presents us with other nuanced questions such as – are machines learning? Can they feel or emote? There is no doubt that machines are learning – The Google Translate team has seen some monumental leaps in supervised machine learning of its translation engine. With respect to emotions the answer is not simple. On the one hand, A.I. will never be endowed with an immortal soul. On the other hand, A.I. can possess, in some faculties, the marks of her human designers. In the final analysis, there seems to be a capacity for a soulless mimicry. Granted that mimicry may ultimately far surpass the intelligence of any single human or even the entire human race, but the underlying abilities are still predicated on an attempt to mimic the neural network that God has already designed in humanity.
As humanity begins to wrestle with the practical implications of A.I. adoption into society, it must wrestle with the reality that technology grows exponentially while law and ethics grow linearly. Given that computing power has doubled every two years for the last four decades, we will likely see continued leaps in these technologies. These leaps and the adoption of their real-world applications and material goods is likely to outpace our ability to consider their implications and/or cultural health before adoption.
We need to be asking ourselves this simple question:
Does the technology promote a Genesis 1:26-28 vision of human flourishing (and by corollary is God-glorifying)?
The only spaces we have for exploring the consequences of A.I. are fiction, journalism, and our real-time experiences with emerging technology. Hopefully, law, ethics, philosophy, and theology will increasingly explore the rapid changes to information, culture, artifacts, communication, and morality.