Artificial intelligence and human dignity


NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: God and AI.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: AI stands for Artificial intelligence. It may be the technology buzzword of the decade. Things once imagined only in science fiction we find on our roads with self-driving cars, unlocking our phones with facial recognition software, even computers beating us at chess.

Some AI developers aim to improve human lives.

But some have gone so far as to suggest AI could make better humans.

EICHER: That’s what has ethicists concerned.

And of course, Christian ethicists have a unique perspective on this latest attempt to play God.

Today a group of evangelical experts across multiple fields of study are releasing an “evangelical statement of principles on artificial intelligence.”

REICHARD: Well, the document aims to help Christians think about AI from a biblical perspective. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission spearheaded this effort. Russell Moore heads the ERLC and joins me now to talk about it.

Good morning!

RUSSELL MOORE: Good morning. Good to be with you.

REICHARD: Thank you. I think a lot of listeners might be surprised to hear that the ERLC is coming out with a statement on technology. That’s just not a topic most people think about as a religious issue. How did this statement come about?

MOORE: Well, primarily because this is the topic that’s been keeping me awake at night for many years because I think the church often thinks that the most dangerous issues are the ones being debated right now on Facebook when, in reality, I think Facebook is more of a threat than some of the issues being debated on it. So we’ve been working on this for some time.

REICHARD: Do you think part of the problem is that Christians just don’t think of this as an issue with which they should engage?

MOORE: I think part of it is that Christians sometimes think that any technological issue is somehow removed from moral questions. But I think the other issue is that sometimes when one starts talking about these technological issues before they’re ubiquitous, it seems to be scary science-fiction sort of slippery slope comments to people. And then once they become ubiquitous, people don’t tend to think of them in moral terms at all. And so but if we’re not aware of what’s happening around us at the technological level, we are not going to be ready to address what’s happening to us and what’s happening to our mission field. We have to be ready for these questions of artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

REICHARD: Well, the statement addresses AI generally in 12 different categories. What areas and specific AI applications cause you the most concern, other than what you just said.

MOORE: Well, there are many of them. One of them is simply the question of what does it mean to be human. I think that we’re at a time when our humanity and the understanding of what it means to be created in the image of God is constantly a point of confusion, not just outside the church but often within our very selves because we’re in a situation where technology is moving very, very quickly and it’s easy to lose a sense of what it means to be human.

But also because there are profound dislocations that are coming with increased automation and with artificial intelligence in ways that may be ultimately good economically. But in the short term, we have to be ready to know how to minister to people. So, for instance, a year or so ago I was teaching my sons how to drive. A harrowing process for any father. But I realized that they would probably never do that because they’re probably the last generation to have to learn to manually drive a car with the technology of driverless cars. Well, with that, there’s some very good things that come along with it, but when we look around and we see how many people are employed in transportation and when all of those jobs are gone almost overnight, one of the things that we know is that unemployment leads to all sorts of existential and moral questions, especially for men.

REICHARD: And what would you say are the positive applications for AI envisioned by the document?

MOORE: Well, there are many. AI is already at work in many ways and will be at work in other ways in medical technology, for instance. I was just with a group of fellow pastors and leaders working on projects of translating Bibles and other evangelistic materials for people around the world. And one of the things that was said is it’s becoming increasingly easy to translate through artificial intelligence technologies. That’s only going to accelerate. So there are many positive developments with AI, but there also are some serious moral questions and costs that we have to consider.

REICHARD: And then, finally, at the end of the statement you deny any claim that AI will make us more or less human or ever become co-equals with God’s creation. But that is a real motivation for some developers. What do you think is behind that urge to build a better human and how can Christians address that desire?

MOORE: Well, there is a movement called transhumanism—it goes by some other names—that really seeks to improve upon humanity and to move humanity to humanity 2.0, to something that would be resembling godhood or eternal life through downloading consciousness and those sorts of things. And so what we’re arguing is that on the one hand we do not believe that humanity is going to be made obsolete by any machines. There’s something distinctive about humanity created in the image of God. And we believe that the fundamental brokenness of humanity in terms of sin and death cannot be corrected by technology, can only be corrected by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

REICHARD: Russell Moore is president the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Thanks so much for joining us today.

MOORE: Thanks for having me.


(AP Photo/Steven Senne, File) In this March 21, 2019 photo a robot called “Pepper” is positioned near an entrance to a Microsoft Store location, in Boston. 

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