Ahead of the Curve: God on AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) will be the most important world-changing force of this century, just as electricity was of the last. The complications involved with the machine power to mimic (or perhaps someday exceed) the one thing humans do well are far more profound than those of the largely unalloyed good of electricity.

America’s leading evangelical experts, as anxious to grab headlines as they are to make money, have now conveyed to us what God’s views are on the complex subject.

Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles” helpfully applies the “inerrant and infallible Word of God” to what it calls the “unprecendented [sic] possibilities of AI.” The source of this inerrant and infallible word is the Bible, written thousands of years before AI was even dreamed of. After each of the statement’s twelve articles there is a list of Bible citations—most of which have little or nothing to do with the point being made.

Here are a few of the more bizarre excerpts from this Statement of Principles:

• “We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God.” It’s entirely possible that AI could someday be used to manage resources, e.g. to control emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases, in a way that could be immensely beneficial to all of us. According to God, though, that’s a bad idea, because only humans are supposed to have such “dominion and stewardship.”

• “We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral.” It isn’t? Of course it is! It’s a set of computer instructions, a bunch of zeroes and ones arranged in a particular pattern. It can be used to make human life happier, e.g. by helping to diagnose and hopefully mitigate disease, or it can be used to make human life more miserable, as the Chinese are busily proving in Xinjiang. But the tool itself is as morally neutral as a shovel—it’s the human use of the tool that allows space for bias and discrimination to creep in.

• “We reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.” There is a ton of money being spent right now on the prospect of linking human brains to outside data processing. Such capacity could unquestionably “improve” or “change” what it means to be a human being. Success is not around the corner—we don’t even have a strong understanding of how the brain works yet, much less an understanding of how best to interface with it. The prospect is a bit terrifying—but so was air travel in its infancy, and not many of us would give that up now. For anyone to rule out the possibilities that could arise from a machine-brain interface based on what some theocrat wrote two thousand years ago is ludicrous.

• “We condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes.” They wouldn’t be evangelicals if they weren’t obsessed with other people’s sexual proclivities, would they? These are the same folks who condemn masturbation as evil, so it’s little wonder they’re aghast at a higher-tech version of the same thing.

• “The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. … Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.” God demands that we work, work, work, even if we don’t have to! Humanists have devoted a lot of careful thought to what the best uses of leisure are, and we don’t need a gang of pompous preachers telling us not to go there.

• “Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate.” It’s more than a little tautological to tell us that “Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines”—I thought these were the ethical guidelines. The one substantive “guideline” here tells me that I can’t consent to transfer my personal data for value, even if I want to, with my fully informed consent. Who are these folks to tell me I can’t do that? (Oops, I forgot—it’s God commanding this, not just humans.)

• “While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation.” Pollyanna couldn’t have said it any better. In truth, there’s every reason to be terrified of the power of AI. In the wrong hands, or without careful monitoring, AI could ruin the lives of billions of people. Anyone who claims that a spirit in the sky will keep that from happening is a simpleminded menace. Only well-informed, thoughtful humans can maintain AI as a force for good.

While devoting most of their text to meaningless platitudes, the learned evangelicals manage to ignore entirely the two most important ethical issues facing humanity as we stumble into an AI-dominated world. The first is the question of explainability—the importance of AI being set up in such a way that humans can figure out how it makes the decisions it does. High quality explainability will almost certainly add to the cost of AI and slow it down in uneconomic ways, but many of us believe it is absolutely critical to preserve AI’s status as a servant of humanity, not a master. I guess the drafters figure that since God never bothered to explain himself, AI doesn’t need to either.

The second is the question of “Who owns AI?” Unless something major changes about how our social systems finance capital growth, the tiny proportion of people who own most of the capital today will own an even greater share of it in the future, and the rest of us are going to own squat. When you consider how expensive it is likely to be to create the machine-brain interface mentioned above, the capacity of a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals to turn themselves into a super-species that doesn’t need the rest of us, as Yuval Noah Harari has warned, is more than a bit unnerving. Don’t expect self-proclaimed mouthpieces for God to raise sticky issues about the concentration of wealth, though. They know where their bread is buttered.

While coaching seven-year-old soccer players years ago, I once had a tattletale run up to me, pointing at another child, breathlessly informing me that “He said the sh– word!”

“He did?” I asked, somewhat taken aback.

“Yes,” the boy solemnly nodded. “He said, ‘Shut up!’”

When it comes to theologians claiming to tell us what God thinks about AI, I think that might be good advice.