The world has changed. Substantially.
One hundred years ago, the world was just starting to experience airplanes, full customization of electricity, and a level of military strategy and weaponry unseen before. Today, communism, fascism, and imperialism have all taken a back seat to modern forms of democracy in Western Europe and the United States. Radical market forces have disrupted a once rural-oriented community, dependent upon agriculture and close familial ties. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates, key indicators of a nation’s well-being and overall health, have improved across the entirety of the globe. Nation-states continue to see their citizens receive more affordable medical care, access to good education, and high morale in general.
What do all these trends have in common? Probably multiple factors, but a key one is technology. Technological advances have single-handedly changed perception about what constitutes true genius, what constitutes wealth, and what constitutes a true understanding of our past and our future.
Our spheres of influence are affected by technology, as is how we approach the world. Noted author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman writes that the main forces shaping the world today include “the market, mother nature, and Moore’s Law.” (Moore’s Law is the idea that technology, specifically the overall processing power for computers, will double every two years, leading to an understanding that accelerations are indeed reshaping the world). The intersection of these forces propel the world toward a more complex, yet uniform mode of living, thinking, and acting.
Some of the most brilliant minds over the past 70 years have attempted to replicate human thoughts and actions through computers in what is called “machine learning,” or “artificial intelligence” (AI). While the exact beginning of AI is unknown, various university research centers appeared during the 1950s that gave rise to the increased innovation in AI that has led to its current state.
While many people use the term "artificial intelligence" loosely to mean a plethora of things, I will define AI as a machine that can do the following:
- Recall facts and events more efficiently than humans
- Assist humans with the complex and nuanced tasks of decision-making and analysis
- Imitate the cognitive functions that humans associate with the mind, including reasoning, learning, and problem solving
While numerous innovations in the field of AI have developed, questions remain regarding how far AI can go toward eventually taking the place of humans and the human mind in the workplace. This replacement mindset is what sets many people against the very idea of AI.
AI has the capacity to learn from experience and develop more precise algorithms from that learning to then use in solving more problems. Not only can AI answer questions in a fraction of a second, it can also understand human language and communications. AI is advancing to the point where natural language processing is the norm, and this can be extended to the great diversity of the world.
AI systematically enhances the human ability to understand and reason. It is a supplemental form of the human mind, willing and able to assist in as many situations and circumstances as are allowed. And yet, AI’s function as a “pseudo-helper” for humans does not mean AI shares all human attributes. The more soul-driven attributes of human beings will never be fully shared by AI machines. AI can have a cognitive grasp of things like human morals, obligations, etc., but it can only learn what can be taught by a set of parameters and rules.
AI will never bear certain distinct qualities of humanness, such as moral culpability, duty, and the capacity to love. These are the things that come from being made uniquely in God's image, and they can never truly be imputed to a non-human.
Yet to the non-believer, there is no reason to think this. To the atheist-materialist, humans are simply collections of matter, and the uniquely “human” qualities just described are necessarily reducible to matter. If that’s the case, what can’t be achieved through AI?
What the World Wants from AI
Technology has always been about making life better for the human race. In its best forms, AI continues this tradition — it performs laborious or otherwise undesirable tasks, saving humans time and resources. But in its more dangerous iterations, AI aspires to attain omniscience, something reserved only for God.
Some AI pioneers believe they can create a machine with boundless potential for learning, a machine that can conquer all knowledge. This kind of AI would go beyond mere usefulness and amount to a modern Tower of Babel. It aspires not merely to make life easier for humans, but to ascend the heights of Being itself, acquiring new degrees of godlikeness with each new capacity.
This will undoubtedly strike Christians as unnerving, even blasphemous. That’s for good reason. Yet the non-believer has nothing to restrain him from aspiring to this Tower of Babel. If there is no God, and if everything — even the most “human” qualities about us — are reducible to randomly colliding bits of matter, then human beings are not unique.
Yet this secular fantasy is just that — a fantasy. Every one of us lives in God’s world, regardless of what we believe. As Christians, God’s Word is the undying source of truth for all ages, and that is where we must look to find the truth – even for something as futuristic as AI.
What Does the Bible Teach About AI?
The Bible teaches that technology is humanity’s age-old way of extending power over creation, of imposing order on the created order and “subduing” it as God commanded in Genesis. This is a good and right endeavor.
But as with all good things, technology can be abused and used for sinful purposes. If we are not careful, AI can easily become a modern attempt to achieve what those who constructed the Tower of Babel, and indeed Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit, sought: the attributes of God.
In Genesis 3, there are a multitude of sins wrapped into Adam and Eve’s disobedience. But behind their disobedience was a basic sinful desire: to achieve equality with God. The Bible teaches that we are to be God-like in a moral sense, but not in an axiological sense (that is, in terms of absolute value). Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are taught to imitate God in character — to “be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 20:26). This carries over into the New Testament where Christians are exhorted to “imitate Christ” (Philippians 2). But this moral obligation rests on a basic ontological fact: We ourselves are creature, not God. We are to imitate God’s moral nature precisely because he is God, and we are not.
The fact that we are simply creatures next to the creator God is echoed in the Tower of Babel. There, humanity together conspires to “make a name” for itself by constructing a great tower toward the heavens. Sure, technology was employed in this project, but the motive was not merely to impose order on creation or to make life easier. This was a statement of self-importance, a project that reflected a hunger for supreme status in the universe.
What happened next is instructive for AI. God would not be mocked; seeing that humanity was conspiring against Him, He thwarted their goals by confusing their language, thereby condemning their project to ruin. This resulted in a judgment on humanity that brought humanity lower than it previously was. Just as Adam and Eve sinned and were cursed, the nations sinned at Babel and were driven apart from one another. In grasping for divinity, they pushed themselves further from God.
This curse is most fully manifest in Revelation 19 with the destruction of Babylon. There, the city of man crumbles to decay under God’s judgment, whereas the city of God in Revelation 5 is blessed for all eternity.
When humanity grasps for God-like status, it is condemning itself to God’s curse. This applies for all history, including today in the pursuit of AI. In conspiring to create AI that takes on divine attributes, such as omniscience, the only outcome can be failure — and judgment.
Right Uses of AI
Does the Bible give any specific teaching on the morality of AI, and how we might rightly use such machines?
Fundamentally, the Lord has given us minds to use for His glory. Continuously learning about the world, cultivating godly passions that reside within us and those around us, and challenging our minds to think are all glorious pursuits that God has placed before us. John Piper’s book Think challenges readers to do just this — to study God’s Word, study the world, and study people to come to an even greater understanding of who God is — ultimately for the purpose of worship. The pursuit of knowledge in the mind should lead to increased worship in the heart.
AI, in its pursuit of knowledge for the purpose of human flourishing, can indeed be helpful to human beings, just as computers have been of immense benefit. But this is where Christian uses of AI will be distinct from worldly uses of AI. Much of the world will (and does) use AI to pursue the things of this world “where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”
In addition to these moral constraints, there are simple physical limits on AI’s potential that we can know from the Bible. Tom Friedman has written that "AI will be able to predict the future," but Christians know this is and always will be impossible. The ability to predict the future is only possible in a purely material world where everything is deterministic. This would be like predicting the outcome of a shot in billiards: Simple physics are all you need to know.
But our world is not simply material and cannot be comprehended merely through mathematical calculations. Those who hope to use AI to predict future events (outside the scope of what really is just physical, like billiard balls) will end up gravely disappointed. Because of this natural barrier, erected by the laws of nature as it were, AI’s greatest feats will always pale in comparison to the knowledge of our only Father in Heaven, who knows with exactness all that will ever happen.
Knowing what we know about God and His omniscience — not to mention his foreordination of all things — we should adopt a more chastened view of AI's potential. We must beware of grasping for what Adam and Eve sought in the forbidden fruit: to be like God himself.
A Fast-Approaching Dilemma
AI is quickly advancing, and its moral trajectory is at odds with biblical morality, values, and assertions about reality. AI aspires to replicate human minds, but we know only real humans bear the image and likeness of God. AI’s atheistic proponents assume that human beings can be reduced to a set of cognitive patterns, a numerical code, a mathematical formula. As mentioned, this denies the Christian doctrine of creation and the Bible's anthropology.
As we move further into the ethical minefield of AI, here are several questions that Christians should consider:
1) Is AI causing me to believe false things about God's supremacy over human/machine knowledge? Am I giving in to the Tower of Babel sin (which is what sin again?)? Is Christian Truth informing my expectations for AI?
The Christian's authority to operate comes exclusively from God's Word, the Bible. Thus, any decision we make must conform to what is written in His revealed Word. To place our hopes, expectations, and dreams into the hands of AI or some other intelligent being is to declare that God's plans for us are not enough. It is to try and fill the God-shaped void in our lives with answers that we can see, feel, and touch.
2) Is AI negatively affecting my view of human beings as distinct image bearers?
As a generation, we have turned away from religion broadly, and Christianity specifically, to the material world in order to find fulfillment and satisfaction. To reorient, we must first recognize where we come from and why we are here. We must also realize that reality is not simply material and reducible to a rational calculation. AI may prove to be of great use in complex reasoning and probability analysis, but it will not take the place of God’s love extended to us, as sinners.
3) Is my motive for utilizing AI purely for monetary benefit? Would AI threaten human jobs on a mass scale?
Motives that are 100 percent pure do not exist in this life. We may think there are some that come close, but there really are not. We know that AI enhances productivity in the economic, medical, and political spheres, and it may even give us some insight into what we can expect in the future. AI also generates immense revenue for its producers. Thus, the more efficient AI is, the more money is produced. As with all commercial enterprises, we must be on guard against greed when engaging with AI.
A related consideration is that of automation and the loss of human jobs. AI is moving organizations toward a more robust automation platform and roadmap, helping to augment cybersecurity, assembly lines, and processing papers. AI will supplement many jobs in the near future and, more than likely, eliminate certain positions to save organizations money. Employees are becoming ever incentivized to pursue new skills and varying degrees of leadership in order to stay relevant.
AI will never completely eradicate the human element in the workplace, but it will be a considerable force in outsourcing what have traditionally been standard business processes. Christian business-owners and employers should carefully consider what uses of AI will be on the whole be injurious to human beings. The biblical call to love our neighbor calls businessmen and women to care not only about their bottom line, but primarily about other human beings, including employees. The right course of action will no doubt depend on the specific circumstances in each case, but Christian business owners must maintain this concern for neighbor at all times.
Our world has become, as Aldous Huxley predicted in the early twentieth century, a “brave new world.” Christians must be at the forefront of figuring out where we stand in this brave new world, and AI is one front to which we have given far too little thought. We should encourage Christian leaders, as well as the researchers, inventors, and investors who are driving the advancement of AI to consider implications for society, for better or worse. If we are not engaging this issue, we will soon experience an unavoidable moral quandary that we never saw coming.
Cody works in the tech industry strategizing ways for government customers to alleviate data challenges through the use of big data and analytics. In his spare time, Cody reads extensively, is an avid traveler, and is a volunteer leader with YoungLife. He graduated from Wheaton College in 2014 with a degree in International Relations.