Let’s Talk About Robots…

A few weeks ago, I attended a round table with a panel of experts, exploring a Christian response to artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

My primary mission there was to observe and to learn. It was fascinating listening to attendees discuss their fears and hopes for the future. Robotics and AI is a massive subject and it is complicated, too. I suspect the daunting nature of the issue puts many people off. But what is clear is that robots and AI are set to play an increasingly prominent role in our lives. In turn, this will prompt huge questions about the value of work and what it means to be human.

The best and sharpest minds are being employed by global companies like Google and Microsoft to develop cutting-edge technology to enhance and expand things like data collection. An invasive surveillance of everyday life is going on and nearly all of us will be affected by it. Change is happening very, very quickly. For example, it is only 11 years since the first Apple iPhone, and new models come to market with increasing frequency. Just think about the enormous and myriad ways smartphones have changed our lives. Alexa, Android, Apple, iPads, tablets and so on are prominent in families and even among children. Did you know that Silicon Valley’s mantra is ‘move fast and break things’?

Unsurprisingly, in this context, the round table was unanimous in agreeing that Christians must not simply ‘exit the stage’ on this issue. I am thinking especially of those working in tech industries, who carry the greatest responsibilities. But church leaders too will need to think through a clear, biblical position on the use of technology as young and old become increasingly reliant on it. So, what specific insights do we have to offer?

Fortunately, the Bible furnishes us with vital principles and teachings which can help shape the evolving conversation about the ethics of all this. God, the supreme Creator, has blessed humanity with ingenious abilities, and technology is part of our subduing the earth and extending our dominion over it. We do not want to be Luddites and anti-technology for the sake of it. But we must also sound a note of caution. The Christian teaching about the image of God, about humans as uniquely crowned with glory and honour and possessing eternal and immortal souls, must be at the forefront of our thinking. With all the changes happening around us, we need to stand against simulated personhood and simulated relationships and champion instead real, human relationships and the unique worth and value of human life. Ultimately, technology must serve us and not the other way around.

Moreover, our view of human sin means we can more realistically assess what is going on. Humans possess a unique ability to ruin what is good and to turn it to evil. Take Facebook. Its founder was convinced that connecting people around the globe was a good thing. In some ways he was right. But Facebook has also facilitated sin and evil in ways he didn’t imagine. Christians can offer much-needed checks and balances to the ‘tech evangelists’ of Silicon Valley.

We can also champion the need to prioritise protecting the most vulnerable from exploitation and harm. At the moment, power is being concentrated in the hands of a small number of ‘all-powerful’ tech companies. With God’s heart for the most vulnerable on our minds, Christians see the need to break up monopolies where power is too concentrated. We also see the need to protect groups like children, especially maintaining the adult/child distinction online where it is often blurred.

So where is all this going? It’s impossible to say. But what is clear is that the nature of work itself could profoundly change. The nature of meaningful relationships will also be up for grabs. I don’t think we need to fear the future. But we do need to prayerfully discern the times. The Christian faith, in its purest and truest form, has an essential role to play in shaping society’s engagement with new technology. Let’s pray for our brothers and sisters working in this space, for God-given wisdom, discernment and courage. To find out more go to: http://www.care.org. uk/cause/technology

James Mildred

James Mildred is the Communications Manager for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) www.care.org.uk