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Faith and AI Things that Got Lost (and Found) in the Pandemic


A blog I follow recently advised organizations to respond to this unexpected pandemic by applying the following template:  stabilize, normalize, mobilize, futurize.  This makes sense to me, not only for COVID, but the other global disruptors of our age – AI and Climate Change.

Due to a slow response at the federal level and our national inability to test and contact trace before the virus achieved community transmission, stabilizing has proven to be quite a challenge.  Much of the developed world is trying hard to enter the normalize phase without unleashing behaviors that will quickly drop us back into stabilizing.  Now that some epidemiologists are suggesting coronavirus will be a permanent part of our lives like chicken pox and measles, safely normalizing is an even more imperative goal.

As states and countries begin to emerge from social isolation, the full cost of that blunt instrument and the speed of a recovery remain to be seen.  But some losses are clear, and some aspects of the “new normal” are coming into focus.  These are likely to profoundly impact our business and social relationships going forward. It is not too early to begin to ask “what got lost and what got found” that bear on the mission of AI and Faith from this extraordinary global event.  Here, I suggest, are two pairings.

Lost: Many Lives.  Found (somewhat): The value of science-based facts in preventing further loss.

Although politics continues to deeply infect and affect our response to the virus, it remains true, as one columnist put it early on, that you can’t “gas light” the virus itself.  At the outset, we must grieve the sad fact that a great many lives have been lost, including many that might not have had our nationwide response been better led. Two Sundays back, the New York Times poignantly personalized on its front page 1,000 Americans who died of COVID by their names, ages, and a four or five word epigram (e.g., “pistol packing preacher”).  This is part of life’s painful “particular” that I wrote about two months ago.

While cold statistics cannot do justice to the humanity of those whose deaths are counted, many grass roots faith leaders in our country have found a renewed respect for the value of good statistics and the science that produces them.  These faith leaders have recognized that “loving your neighbor” requires not only prayer and acts of kindness but also an understanding of the natural processes behind this extraordinary disruption.  Knowing the basics of how this virus spreads and who is most at risk has proven essential to enable congregations to order worship, programs, and acts of service in ways that minimize risk to life, especially when public health directives are unclear or politicized.

I saw this first hand through the benefit conferred on three Seattle churches by a good friend, Dr. Daniel Chin, whose day job is serving as a viral epidemiologist at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Starting at the Chinese New Year, Daniel these churches’ leaders with detailed advice based on the best developing evidence of how this virus works, how public health was responding, and how they should accordingly adjust specific practices in order to save lives.  Christianity Today published Daniel’s advice in detailed articles as the country was going into lockdown and as it began to emerge.

AI is not an inherently deadly force like COVID, but its long term disruption is likely to be even greater.  Many experts believe that the COVID crisis will accelerate AI-powered disruption in areas like medicine, how we work, learn, communicate, socially engage, or think (but maybe not). To respond wisely to this disruption, people of faith need to learn much more about both the technology of AI and the ethical and values issues it raises than at present.  This is true at the expert level for technology professionals directly developing these disruptive tools, and the theologians, philosophers and ethicists who can help them apply values and ethical systems to their work.  And it is true at the consumer level where faith congregants and leaders decide whether and how to interact beneficially with various forms of AI-powered technology.

Like COVID, though thankfully on a slower time scale, this process of living well with AI-powered technology will require people of faith to tightly focus on the nature of the disruptive force; carefully weigh the potential benefits of adopting a given technology against the necessary (or unnecessary and unappreciated) risk;  act based on their assessment; and then speak out into the broader social dialogue around these issues.   Like COVID, this is an intersection of science, technology and faith – not areas the faith world historically has integrated well.  For COVID, it has been the science of epidemiology; the technology of testing, treatment, and prevention; and the ethics of weighing human life against economic loss.  For AI, it is the science of algorithmic software coding, human biology, psychology and engineering; the technology of computers and bioengineering; and a wide spectrum of ethics issues related to human dignity, agency, choice, and liberty.

Lost:  In Person Community.  Found: Community Outside Space and Time

There is no doubt that sheltering in place and steps needed to protect the vulnerable members of faith congregations have deeply isolated people of faith from each other.  This spring, as Easter passed without the darkening of church doors, and with Passover seders and Ramadan iftars and Eid limited to small quarantine circles, there has been much to lament.  Our board member Salah Dandan sent me a poem deeply evoking the sadness of an isolated Ramadan.  With Salah’s permission, here it is:

Spiritual Distancing


When you stopped receiving me, along with countless other suitors at your weekly audience, I thought it was cruel but fleeting. 


Then you shuttered your doors to all passers by, revoking permission to call on you at dusk and morrow. 


Will you even bar me and my rivals from coming to your house from every deep expanse for the assembly?


While now I thirst during the day seeking to soften our estrangement, I wonder if you have an interest in quenching the flames of my yearning. 


And while you may be closer to me than blood flowing through my veins, it’s the distance between you and me that ails me.


And yet in the midst of this fundamental alteration, hope has arisen.  One source is a new recognition of our mutuality in faith, evidenced both by Salah’s sharing of his poem, and by a prayer our board member Dan Rasmus  who attends Temple DeHirsch Sinai sent me around the same time:


Beyond this mutuality across faiths, another thing found has been flexible worship, as faith congregations large and small rapidly switched to livestreaming.  In the space of only a few weeks, literally tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of faith congregations managed to virtualize their services.  Sure there were low bar production values and widely shared bloopers.  But as regular attendees, new participants, and people who had long since moved elsewhere virtually “gather”, greet each other in the chat bar from all over the world, and then engage in virtual coffee hour/breakout rooms, a new form of hybrid fellowship has arisen. It holds promise for augmenting traditional gatherings with new participation unboundaried by physical space and even time, enabling aged or vulnerable congregants and persons isolated by distance to join in better than before.  Last Friday our Founding Experts Michael Paulus of Seattle Pacific University and Chris Lim of Theo Tech created a digital summit on this theme called COVID-19 and the Digital Transformation of the Church.

In person choral singing, having proven to be a COVID superspreader, has been lost for now. Thanks to open source multitrack audio editors like Audacity and Ardour, and their AI-enhanced mixing capabilities, however, a new type of virtual choir performance has emerged.  It allows individual singers to record and engage their voices remotely, yet create beautiful performances for the entire world to hear, such as the UK Blessing, an ensemble performance of singers from 65 churches in the UK with almost 3 million views to date.

In the secular world, a change unimaginable in February was Big Tech’s shift in March to WFH – work from home.  Huge tech campuses emptied on command, and workers dispersed to ride out the storm at their favored locales on a wave of strong internet connections and virtual interaction.  What initially appeared to be a temporary arrangement lengthened into the fall or 2021. Now some companies, led by Facebook, are anticipating permanent arrangements for many workers.

Enthusiasm for remote work has come and gone before, and is hardly a uniformly positive experience.  But if this trend strengthens, the economic implications are extraordinary both for tech centers like Silicon Valley and Seattle that have been enormously enriched, and for areas of the country which coveted tech jobs but got low wage fulfillment warehouses instead.  Our Founding Expert Louis McMurren, co-director of The Future of Work Task Force for the State of Washington, confirmed to me that nothing on this scale was imagined in the Task Force’s report,  completed just this past December.  Whether this shift portends a positive shift for younger knowledge workers with student debt to less dense and more affordable locales, or instead  speeds up the shift to automated work, is an issue we will explore with Lew and others if the remote work trend indeed shakes out.

Time will tell how these and the many other areas of COVID disruption will ripple out into society.  It seems likely, however, that aspects of these losses and gains will be with us for quite a while, if not permanently, and like a coastal cove full of whales, cross ripple majorly with other global disruptions like AI and climate change.

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