The robots are coming, get ready. Christians need to be fully aware of what’s on the horizon because our world will never be the same. We’re entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution creating astonishing developments such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and even self-driving cars
These technologies will massively impact everybody. Our work, lifestyles, beliefs and even what it is to be human will be challenged. Through this, Christians will need to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in what are challenging times ahead.
I’m not being paranoid either. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk has described Artificial Intelligence as the “greatest risk we face as a civilization”. Likewise, Prof Stephen Hawking has stated that powerful AI could be “either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity”.
Given humanity’s messy past experience with powerful technologies, I’m not overly optimistic.
So I’m laying out a survival guide for 21st Century Christians, of the main areas that AI and the rise of the robots will impact most. Therefore we need to get our theology really thought out and the Christian ethics that come with that.
We need to work out what is sacred and what is profane and where our biblical lines in the sand will need to be drawn.
In doing so, we can assert our God-given dignity and protect those most vulnerable to the rise of the machines. How ironic, in a technology-driven future, we need more the ancient revelation and wisdom of the Bible.
Here are the areas Christians will likely need to be clear about to ensure our voice is effective and prophetic in the age of the robots.
The robot revolution and a Biblical view of human worth
The Bible states that humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This is one of the greatest and most important statements ever written. I believe it’s the cornerstone of our civilization because it affirms the intrinsic value of every human life. Without that, morality and how we treat each other is defined by those with the power.
This ‘image of God’ truth will need to be asserted over again with the rise of the robots. We, flesh and blood, thinking humans with all our biological impulses and creative endeavours are extraordinary. We carry something of the divine DNA in all of us.
We are extraordinary enough to even develop AI in the first place! But could it be that we make ourselves obsolescent in the process, or even worse, destroy ourselves at the hands of our own creation? That’s certainly the concern that has prompted the United Nations to open the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, to monitor developments in AI its implications for development and global security. Weaponry is already been developed by the major powers to utilise the strategic power of AI for warfare. Killing more people remotely, effectively and autonomously is a real possibility. Drone technology is currently just the beginning.
So we need clear moral guidance on how we limit the use of AI, not only in warfare but for civilian use too. And I believe it will always come back to the foundational truth, of our value being created in the image of God.
The robot revolution and a Biblical view of work
The biggest impact of AI and machine technology will be in the realm of work. We’re facing job losses on a massive scale. Oxford University research quoted in a Bank of America Merrill Lynch Report, claims that 35% of all UK workers and 47% in the US have jobs that AI technology could replace. It would be wrong to think it’s only low paying, service-based jobs at risk, middle-income manual labour jobs are threatened too as are some in professional services. For example, financial advisors could be replaced with sophisticated algorithms and medical diagnosis could be done way more effectively by an AI-based programme than a human doctor, to name just a few.
A report by McKinsey Global Institute finds that up to $9tn in global wage costs could be saved as computers take over knowledge-intensive tasks.
Will we have a generation of people that society doesn’t need? There will be clear economic winners and losers as a result of the robot revolution.
This is where Christians must affirm a biblical view of human worth and work. The Bible teaches that work is positive because it provides us a role in life, it encourages serving others for their betterment. In work, we provide for our own needs and those of our families and we earn money and learn skills that can be used to further God’s Kingdom. And this is just to highlight a few of the benefits that the Bible teaches about work.
There will be some big debates in the future around how our economy will be structured and how we may have to ‘protect the human’. A robot tax is even being currently considered by some political parties.
Christians will need to assert the intrinsic value of work for society if machines are to serve humans rather than humans serve machines.
The robot revolution and a Biblical view of relationships
The robots are threatening our interhuman relationships. The power of AI means that human behaviour can be imitated by robots. Now, with the physical presence of a humanoid robot, it means in effect humans are creating a ‘person’ substitute. You can guess how creepy that could get.
Wherever there’s new technology, the sex industry is always there. So you may not be surprised (even if a little disturbed) sex robots are already on the market. The sex tech industry is worth $30bn; it’s big business. Two-thirds of that market are heterosexual men (I presume single). But what makes this so troubling is not just the fact that the most intimate human act of sex could even be substituted with a robot but also sex robots are being programmed to be submissive and even withhold ‘consent’. They’re therefore created to satisfy some men’s worst horrific desire to control and abuse, all played out on a synthetic body. It begs the question, how could these men ever relate to a real person? The robot serves to reinforce a destructive sin.
And our response? Christians should be speaking loudly and asserting the intrinsic beauty and dignity of human relationships that can never be substituted by a created machine.
The robot revolution, AI and a Biblical view of idolatry
Of all the weirder, if not disturbing developments in AI, is the growing belief that AI can be a cure for all humanity’s problems. AI, it is claimed, is the very thing that ushers in the techno-utopia of the future.
I know enough history to know that utopian visions, no matter how ideal or lofty, rarely turn out the way dreamers want it to. Fallen humanity always gets in the way and mess up the dream.
Technology brings good things for sure, but it also changes us in unforeseen ways and creates new problems. The internet is the most significant development of the last few decades but do you wish you were less attached to your phone or wasted less time on your favourite social media platform? Technology is a mixed blessing and will always create as many problems as solutions. I have no doubt that AI and developments in robotics will be just the same.
But maybe you’re a true believer. Maybe technology is your god. In fact, the claim of Anthony Levandowski is just that. Recent media reports have claimed that a new religion called Way of the Future has the aim of creating an AI deity that will improve society and has such omniscience that people will worship it.
Well, the Bible has a view on that. The oldest and most common sin of humanity is that of idolatry. We just can’t seem to escape the trap of creating God substitutes, objects, desires, deities that we seek to control, but really control us.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that a 21st Century golden calf looks just like the thing we fetishize the most, technology. Where then are the prophets of old? How will they cry their warnings?
How Christians can respond to the robot revolution
If the concerns raised here turn out to be justified, then AI may well be the greatest existential threat to humanity. The question that has to be answered is how humanity rises to the challenge and asserts moral power over its use.
As Christians, we will need to pray for discernment and to be a helpful guide to shaping a common future, with technology included. A future where all of God’s creation are protected and enabled to thrive.
We must know what technology to accept, resist and what will bring blessing for all.
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© Not Only Sundays, October 2017.
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