ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND REAL RELATIONSHIP
As the conversation about the benefits and dangers of Artificial Intelligence occurs within our academic, business and political cultures, Dr. Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin in the Fields, London, brings the Christian church into this larger conversation. Preached on July 16, 2023, Pastor Wells begins:
Reading for address: Romans 8: 1-11
“Earlier this year, the CEOs of the leading global tech research organisations announced their recommendation that ‘Mitigating the risk of extinction from artificial intelligence should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.’ This statement marked a parting of the ways.
Up until this year there’d been two conversations about artificial intelligence. The dominant one was one of promise: it was about how artificial intelligence was coming to be used in more and more ways that both took over the roles performed by human beings, resulting in less burdensome work and more leisure, and offered to improve the results of human investigation. The quieter conversation was one of threat: it was about how AI could jeopardise human existence, either by becoming as superior to humans as humans are to gorillas, or by being so set on achieving its goal it stopped at nothing to obliterate humankind. What the tech CEOs are now saying is that the conversation about benign promise has been superseded by the conversation about looming threat. So it’s time for some serious consideration of AI and of how church and world should respond to it. I don’t think Christians have to approach this as powerless observers; instead it can be a moment for reflecting on what really matters about life and faith.
Artificial intelligence, known as AI, refers to the ability of a digital computer or a computer-controlled robot to perform tasks generally associated with intelligent human beings. There are plenty of potential blessings of AI. It can analyse huge amounts of data rapidly, and find patterns the human mind might not perceive – for example in medical diagnosis. It can automate mundane tasks, and even write student essays. It can customise consumer choices and medical treatments. It can enhance education and traffic flow. These are all ways in which hitherto we have seen AI as a tool that can assist us. Inevitably a lot of scrutiny has fallen on what could be the downsides of this new tool. Hacking and cyberattacks could jeopardise the confidentiality of data, while the use of AI for surveillance already evokes significant concern. In an era of fake news, it’s daunting to realise the potential of AI for spreading misinformation: we could quickly be in a world where it’s impossible to tell what’s true, and where only a minority of people even care.
These are the promises and pitfalls of AI that have been in the public domain for several years now, and are already a part of our lives when Amazon tells us ‘Customers who liked headphones also bought buggies,’ or when an iPhone asks us if we’d like to access our bank account by facial recognition. But what these CEOs are saying is that they foresee a time when AI will become not just a tool we can use, but a master that can control us.
We can divide responses to artificial intelligence into three groups. Let’s call them Not on Your Life, Yes, Please, and Yes, But. I want to explain how each of these groups has an implied story….”
“Which brings us to the third story, the Yes, But story. There’s a lot that’s right about the Yes, But story. Christians affirm what they value about themselves and the world by the way they attend to those most vulnerable in their midst. The Yes, But story’s not wrong. It’s just insufficient. There’s a bigger story, expressed by the Christian virtue of love. The story of love is that human beings were created for relationship – with God, and meanwhile with themselves, one another and the creation. The most important things in life are forming, fostering and restoring relationship. Which means we have a simple test for whether developments in artificial intelligence, or indeed any other product of human invention, are positive or negative: do those developments strengthen, deepen and enrich relationship, or inhibit, evacuate and dismantle it? True, textured and sustainable relationships require dignity, trust, integrity, generosity, sacrifice, kindness, attention, delight – all the words that express the best things in life; all the words that combine to embody what we mean by love. The Yes But approach wants us to legislate safeguards and protocols around AI. That’s wise and necessary. But let’s not for a moment suppose you can legislate love. That’s something we each have to practise, promote and proclaim. Which is why we need church. The church’s response to AI isn’t to dream up some magic new solution. It’s to be renewed in appreciating the significance of its existing core practices: like sharing a weekly meal in which all are equal, all contribute, and all are fed; like caring for the vulnerable in ways that affirm mutuality and dignity; like upholding one another in prayer and practical gestures of solidarity.
Let me finish with two final words. First, what we’ve just perceived is that artificial intelligence is the product of a world that does not employ faith, hope and love as the metrics by which we evaluate everything new that arises. To be a Christian is to believe that, in Jesus and the Spirit, God gives us everything we need, and that faith, hope and love are the ways we respond to the plenteousness that God has already given us. Some technological developments are healthy, some less healthy: the point is, the way we know whether they’re healthy is the extent to which they facilitate faith, hope and love. So AI is testing the church as to whether it truly believes that faith, hope and love are what we’re made for. Paul says in Romans 8, ‘To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.’ If AI is a blessing, it will lead to life and peace.
Second and last, the development of AI and the crisis into which we’ve just stumbled, that AI might destroy everything, may yet be a gift to the church in this precise way. Let’s take a moment to ponder what it is that we’re so terrified AI might take away. Is it our control? That was an illusion anyway. Is it our identity? Our identity is a gift of God, not our own achievement or possession. Is it our existence as a species? That lay in God’s hands, not ours, all along. I suggest the thing AI really threatens to take away is our precious ability to relate to one another in profound and meaningful ways, replacing it with life as a concatenation of perpetual and calculated transactions. What Christians need to assert and embody and enrich is the quality of their relationships, with God, one another and the creation. AI is showing us the difference between artificial love and real love.
And here lies a question and an irony. The question is, Do we make those relationships the gravitational centre of our lives, right now – or are we already preoccupied with securing control, identity and survival by other means? The irony is, maybe it’s going to take the threat of AI to make us realise what’s most important in life lest we lose it. Which means the threat of AI may turn out to be showing us what our lives should really have been about all along. And thus, paradoxically, be an extraordinary gift.”
To read the entire sermon click here.
To watch the sermon click here starting 23 minutes into the service.