If you have ever wondered how to look at Artificial Intelligence (AI) from the perspective of Christian faith, The Age of AI is definitely a book you will want to read. AI and Faith Founding Member Jason Thacker takes the reader on a journey filled with Bible references and quotations, starting with an overview on how machines have impacted our world and how the machines are the product of our creativity. He then explores the world of the concept of “self” and our relation with the things we have created. He suggests our society is trending toward the humanization of the new devices technology companies are creating while simultaneously de-humanizing humans. Along the way we, as humans, understandably may become confused on what it means to be human, what is intelligence and what is consciousness.
While reading the discussion on “self”, I could not but remember the following passage from St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” I identify completely with the author in his view that we are longing to be with our creator, as His image-bearers and His sons looking forward to going back home to Him.
Thacker begins his excursion into the world of AI with a discussion about advances in medicine thanks to artificial intelligence. He presents the concept of human dignity and our intrinsic value in the eyes of God, independent of our current “value to the world”, and how it is not possible for us to overcome death using science. The author reminds us that one of the characteristics of the Fall was our desire to become gods, and that same desire leads us to believe that we can be masters of life and death. I really enjoyed his quotes from science fiction. Sci-Fi is fiction until it becomes reality, and some of it is actually prophetic, like Star Trek’s communicators and tablets presented in The Original Series in the 1960’s. I appreciated Thacker’s exploration of human dignity, that it will never be surpassed by machines, that we have a special place in creation, and as much as science and machines can advance they will never have the “breath of God”. Therefore, machines will never achieve the same level of existence as humans.
I agree with Thacker that “we are not able to fundamentally upgrade ourselves because we already are God’s crowning achievement in creation”. At the same time, I think that we continue to evolve and to adapt to our environment, and with time – a lot of time – we actually upgrade ourselves in particular ways. Thacker’s discussion of artificial implants especially brings up interesting “upgrade” issues. What number or quality of implants would still leave me “human”? Would a cybernetic implant make me “better”? Thacker recognizes the benefits of the technology in improving the life of people with new cures and devices, while warning of the potential dangers of thinking that we are nothing but “pieces of flesh to be manipulated in search of some upgrade to become greater than ourselves”.
Following the discussion on medical advancement, Thacker turns to the home front and how technology is ubiquitous in the home setting. The book offers valuable and practical advice on how to have a loving and balanced family life interacting with technology. Although the author suggests some ways in which the increased presence of technology in our lives has made them “more comfortable,” I wonder how much of that “comfort” is driven by sloth. Some of these advancements allow us to have more time, but how are we using that time? Binge watching TV Shows on Netflix? It would be ideal that having machines that do our “hard work” would give us more time to dedicate to more holy activities. This reminded me of the famous song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man”:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall,
And I’d discuss the learned books with the holy men
Seven hours every day
That would be the sweetest thing of all
The thing that Tevye most wishes for is to discuss the learned books with the holy men. That, I believe, would be fantastic but my own brokenness reminds me that more likely I would just fall prey to sloth.
A theme that resonates throughout the book is that humans are never ready for the changes we produce in our environment. One issue that came to my mind as I read is that as a species, we humans have changed our environment much faster than our capacity for natural evolution. With time we learned to walk straight, and acquired fine motor skills. But especially in the last 40 years, we suddenly have these diverse devices that do not necessarily “fit” our bodies, even from a purely mechanical point of view. Have we ever really been ready for any of the changes we have made in our history? We were not ready for the industrial revolution, and we are not ready for the revolution we are going through at the moment. Progress stops for no one.
As with the first industrial revolution, how AI is going to affect the workforce is a particularly challenging area for change. Thacker agrees jobs will change, what can be automated will be automated, and if we are not careful, there will be a painful transition when people are going to be unemployed. But Thacker reassures that “We are adaptable and we will survive”. He proposes some ideas on what to do about these changes, for instance he suggests that people working in jobs that may be taken over by AI proactively retrain to adapt to this job market change. Then he cites Life 3.0: Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence in which author Max Tegmark invites readers to consider jobs and training that require interacting with emotional and social intelligence, creativity or adapting to unpredictable conditions. Thacker takes the discussion further by analyzing the possibility of governmental intervention and the potential problems that this could bring. Later in the chapter Thacker reminds us that an important coping mechanism is to recall that “we are more than what we do”, a shocking concept for today’s culture but words to live by as a Christian.
Toward the end of the book, Thacker gives a solid introduction for non-tech-oriented readers of the significance of data analytics. Thacker highlights the seductive temptation posed by powerful analytic capabilities which plays to our desire for god-like omniscience. At the same time, he suggests we are being played by technology companies because when software is free, we and our data become the product. The book addresses the potential that data analytics will simply perpetuate deep biases and prejudices endemic in our existing systems of employment, justice, and access to goods, services and capital. Thacker insists, I believe appropriately, that we, the humans, are responsible under the eyes of God for the flaws of these systems, and should always supervise and have the final word on the potential decisions that these systems may make.
He also explores the concept of privacy, a right sometimes under-valued by Christians who believe in an omniscient God from whom there are no secrets. Whatever our posture before a loving God, however, the author recognizes that our interaction with other people requires wisdom around how much of our own intimate information to share and in what context. His discussion of the way early Christian communities shared everything and were as close as brothers and sisters, reminded me of my years in the Catholic Growth Community called the Neo-Catechumenal way. There, members start an itinerary of faith together, and as they move forward, become siblings in Jesus Christ, sometimes even closer than blood relatives. Whatever our attitude toward our own data, Thacker recognizes that the nature of private data as property calls for us to be careful about other people’s data, lest we steal a good from them.
In the book’s final chapter, called “Future”, Thacker describes key terms for assessing predictions of what is to come: consciousness, super intelligence, general artificial intelligence, and the Singularity. When seen through the lens of the Gospel, he reminds us that Jesus promised to be with us always, and that we need not be afraid of the future, but rather hopeful about the opportunities and challenges that it will pose for us. The only issue that we might fear is ourselves, and the consequence of how we use this and other technologies to come.
This book does not pretend to provide a deep dive into the technology and philosophical underpinning of AI. For that, there are other good books such as AI: Its Nature and Future by Margaret Boden, Oxford University Press (2016).
But overall, this book provides a good reminder for faith driven people that all our actions should be for the glory of God and to help our neighbors. With this purpose and deriving our intrinsic dignity from being children of God and His image bearers, we will be better able to deal with the changes that are happening in the Age of AI.