The movie Wall-E is a tale of a dystopian future where obese, passive humans are relegated to a large ark-like ship in which automated systems take care of everything. In one climactic scene, the captain wrestles to take back control of the ship, changing the course for all humanity.
Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have demonstrated remarkable progress in applications such as controlling autonomous vehicles, analyzing medical images, and performing complex business tasks.
These impressive developments have prompted a wide range of responses. Anthony Levandowski, a former Google and Uber engineer, has helped establish a group called the “Way of the Future” to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence” and that “through understanding and worship of the Godhead, [to] contribute to the betterment of society” (Wired, 9/27/17). As if it were a modern tower of Babel, some are putting their trust in AI.
On the other side are those like the inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has called AI “our biggest existential threat.” Fears about AI range from job loss to grim predictions of a robot uprising that will destroy humanity (a narrative reflected in many science-fiction movies).
In the midst of these voices, how might a Christian perspective enable us to join the dialogue about AI? First, we must recognize that AI represents new possibilities in creation. As a part of creation it can, in principle, be directed in God-honoring ways despite the possibility for sinful distortions. While many researchers focus on what AI can do, we need to begin to discern what we ought to do with AI.
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion opens by asserting that true wisdom consists of two parts: knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves. In discerning what we ought to do, we need to answer the prior question of who we are before God. This question is also crucial for the engineers who shape the tools that shape us.
Like the captain in Wall-E, we have been given the responsibility to steer the direction of AI. If we pursue whatever technology can do, we will allow it to steer us to places with troublesome consequences. If we steer it in more obedient ways, aligning with God’s intents, we will open up new opportunities for human flourishing.