By Jason Thacker
Technology is a tool that helps us live out our God-given callings. This is one of the most important things for us to learn as we engage the topic of technology and artificial intelligence. Because we often see the tremendous power that technology has over our lives, we are tempted to treat technology as more than a tool, as something with a value similar to our own if it is powerful enough or does enough work on its own. Technology will be misused and abused by broken people just like you and me.
Nowhere in Scripture is a tool or a technology condemned for being evil. Scripture shows that technology and tools can be used for both good and evil. Even if a tool was designed for evil, the tool itself isn’t evil. What is sinful isn’t the sword but how people choose to use it. It can be used for righteous purposes like standing up for justice against those who are evil, but it can also be used to hurt or kill the innocent. While the technology isn’t moral in that sense, it does carry with it the effects of sin and brokenness. Technology is not morally neutral, because it influences and changes us each time we use it.
Technology expands what is possible for humans to do. It can be best thought of as a catalyst or an accelerant for change because it opens new opportunities for humans to live in this world. Broken, sinful, and evil humans are the ones given the abilities to create these tools and the ones who can choose how we use them. Paul reminds us that each of us has fallen short and needs to repent (Rom. 3:23). The world itself did not sin. Our tools did not rebel. We did.
The story of Cain and Abel is a great example of this truth about the purpose and use of technology. Both Cain and Abel were created by God with specific skills and talents. Both used tools (early forms of technology) to work the ground and care for animals. But Cain sinned and chose to use his God-given strength and abilities to kill a fellow image-bearer. He chose to take the good gifts that God gave him and use them for evil and selfish purposes.
Technology Is Not New
In our digital world, it is easy for us to believe that technology always takes the form of digital and computer technology, limiting our idea of technology to our smart phones and computers. But even crude tools used to cultivate the ground and construct things are forms of technology. Shovels, hoes, hammers, nails, and saws are all technological innovations. These tools were revolutionary pieces of technology. They changed everything about our lives, from the foods we ate to the places we lived.
One of the most important pieces of technology in all of human history is the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the world’s first movable-type printing press in 1450, and it revolutionized the world. It allowed books and other materials to be mass produced cheaply and efficiently, and made them available for mass distribution, not just for the wealthy or those with high status in society.
The printing press is the main reason that you can hold a book in your hands and even have your own copy of the Bible. Before the printing press, each Bible was hand copied by scribes. Not only were these Bibles prohibitively expensive because of how much time they took to create but they also could contain errors because they were being copied by hand. The printing press helped to mitigate these copying errors as well as to bring the cost of books down so that common people could directly engage with the ideas in them. This technological advancement changed society not only at that time but for all generations to come by giving people access to more information than was ever thought possible.
But even as the printing press was a catalyst for good, it also expanded the possibilities for evil in our world. Without the printing press, we likely would not have 24-hour cable news networks and the rise of fake news. This is because the printing press began the process of spreading news and information throughout communities which previously didn’t enjoy these freedoms. With all of this information and freedom, people were able to connect in ways that were unthinkable prior to the printing press. All of this eventually gave rise to the press and mass media that we enjoy today as a natural extension of the free flow of information and exchange of ideas. While access to information is a good thing for democracy and society, it also can be misused to promote sinful and evil things. The printing press also led to the distribution of pornography by sinful human beings because it facilitated copying text and later images for distribution to a wider society. From these two examples, we can see how technology itself isn’t evil but can be used by broken and sinful people for evil purposes. Technology is amoral in that sense, but it is a catalyst for change and an opportunity for both good and evil.
We are at another turning point in human technological development. Artificial intelligence is, even now, revolutionizing nearly every area of our society, including our lives, our families, and our jobs. It is able to perform tasks for us with or without our involvement, unlike prior technological developments like the printing press that were driven manually by a human operator. Artificial intelligence is now performing many of the tasks that our culture was built on and is disrupting our society in ways that we cannot even fathom. From processing massive amounts of data with ease to replacing millions of people’s jobs, AI is changing everything.
What Is Artificial Intelligence?
My family has a digital assistant working in our home that is incredibly smart, never takes a break, and never complains about its job. A couple of years ago, we purchased a Google Home Mini™ to integrate with other smart household devices, and we’ve found fun ways to use it, especially with our toddler. My oldest son was learning different animal sounds, and we asked the assistant to make a number of animal sounds for him. But it couldn’t find one of the requested sounds, and its response struck me: “I can’t help you with that right now. But I am always learning.” Learning vast amounts of information used to be something only humans could do, but today we have many machines and AI-empowered systems that do just that.
Artificial intelligence is an emerging field of technology defined as nonbiological intelligence, where a machine is programmed to accomplish complex goals by applying knowledge to the specific tasks at hand. Because it’s nonbiological, AI can be copied and reprogrammed at relatively low cost. In certain forms, it is extremely flexible and can be harnessed for great good or for ill.
Google Home™ is a popular example, but there are far more advanced AI systems than this being used in a variety of applications such as business, medicine, and finance. In 2017, a set of videos of walking robots from Google and Boston Dynamics went viral on the internet. These AI-based systems did things that astonished most viewers (and even many in the AI community) with their ability to walk and even traverse rough terrain with ease.
AI systems have become so advanced so quickly that many wonder what these systems will accomplish in the future as they become smarter and human intervention becomes less necessary. This is not a sci-fi fantasy. It’s reality.
As I’ve written earlier, technology is amoral but acts as a catalyst that expands the opportunities for humanity to pursue. It is not good or evil in itself but can be designed and used for good and evil purposes. We are able to use technology for the glory of God and the betterment of society, or we can use it to push aside the dignity of others created in God’s image for sinful and contorted means.
AI is already being used to demean certain people and deny them fundamental human rights. Countries like China, Russia, North Korea, and Egypt have deployed AI facial recognition systems to control political dissidents. But this same technology can also be used ethically to identify criminals, stop terrorist threats, and even allow you to pay for a meal at a KFC in China just by smiling at a camera.
Though the purpose behind the creation of a given technology can be morally complicated or even evil, that doesn’t mean that God is unable to redeem it for a noble and righteous use. To use tools properly, though, we must understand the worldviews behind them and the motivations that drive their creation. As we engage these understandings of the world, remember that God calls us to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).
Adapted from The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity by Jason Thacker. Click here to learn more about this title.
Are robots going to take my job? How are smartphones affecting my kids? Do I need to worry about privacy when I get online or ask Siri for directions? Whatever questions you have about AI, The Age of AI gives you insights on how to navigate this brand-new world as you apply God’s ageless truths to your life and future.
Alexa, how is AI changing our world? We interact with artificial intelligence, or AI, nearly every moment of the day without knowing it to perform tasks through AI systems.
From our Twitter and Facebook social media feeds to our online carts to smart thermostats and Alexa and Google Home, AI is everywhere. In The Age of AI, Jason Thacker—associate research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission—helps us navigate our digital age in this thoughtful exploration of the social, moral, and ethical challenges of our ongoing interactions with artificial intelligence.
Applying God’s Word to this new AI-empowered age, The Age of AI shows us how Christian truth transforms how we use AI in order to love God and our neighbor better. It serves as a guide for those wary of technology’s impact on our society and also for those who are enthusiastic about where AI is taking us. Jason explains how AI affects us individually, in our relationships, and in our society at large as he addresses AI’s impact on our bodies, sexuality, work, economics, and privacy. With theological depth and a wide awareness of the current trends in AI, Jason is a steady guide reminding us that while AI is changing most things, it does not change the foundations of the Christian faith.
Jason Thacker serves as the Creative Director and an Associate Research Fellow at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The University of Tennessee in Knoxville and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His writing has been featured at The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and many more. He is married to Dorie and they have two sons. They live outside of Nashville, Tennessee.
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