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The church, robotics and AI

Jonathan Worsley reports from a recent conference organised by CARE

Jonathan Worsley

Figure Image

Confession time: I love cutting-edge cinematography.

However, I did fall asleep during Avatar; Dr Who’s son used to attend my church, but I have never viewed a single episode; I have read George Orwell, but not 1984; and I’ve never seen Star Wars.

In short, I don’t like Science Fiction. Which is why, on 29 June, I attended For The Sake of the Future: The Church, Robotics + AI conference at the British Library. For the symposium, put on by CARE (Christian Action Research & Education), sought not to highlight a futuristic fiction, but rather an imminent future reality.

Indeed, from the moment Pepper (the Japanese humanoid robot) greeted me, I knew that this was not going to be your standard Christian convention. And it was fascinating. I left with far more questions than answers, but one notion became very clear. Humanity is on the brink of a massive global technological revolution, and local churches need to think carefully about the pastoral ramifications.

The conference provided many highlights. Dr Patrick Dixon, often described as Europe’s leading Futurist, highlighted modern technological trends. Jon Cruddas, MP, spoke about the necessity of Government working out principles before implementing policy.

Humanity 101

However, Oxford Professor, John Lennox, on the topic of ‘What does it mean to be human?’ gave the most fundamental lecture. This key address called fellow Christians in attendance to recapture the significance of Genesis 1.27. Namely, that humanity is made in God’s image. While the need for a robust anthropology is important in light of modern discussions surrounding sexual relationships, Lennox showed how vital it is for considering our future relationship with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Accordingly, Lennox drew on Genesis 2 to make the point that humans (as opposed to robots) are not only made in God’s image, but uniquely have: an aesthetic capacity (2.8-9); a curiosity (2.10-14); a sense of morality (2.16-17); and innate male and female roles (2.18-25).

Lennox also highlighted the divergent anthropology of secular scientists within the field of AI. For example, Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology, bluntly states: ‘We humans are blobs of organised mud.’ However, some of these self-confessing humanists are now becoming more apprehensive about where such a philosophy takes us.

Bioethicist, Leon Kass, recently warned: ‘We have paid some high prices for the technological conquest of nature, but none so high as the intellectual and spiritual costs of seeing [people as] mere materials for manipulation, exploitation, and transformation. With the power of biological engineering gathering, there will be splendid new opportunities for similar degradation of our view of man… If we come to see ourselves as meat, then meat we shall become.’

Lennox’s insight, intellect and expertise, coupled with his unashamed employment of Genesis for gleaning a true anthropology, was one of the most heartening aspects of the day. In summary, those armed with God’s Word today still have the best foundation for answering the complicated questions of an uncertain tomorrow.

Nonetheless, applying a robust biblical anthropology to the future is tricky. Indeed, as the day went on, I became increasingly conscious that even a timeless worldview would not make impending pastoral issues easy to navigate. Here are three shocking questions that I left pondering:

1. Robots as companions?

One of my lasting memories of the day was a video of a little girl bouncing on a trampoline. The girl at first appeared to be happy, but then seemed lonely. At the end of the clip she stopped bouncing and asked with great earnestness: ‘Siri, are you my friend?’

This is not so much a vision of the future but a vision of now. Britain is becoming more isolated. Four days after the conference, Childline reported rising numbers of adolescents contacting the charity about loneliness. Today, half of older people (49% of 65+ in the UK) say that television or pets are their main form of company. Cutting -edge technology is not helping. While technology once helped us to communicate more frequently with others, it’s now isolating us. What’s the answer? Well, according to most in the tech world, the contemporary answer to every modern issue is just more technology. Hence, in this case, the answer is ‘companion robots.’ For these robots, like the aforementioned Pepper, are programmed to react to principal human emotions.

Whilst most technophiles concede that the relational bond formed with a robot does not (yet) compare to the companionship of family and friends, it does raise a number of interesting questions for the Christian who knows the truth of Genesis 2.18: How powerful could the simple testimony of a local church’s fellowship be? When does any piece of technology start to operate as an unhealthy/unbiblical alternative to real companionship? To what degree should the church discourage relationships with robotics? When does technological immersion become sin?

Such questions become more pointed when one considers how much effort is going into the dismal manufacturing of ‘sexbots’ and the normalisation of sleeping with sex machines. The sex tech industry is apparently worth £20 billion already.

2. Robots removing our troubles?

Dr Patrick Dixon ended the conference optimistically. He encouraged Christians to have a very positive view of technology and not to run from the future. This is because the robots of tomorrow will make daily life more fruitful. Robots, he argued, will remove the ‘thorns and thistles’ of our hard labour (Genesis 3.18). No longer will we have to vacuum or mow; robots will sweep our floors and trim our grass. No longer will we have to endure hours behind the wheel on the M25; self-driving cars will drive us. Those in fields of manufacturing, farming, construction and banking will soon be able to retire. In fact, since writing is also not a problem for AI, I’ll soon be on holiday too.

It may all sound rather blissful, but I left less optimistic than Dixon. For how will people feel when robots take their jobs? Certainly, we are not to find our identity in our work, but we must recognise that work was created before the Fall, not after it, and is part of our humanity. Moreover, how will people spend their time when robots are doing everything for us? Professor Nigel Cameron, who opened the conference, in contrast to Dixon, argued that it is naïve to think that this massive transition will be paradise.

3. Will we be allowed to unplug?

In the last three years, apparently, over 3,000 Swedes have had microchips implanted into their bodies. They don’t need to carry key cards, driving licences, or even train tickets. While the Scandinavian love affair with technology might be atypical, it does raise questions about whether anyone will realistically be able to extract themselves from a digital system.

Many shops no longer accept cash: how long before everything becomes digital? And if all is digital, then will anyone really have a choice about whether they embed technology into their bodies? I’m certainly no Luddite, but I’d rather have an Apple watch that I can take off than one that is permanently implanted in my wrist.

More importantly, for Christians, who will control these systems to which we are plugged into? Will the government have control? Will the tech companies have control? Will we have the choice whether to ‘take the blue pill – believing whatever we want to believe’, or will we have to take ‘the red pill – staying in Wonderland?’ I have seen the film The Matrix and such a dysto-pian fiction may not be too far off. Get ready, church.