AI: It’s Time to Start Thinking image

AI: It’s Time to Start Thinking

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic at the moment. Many of us are already interacting with AI every day, even if we are not really aware of it. AI is used in Sat Navs, social media feeds, digital assistants (such as Siri and Alexa), and online booking and payment systems, to give just a few examples. But developments in AI have already taken us far beyond these everyday examples and will continue to race forward over the coming years.

AI is a term used to describe non-human devices capable of performing tasks which we would describe as being based on intelligence or thinking. It is literally artificial (i.e. non-human) intelligence or thinking. The European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG) offers the definition: ‘Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to systems that display intelligent behaviour by analysing their environment and taking actions – with some degree of autonomy – to achieve specific goals.’ They note that this can take the form of software-based AI (e.g. digital assistants and search engines) or AI integrated with hardware (e.g. self-driving cars and robot vacuum cleaners). It is also helpful to distinguish between specialised or narrow AI, which is what we have now and is only capable of specific types of artificial-thinking, and general AI, in which AI would be able to mimic all human thinking. General AI is what we see in sci-fi movies where robots overpower humans, but it has not yet been fully developed.

Many of us will be grateful for the way that AI is already making our lives easier, and the potential for it to do good is considerable. For example, Google is partnering with developers who are using AI to create an early warning system for the potential of wildfires, and to diagnose cancer and diabetic retinopathy (which can lead to blindness). But AI could also be used to do harm (e.g. in warfare) and raises many ethical questions. These ethical questions are beginning to be recognised and various bodies, including Google and the EU, have started to release principles and guidelines for the use and development of AI.

As Christians we also need to think about these ethical questions, and we need to do so soon. The range of issues is vast: Is the development of AI safe and wise? Can AI be held morally accountable for its decisions and actions and, if not, who is accountable? Is sex with robots acceptable, and could sex robots be a good way to help those with sex addiction? Is it right to delegate the care of the elderly to robots? What will happen if robots replace many jobs? How will the economy work, what will we do with all our time, and will a life without work be fulfilling? Should AI have rights? And could AI have a relationship with God? If Siri or Alexa pray, does God listen and does he respond?

This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention published a contribution to this conversation in the form of an evangelical statement of principles on AI. The set of twelve pairs of affirmations and denials provides a good starting point for Christian interaction with the big issues, although given the format they are inevitably brief.  

What I particularly appreciate about the statement is the writers’ desire ‘to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI, rather than responding to these issues after they have already affected our communities’. As Jason Thacker, creative director and associate research fellow at the ERLC, explains in an article accompanying the publication of the statement, the church has often done the latter (which is why we are still working out how to respond on the topic of sexuality while Western society has largely finished its debates on the topic, to give just one example).

The world is changing fast and technology is developing very fast. This shouldn’t cause us to be worried or fearful, but as God’s people we should seek to understand what is happening and to learn to view it within a biblical worldview. If we’re going to do that in relation to robotics and AI, now is the time to start.

You can read the full statement of principles on Artificial Intelligence from the ERLC here.

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