(The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission organized an “Evangelical Statement of Principles on Artificial Intelligence,” which I was honored to sign. My comments below were partly shared at a panel unveiling the statement. Other speakers were Megan Reiss of Senator Romney’s office, along with commission president Russell Moore and commission creative director Jason Thacker.)
We can affirm technology as God’s gift for the advance of humanity, for the amelioration of poverty and hardship, and ultimately for the glory of God, including the promotion of the Gospel and the teaching of Christian principles. Modern technology exists partly because of the biblical understanding of a Creator God whose laws are discernible. So our attitude should include gratitude, but also of course wariness.
Fallen humanity can and will abuse all of God’s gifts, and technology can be especially pernicious. Churchill’s warned of the “perverted science” of Nazi abuse, and our own capacities over 75 years later are exponentially greater. Yet we cannot be fearful or run from responsibility. We must address, manage, critique and steer technological advance towards positive directions when possible. As Christians and realists, we must also prepare for the almost inevitable crimes and disasters that will and do occur from the misuse or abuse of technology.
Christians especially conservative Christians at least in America default to pessimism and apocalypticism. The world ostensibly is always degenerating even if we in our time are blessed with countless material improvements and opportunities for expanding God’s Kingdom. We are rightly suspicious of the modern concept of progress but we should at the same time not neglect an idea of providential progress.
We believe in a God who is actively redeeming the world and who is prevailing against all forces of darkness and despair. So we are always hopeful, and optimism is justified if rooted in Divine Sovereignty. Humanity has always been afraid of technological progress, prone as we are to retain old familiar ways. But we always have to be ready to abandon our blacksmith shops, spinning wheels and butter churners in favor of ongoing improvements that liberate us from avoidable drudgery. I can recall the countless hours as a boy and youth spent in libraries researching often without success what now can be found on the internet within seconds. This advance is incalculable. We at called to redeem time, for which technology is our powerful ally.
Yes, technology also opens windows to vice. The internet accesses pornography, racial supremacist sites and countless other dark corners. But it opens up fields of knowledge that were unimaginable for thousands of years, for which thanks to God. We know so much more about His creation thanks to this particular new development permitted by His grace. Doubtless new discoveries will be similarly if not even more expansive.
More practically, the advent of driverless cars seems especially momentous. No longer will casual transportation be so limited to the healthy and mobile. The elderly, infirm and sightless, among persons with other challenges, will potentially traverse roads safely. I’ve told my parents, now in their seventies, that in 20 or more years, when in their nineties, they’ll be driving safely to the beach with elderly friends, which horrified my travel averse father. And the already mobile will be able to drive under safer circumstances, less vulnerable to human error, folly and bad judgement. Thanks to this unfolding technology, tens of thousands of persons who would have died from car accidents will be spared, avoiding incalculable pain and anguish for their families.
Technology amplifies war no less than enhancing comforts of peace. Weaponry for thousands of years has been advancing technologically to the benefit of some and the imperilment of others. The Byzantines gained centuries for their empire against the Turks and other enemies thanks to Greek fire, which their adversaries failed to counter or unravel. The West came to dominate the world politically and economically thanks to advanced technology.
The challenges of artificial intelligence are not entirely unique but are the acceleration of long existing realities. Of course, the United States and its allies will have to vigorously maintain our technological edge if we are to maintain a world where democracy and trade can exist without intimidation. The same persistent questions will confront us regarding the morality of some weapons versus others and how they are to be used ethically. In some ways, artificial intelligence has been and will ever more be the friend to less lethal warfare, as weapons, sometimes controlled by non-human agency, destroy other weapons, themselves controlled by non-human agency, without widespread harm to humans themselves.
The threat perhaps is that as the human toll decreases, the resort to warfare may become more of a temptation. Perhaps it already has. But we should not forget, gratefully, that fatalities due to warfare in the world are at an unparalleled historic low. Political goals gained through warfare now sometimes avoid great human cost, at least by the military powers with the most advanced technologies.
Earlier today I was visited by human rights scholar Aaron Rhodes whose recent book The Debasement of Human Rights I commend to you. He described China as the greatest threat to human freedom today largely because of its technologically weaponized surveillance police state. Unlike the old Soviet Union, China is a society of growing wealth whose resources for technological advancement are not as contained.
Technology for most of our lifetimes has derived from and been the guardian of the freedom of the West and other lawful societies. Yet this assumption can no longer be completely reliable. In some ways, we are returning to 80 years ago, when the Nazi state embodied the vanguard of technological advancement, developing prototypes of weaponry that would foreshadow the space age. This prospect is ominous yet we should also be hopeful about the capacity of free peoples more fully to exercise their capacities for technological advancement far more so than police states, as Britain ultimately did with Nazi Germany. We should also be aware that despots everywhere will look to Chinese technological manipulation as a model for themselves, both in repressing their subjects and in mobilizing threats against America.
America must harness technology, including artificial intelligence, not only for our military defense but also for extolling our democratic principles of liberty for all persons. The best of American values, rooted in biblical concepts, should be affirmed, explained and expanded. Opposing Chinese style exploitation of artificial intelligence for police state repression and human degradation should be an ongoing American policy priority.
God-given human dignity should inform America’s global perspective, and should connect to natural law wherever possible for interpretation to wider cultures. Human rights as we conceive them are the fruits of Jewish and Christian civilization but their benefits are by no means limited to the West and they are Christendom’s greatest political gift to global humanity. Christians including the notables who signed this “Evangelical Statement of Principles on Artificial Intelligence” should vigorously extol this great gift.