Ai and Faith: Reflections on 2018 and a Look Ahead to 2019

AI and Faith: Looking Back on 2018

Change is in the wind for Big Tech in 2019 after significant societal concerns in 2018 reversed the flow of disruption back on to the Disruptors.  While significant advances continued in data capture, predictive analytics, deep learning, and virtual reality, the Cambridge Analytica story and its fallout forced Facebook to flounder through multiple Congressional hearings even as the stock market winnowed its market cap. Google sought to face down an employee revolt over defense contracting with new “do no harm” principles for AI engagement.  California backstopped the EU’s default toward personal data ownership.  China provided an alarming window on the emerging power of AI-empowered surveillance even as Kai-Fu Lee’s look at AI Superpowers highlighted Chinese structural advantages for AI development.   Meanwhile, US workers cast increasingly nervous looks over their shoulders to see how closely their robot replacements are following.

Against this awakening to concerns, much also happened in 2018 to further set the AI and ethics roundtable.  Major universities like MIT and Stanford added well-funded and/or high profile programs to consider the broader societal implications of AI and begin to backfill the AI enterprise base with an array of liberal arts disciplines. The partners in the Partnership for AI mushroomed from 25 to over 70 global partners by the end of the year, though still without an obvious representative of the world of faith that includes three-fourths of the world’s population.  European powers created AI4People and the Paris Peace Conference in December was a landmark for public/private “treaty” negotiations over ethical AI between sovereign nations and semi-sovereign multinational technology companies.

Thus, 2018 proved to be a good year to launch a nonprofit that seeks to bring the distilled wisdom of systemic values underlying the Great Religions to the AI and Ethics table.  AI and Faith came to be when a community of AI professionals, related professions, ethicists, theologians, philosophers first gathered last January.  Since then, it has:

  • Gathered a base of 26 highly credible and diverse Founding Members and seven strong cross-disciplinary and cross-faith institutional partners in the Seattle area who have met bimonthly to flesh out our mission and vision;
  • Incorporated as a Washington nonprofit, established a lean but effective governing board, and secured IRS tax exemption status so that we are now able to receive tax deductible donations;
  • Created a well-curated website to open our “channel”;
  • Spoken into that channel since May 2018 in numerous and frequent blog pieces, book reviews, and other original content; and
  • Co-sponsored in early December a well-attended and very lively “Unconference on Faith and Technology” led by one of our Founding Members, SPU Librarian Michael Paulus, and described by Geekwire at https://www.geekwire.com/2018/god-alexa-tech-religious-leaders-ponder-future-ai-together/

To us, the proactive changes in the industry described above have fundamentally validated the need for an organization like AI and Faith.  But some things did not change in 2018.  Perspectives highly informed by technology and based on common moral values from the world’s Great Religions are not widely visible.  It appears that none of the Partnership on AI’s new partners brings a formal perspective from the faith world, though doubtless there are many people who have personal faith perspectives in these organizations, just as most of AI and Faith’s co-founders work in secular settings.  Although isolated voices from faith perspectives have surfaced in blogs and essays, we have not yet identified other organized, multidisciplinary faith-oriented efforts with a strong base in AI technology.  Thoughtful leaders like those at the helm of Microsoft have offered a corporate voice for careful, values-oriented adoption of new AI technologies, but many leaders in Big Tech seem to be guided by a strongly materialist orientation in which what AI technology can do trumps any consideration of what AI technology should do.

AI and Faith 2019:  A Look Ahead

So AI and Faith plans to widen its channel and deepen its collective voice in 2019! We are excited by the uniqueness of our diverse faith perspectives, the AI-oriented technical sophistication of our member base, and our presence in a region with some of the largest and most significant AI players in the world and a strong community orientation toward human flourishing and social justice.

Here are some of our goals for this year:

  • Secure sustainable funding that will allow us to continue to upgrade our web “channel” and more widely participate in events and discussions;
  • Pump out a sophisticated, inside-informed and well-read weekly email of relevant developments in the AI and Ethics discussion;
  • Grow our community of interested and contributing members and develop affiliations so as to amplify our voices in the rapidly developing debate over beneficial and safe AI;
  • Identify the issues on which our individual and institutional members are most qualified to speak and/or for which we can have the greatest leveraging effect in the debate around AI and Ethics; and
  • Develop life-giving and encouraging relationships in the workplaces, congregations, and institutions working on AI within our region.

We are excited about where this will lead us in 2019 and eager to meet and incorporate others who share our mission and interests!  If you haven’t already signed up for our newsletter, please visit the bottom of our homepage and fill out the sign-up form.

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