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AI and Faith After Two Years (or Fourteen)

Does a technology-oriented nonprofit like AI and Faith exist in human years or – given the rapid pace of change – dog years?  If human years, AI and Faith is a two-year-old toddler, just finding our balance and our voice.  If dog years, AI and Faith is a mid-teen, aligning its brain with its body and beginning to find a sense of itself based on our collective broader experience of the world of ethical AI.  As a parent and dog lover, I see elements of both.

In human years, we are taking our first steps in programs and beginning to make ourselves heard in our “channel”.

Our Goal and Programs

Recall that our essential goal around AI for human flourishing is to create a “channel” into which sophisticated AI professionals who are people of faith can speak directly while also providing a strong fact foundation for the voices of equally sophisticated theologians, ethicists and philosophers.  In 2018 our channel was just a website to which a handful of writers posted book reviews, blog pieces, and news – all definitely worthy of attention but quite a limited bandwidth.  Starting in August 2019, we began a monthly digital Newsletter featuring 3-4 essays, as well as highlighting work of our Founding Experts and their participation in the broader world of AI ethics.  Our contributors expanded from 4 writers at the beginning of the year to 13 Founding Experts by year end.  And now Founding Expert Reid Maclellan has created for us a podcast series featuring interviews with five widely varied Founding Experts, to launch in January.

Our channel has also taken the form of participation in multiple regional and national conferences and programs.  Some of these we created ourselves (for example “Multidisciplinary AI,” an all-day program in October for the King County Bar Association, and an evening reception/conversation in November with Aaron Roth, the co-author of The Ethical Algorithm at Consortium Partner Union Church in the heart of the Amazon campus).  Other 2019 participation involved plugging Founding Experts into national and international conferences – for example, three panels for the International Association of Moral Education in Seattle, and contributors at the Techne program for pastor/theologians in Chicago.  We also highlighted the work of Founding Experts already engaged in major conferences – for example, Brian Green at the Vatican’s fall conference, Mohammad Ahmad in Cairo, and Thomas Arnold at the Association of American Religion Annual Meeting in San Diego and the Annual Meeting of the Partnership on AI in London.  More and more, we are finding that surfacing the work our Founding Experts are already doing is a significant catalyzer and connector in itself.

Our Reach

Not only are our Founding Experts speaking but we are getting good signals that people are listening. Some are readily apparent, like the 200+ subscribers to our Newsletter even without serious social media marketing.  Other signals emerge impromptu, like the Washington Post picking up our Newsletter editor Tim Weinhold’s great essay “We Are All Uighers”, or the news I just learned from Founding Expert Mike Quinn that Union Seminary in New York invited him to speak at its AI and Ethics Forum at the end of January after finding him on our Founding Experts’ page.  Then, when I checked the Union conference schedule, I found three other Founding Experts are also speaking!  Imagine the impact we can have as we ramp up social media marketing in 2020 and our channel becomes louder and wider.

In dog years, we’re growing rapidly and our experience of the world is expanding!  Our mission works at three levels of a pyramid:  at the top, a community of invited experts across AI-related professions and ethics, philosophy and theology  (“Founding Experts”); in the middle as broad a group of readers, subscribers, and interested colleagues as we can muster; and at the foundation a potentially enormous group of congregations and classrooms, led by our Consortium Partners here in the Northwest.  We’re making progress in each.

Regarding our experts, in June I met with several key contacts in Silicon Valley to learn more about counterpart organizations and how we could connect.  Brian Green at the Markkula Center particularly challenged us to expand nationally, telling us there was nobody else doing this work cross-faith and across tech and humanities disciplines.  Our board agreed in July and since then our Founding Expert community has grown from 25 to 54 and geographically from the Northwest to Founding Experts in ten states as well as Oxford, England and Brussels.   We are also finding emerging areas of focus among our Founding Experts such as a half dozen engaged in health care-related subjects, and an equal number interpreting AI impacts on media and culture.

At the middle level of readers/supporters, our new monthly newsletter subscriber base continues to grow, while our “grass roots” congregations and classrooms of our Consortium Partners include a major synagogue, two mosques, two Protestant congregations, and the three largest four-year colleges and universities in the Seattle area.

We’re especially excited that through new Founding Experts like Don Howard and Brian Green, our reach extends to ethics institutes outside our region that are not formal partners but which provide us with rich potential resources for further connection.  These include Notre Dame’s new Technology Ethics Center and the veteran Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Together with our three Founding Experts engaged with our Consortium Partner Initiative for Ethics and Transformative Technology at Seattle University, these connections provide a great opportunity for cross fertilization of connections and ideas in the Catholic faith.  Other Founding Experts are helping us make similar connections with other Christian colleges, congregations, NGO’s and institutes; the Islamic global community; Jewish congregations and organizations; and Buddhist schools and institutes.

So where do we go in 2020?

Great question!  And one that our six-member board is looking forward to discussing at our first ever board retreat on January 11.  Here are some possibilities we are likely to consider:

  • Continue to identify subjects that especially raise faith values or concerns and are most mission critical. Examples could include:
    • Protecting religious liberty, speech and association, whether from autocratic governments like China’s industrial scale persecution of Islamic Uighers, India’s manipulation of Internet access in favor of a dominant faith, or from heedless business platforms’ censoring of what they determine to be hate speech under private, often hidden standards. Some of our features have already spoken to this, for example, “Governance by Algorithm: Orwell in the 21st Century” and “Of Internet Trolls and the Tower of Babel
    • Examining “digital minimalism” and boundarying business models that are based on capturing data and attention for their impact on an integrated approach to life, community, and meaningful choice.
    • Robot-human interaction in social, health care, and work environments with the potential for work enhancement v. replacement, and social enrichment v. misbegotten relationships.
    • Transhumanism and cyber enhancement of humans, a topic on which the data ethics community could more proactively engage with the bioethics world and its longstanding faith-related components.
    • Integrating work and personal faith values of technology professionals, especially among the many faith-related virtual employee networks at Big Tech employers.
  • Transform our collection of Founding Experts into a strongly relational and synergistic community to better achieve AI and Faith’s goal of promoting human flourishing through the union of deep technical knowledge with systems of belief.
  • Determine how faith congregations can best engage questions of human flourishing in an AI-powered world through focus groups, testing digital curriculum ideas and providing a platform for posting a wide variety of grass roots-created classes and programs.

Whether our board lands on these or other approaches, one thing we can be certain of for 2020 – the AI and Ethics landscape is evolving quickly, and AI and Faith will work hard to evolve with and speak clearly and relevantly into it.

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