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AI, Humanity, and God: An Interview with Science Fiction Author and AI&F Advisor Brian Sigmon


Today we feature an interview with AI and Faith advisor Brian Sigmon. Sigmon is acquisitions editor at the United Methodist Publishing House, where he edits official materials for the United Methodist Church. Sigmon has a PhD in Old Testament Studies from Marquette University and has authored two science fiction works: Archimedes: An Epic Sci-Fi Adventure (2022) and MessiahBot: An Alternative Account of the Singularity. He previously served on the advisory board of AI Theology, which recently merged with AI and Faith.

How would you describe your experience with AI?

As a storyteller, I am most interested in the effects of AI on human life and on the human response to these effects. How does AI bring new possibilities and perils to the world we live in? What new choices does it present to us, how does it change the stakes, and how does it otherwise alter the impact the decisions we have always had to make? I try to explore these questions and others through my science fiction.

Professionally, I am a user of AI, not a developer. I have done a lot to educate myself about AI over the last 5 years or so, so I have a clear sense of what AI is and is not yet capable of. I come to AI and Faith from the faith-based angle, with a Ph.D. in religious studies and a decade of experience as a religious publishing professional. My interest in AI comes from a longstanding interest in science and the intersection of science and faith, and most recently through stories that explore AI as something that is profoundly shifting many aspects of human life.

How would you describe your faith background?

I am a Christian and have been for as long as I can remember. I have always been a part of the United Methodist Church, one of the larger mainline Christian denominations in the United States. There has always been a strong intellectual side to my faith journey. I felt like my faith grew as I learned more, so my faith background and study of religion have gone together.

I first encountered the academic study of the Bible when I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. I got to explore textual criticism, archaeology, and historical critical scholarship. I learned Hebrew and how the canon of the Christian Bible developed, as well as how the ideas and theology we find in the Bible comes from many voices and changed over time. These studies continued after I entered the graduate program at Duke University and then the doctoral program in Old Testament at Marquette University. My faith background has always had a clear intellectual component, one that asks questions and pushes for new knowledge.

Over the last three years as I have turned to writing fiction, that continues to be true. I write sci-fi because it helps me understand the world, and because there is such a strong creative component that feeds new insights and learning.

What led to your interest in the intersection of AI and faith?

My desire to explore the intersection of AI and faith goes back to one moment in late 2017. I have always had an appreciation for science and science fiction. I try to stay informed about the latest scientific discoveries and technological developments, so I had a vague sense that AI was a big focus of research and attention alongside other topics like space exploration and biomedical engineering.

On that day in 2017 I was in church listening to a sermon, and the preacher was talking about the need for a faith that can last—the idea that we must cultivate a robust faith capable of withstanding change over the long-term. However the preacher quickly pivoted to what I considered to be short-term issues—upcoming elections, current events, and the like. Meanwhile, my mind had already jumped to spans of a thousand, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand years into the future. What would the Christian faith look like on those time scales? What would be the main drivers of change?

On that day sitting in church I glimpsed a vision of a radically different future, and I knew that current technological developments would be a part of that. This vision inspired me to start a blog about science and faith, which led to connections with the Christian Transhumanist Association and later AI Theology. It continues to inform my fiction writing, as those questions are at the heart of the themes I explore in my stories. Over time I came to see the outsized role that AI is playing, so I began focusing more attention in this area.

Why are you involved with AI&F?

I came to AI and Faith through AI Theology, which merged with AI and Faith earlier this year. Several years ago my friend Elias Kruger invited me to join the advisory board of AI Theology, which he had founded. Joining AI Theology led to a many great conversations and introduced me to some incredibly smart people working at the intersection of AI and Faith, including some current AI&F experts. When AI Theology merged with AI and Faith, I was invited to join as an advisor. It was an easy decision—I love what AI and Faith is about, and it is exciting to be a part of impactful conversations about such an important topic.

How does AI&F affect your work outside the organization?

In my fiction writing, AI and Faith helps me stay informed about developments in AI and their potential impact on the world, as well as the critical role of ethical, spiritually-informed decision-making in those developments.

I am also a book editor for a Christian publishing company. As you might imagine, the development of ChatGPT and the popular coverage in late 2022 drew a lot of attention in the publishing world. More people in our industry began to realize the potential disruptive effects of generative AI, especially large language models. I co-led a presentation this summer for the editors at my company about AI, and we are all paying attention to industry trends and emerging best practices.

My role at AI and Faith is helping me recognize how faith needs to inform our practices and our thinking about AI in the workplace, which is especially critical since we are a faith-based publishing company. For us it is not purely about top-line revenue, efficient processes, or adopting leading-edge technology. We are a ministry as well as a business, so we always strive to conduct our work in ways that honor God and enrich the spiritual formation of our customers. AI and Faith is equipping me to contribute to those conversations.

What open problems in AI are you most interested in?

My main interest is on the effects of AI on human life. I explore those effects through story, and I navigate them practically in my work at a publishing company. There are so many effects to choose from, but in my opinion the most pressing issue is the effect of AI on human formation. How does our use and interaction with AI shape us intellectually, morally, and spiritually?

Those questions are especially critical because many AI models we interact with are invisible. Recommender systems, networking models, advanced search algorithms, and other sorts of models are both a filter on what we experience and a framework for integrating those experiences into a narrative, which shapes the meaning we ascribe to them. These models change the way we make sense of the world by directing our online encounters and warping our response to those encounters. I think we are only beginning to see the extent of those effects.

From our current posture towards these models, I think it is a small step to recognize that AI influences our morality and our theology in ways that we must work hard even recognize, much less understand, and confront with purpose. That is why AI and Faith is such a critical voice: our experts and conversation partners are speaking about the magnitude and urgency of these issues, the need for faith-based wisdom to address them, and potential solutions. This critical voice is why I believe in the power of storytelling, which helps us imagine both positive and negative possibilities and how we must practically navigate them.



Thanks to Brian Sigmon for his responses to these interview questions.


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