“Harnessing AI for good and realizing its myriad benefits requires mitigating its substantial risks. This endeavor demands a society-wide effort that includes government, the private sector, academia, and civil society.”

This quote is not from a think tank focused on ethics, a technology company, or even a churchwide organization, but from the White House executive order President Biden signed into law earlier this month in an attempt to reign in the proliferation of artificial intelligence technology before great harm is done.

The 112-page document does not mention religion once, nor would one expect it to, but does mention “priorities” and “principles” over 20 times.

The roots of this concern over technology date back to before Steve Jobs developed the iPhone or even the Macintosh personal computer. From the earliest days of the faith and science dialogue over 50 years ago, a common thread has been the human use of technology and where it leads us. 

Before John Lennon cut the demo of what we now are referring to as the Beatles’ “last song” thanks to AI filling in some of the blanks, there seemed to be a technological phobia afoot, but no one necessarily could have predicted the machine learning revolution that we are currently living through.

Ralph Wendell Burhoe, who is well-known as one of the founders of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science in the 1950s and 60s, wrote the following as the Beatles were still singing “Can’t Buy Me Love” — “the ultimate danger of … technological power is … subtle and difficult to do anything about. It threatens man’s very central sense of his worth, value, meaning, purpose, direction, and will to live.”    

AI seems to be one such technological power that is in our hands today. It is so subtly wrapped up in our daily routine from our smartphones, social media personas (yes some of those photos have been given AI facelifts), and quick access to useful information that you would be forgiven for offering up a shoulder shrug. But what does all this mean for our vision of our future, is a question the scientists and others, including theologians, are asking.

 AI is just getting started, according to its proponents — mostly in business circles. From managing our wealth, health and even well-being via numerous apps to offer advice on almost anything – it either has or will soon mean we all are interacting with artificial intelligence more than we even know and, yes, the “digital worker” class is fully employed by us whether we like it or not.

What do people of faith have to say about this? Should we be worried that our “will to live” can ultimately be sucked away as we increasingly rely on AI?

In reading so much as of late Burhoe’s writings, he was very much ahead of his time and influenced many of the scholars focused on science and religion today. I couldn’t help but wonder what nuggets of wisdom one could glean from his brand of “scientific theology” that he saw necessary to move religion forward.

In his address for accepting the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1980, Burhoe said: “Religion around the world in this twentieth century has manifested itself as tragically less than adequate for human welfare or salvation in an age of the dangerously explosive expansion of scientific knowledge and scientific technology.” 

He sought out ways of relating how religion had a role to play in human evolution and how an acknowledgement of the science of religion had an effect on society. The technology he refers to may not be that of our modern super-computing era, but one can see how he laid a foundation for the church and scholars to acknowledge. That is, that religion has as much to say about humanity’s future as science and that science must be recognized as a driving force within society by the church. He spent decades to move the needle on that second point via conferences, academic papers and ultimately within a seminary setting in Chicago. 

Burhoe was quick to point out that the recognition of the importance of religion originated not from the church but often from agnostic scientists.  Burhoe, who was also the founding editor of the religion and science academic journalZygon, was comfortable in both religious and scientific communities. And that has been the key to moving forward discussions about the impact that scientific technology has on society and culture.

Now it’s the 21st century, and it is worth pondering whether any computer scientists are looking to religion to provide a hopeful picture of the future. In the decades following Burhoe’s 1980 speech, conservative Christianity challenged the teaching of evolution in public schools, perhaps further alienating the scientific community eager to do away with the “mad scientist” in a lab coat imagery that has been part of the popular imagination for decades.

The face of AI?

Earlier this year, the so-called ‘Godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Winton, sat down for an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes.  He said, “I think we’re moving into a period when for the first time ever we may have things more intelligent than us.” He acknowledged that human intelligence will ultimately play second fiddle to artificial intelligence, that in the next five years AI will be able to reason better than humans.

Winton quit the Google Brain research department in London earlier this year over his own reported concerns for the possible ultimate outcomes of his own pioneering work. He spoke of AI’s ability to manipulate humanity in such a way that even if the technology were to become malevolent humans may neglect to turn it off.

A theologian’s take

Living in the shadow of Silicon Valley, Lutheran theologian Ted Peters in Berkeley, Calif. has taken on the role of ‘public theologian’ particularly around the topics of AI and transhumanism in recent years. 

Today every institution has to rely on some form of technology, even the church. It is worth wondering though whether the implementation of some technologies should be discouraged by not only computer scientists, companies and governments, but should whether the church out to have some ethical commentary regarding AI and what it means for human dignity and well-being?

It may come as a surprise that some of this work is already being done in some small circles, yet it is still early days. 

Peters has explored the connections between artificial intelligence, transhumanism and human salvation. In 2019, he wrote of how AI technology can be viewed as part of humanity’s future and the advent of a ‘post-human’ society that extends life on the planet. Peters wrote more recently in partnership with computer scientist Noreen Herzfeld. We will be offering a thorough review of the book in a future edition of Covalence.

For now, it is worth remembering that Peters’ view is that while technological developments are almost in our very DNA, we have been given the free will by God to create our own future. But he reminds us too that what we choose differs from person to person. The gift of ‘self-fulfillment’ is not a simple one.

“…like a bag of marbles dropped on the floor and rolling uncontrollably in different directions, the human race is taking its technological innovations in ungovernably different directions,” writes Peters.

And there is proof — that perhaps we didn’t need — that this march into the AI-informed era will not be easy for any institution to navigate. Then again, the outcomes and innovations are of our own making – but will we share the responsibility for the unforeseen impact? If the messiness of the Internet era, climate crisis and our response to global pandemics is any indication, it will be yet another rocky road ahead.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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