A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a pizza parlor, bump into a machine learning genius who has forgotten his debit card, and share with him their pizza. . . .
That’s not exactly how AI and Faith started, but it was not so different either. People in several faith congregations in Seattle, one right in the middle of Amazonia, set out to learn who in their congregations knew about artificial intelligence. Quite a few people, it turned out. They talked to other faith leaders and data professionals, and the founding members of AI and Faith came together. Uniformly, we share a strong desire to diversify as quickly as possible, not only by gender but also by religious tradition, especially to include eastern traditions.
Why AI? Because not only does it pose the potential for fundamental social good and widespread disruption, but it is making deeply relevant questions of human dignity, free will, the importance of productive work and similar issues previously the exclusive focus of philosophers and theologians.
Why “faith”? Because those philosophers and theologians have been thinking about these questions for a very long time. “Do no evil” has a 3,000 year history in this community.
Why Seattle? Even though Seattle self-describes as the “most un-churched city in America”, in fact many people of faith work in important positions around AI, not least because so many data professionals in our corporations and universities come from countries where faith traditions are deeply rooted in their culture. In addition, Seattle has a strong tradition of interfaith cooperation for social good, most recently in the area of global health. Values of respect and tolerance may actually make our area the best location in the country to consider ethics and AI from an interfaith perspective.
Three Things We Are Not: While AI and Faith brings together people from broadly diverging faith traditions, it is not:
- seeking to be theologically ecumenical. We presuppose some basic common values, not common theology, nor is such needed.
- seeking to speak with a single voice, but instead to create a channel for thoughtful individuals to voice their own views, and to learn from the broader ethics discussion.
- exclusively for people of faith; we welcome the views of ethicists, scholars of religion, and data professionals who may not themselves be people of faith but recognize the value of including the faith community at the ethics table.
AI and Faith is as yet loosely organized. While we are seeking to move fast, it is not to “break things” but to efficiently inform ourselves of the broader, rapidly forming ethical discussion around AI. We want to make sure that the faith community earns a seat at the AI ethics table by dint of deep technical knowledge and long term values development, not simply by claiming strong ethical traditions. Soon we will have a more formal structure, but for now we seek to identify women and men with similar interests and broad backgrounds, find our voices, and build a community more than an organization.
Here are three clear goals I perceive from our organizational meetings since the start of 2018:
- To better explore the landscape of participants in this emerging ethics discussion, including identifying other faith-related voices, along with the new important voices at major universities (e.g., Stanford, NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard-MIT, University of Washington, Santa Clara, Cambridge, Oxford and elsewhere), and in the corporate, professional, and think tank worlds, such as the members of the Partnership on AI, and the Ethics Committees of the IEEE and AAAI.
- To combine strong ethical and religious scholarship with deep technical knowledge for a clear-eyed, highly informed and up-to-date consideration of opportunities and risks posed by AI.
- To create a two-way channel for the flow of information to and from the AI tech and business community.
From early on, we have made a good connection with Professor Ryan Calo and the Tech Policy Lab housed at the University of Washington Law School. The Tech Policy Lab is in turn a member of the Partnership on AI for the Benefit of Society and People, as is another local major player in AI, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Microsoft is a leading corporate voice in the ethics discussion, as evidenced not only by its head of research, Eric Horvitz, chairing the Partnership, but other senior leaders advocating for a thoughtful ethic in The Future Computed, Microsoft’s recent digital publication. Amazon is also a founding member of the Partnership, with its own head of research leading Amazon’s participation from Germany.
For all these reasons, we are eager to learn the landscape and get started discussing the substance of focal areas of concern of these organizations, mirrored as they are to a substantial degree in our own values and issues (see aiandfaith.org// Focal Areas). If this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of too, please email us here.
is a Seattle attorney with 25 years of experience in counseling clients and litigating claims related to technology, risk management and insurance coverage. He is a leader at University Presbyterian Church and actively involved in programs that integrate faith, science and technology with faculty of the University of Washington. He is a graduate of Stanford University and UC Berkeley’s Law School.
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