Why AI Theology?

Why AI Theology?

My path here was certainly not intentional or carefully planned. For years, I’ve been asking ‌ how could I marry my work skills with my passion. Becoming a data scientist was not a carefully planned career. I kind of fell into it. Like many people in the workplace, my career arose out of a blend of opportunities, skill sets, curiosity and providence (a word I prefer from luck). I started working for a large bank right out of college. My initial plan was to do that for “a few years” until I would start doing what I was “called” to do. These few years turn into a decade and then more years. Throughout this time, I wondered what in the world I was doing in my job. That is also when I started pursuing a degree in Theology, in the hopes of a career change. For years, I saw these pursuits as separate endeavors, failing to see much connection between them.

As I started studying Theology while still working as a data scientist, I was constantly straddling these two worlds. They tap into different parts of our brain, requiring different skills. As a data professional, I see the world through tables organized in columns and rows. My primary function is to extract meaning out of these tables either by combining them, creating new ones or visualizing their information in clarifying ways. This can happen through summarization or modeling. At times, I am trying to answer questions while others, I am simply exploring the data.

As a Theology student, I see the world through text. We start with sacred text, written two Millennia ago in languages not spoken today. Beyond that, we work with an ungodly (no pun intended) amount of books based on reflection on the sacred text between the time the sacred texts were written and our present day. Beyond that, you reflect on the experience of the believing community and academy that enriches, confuses and at times undermines the sacred text. Yet Theology is not only about books. It is ‌about being human – how we experience the world around us and speak hope into it. Theology also informs and shapes values, morals and ideologies. That is ‌what has drawn me to it from an early age. So, even as the Sacred texts are studied and analyzed, that is a sense of gravitas often missing from most forms of knowledge.

While navigating these two world concurrently, I often saw them as incompatible. It is not that they are opposed to each other but that they seem to talk past each other. They ask different questions, seek other means to pursue answers and arrive at widely different conclusions. At its core, Theology is mostly concerned with how things should be. Data analysis strives to be a detached assessment of how things are. One example of that would be ‌global warming. Theology is mostly concerned with the moral implications of what causes global warming and how people will be affected. It then proposes an alternative way to relate to the environment, inspired by Christian revelation, that will lead to a more just future. A data analysis approach will look at past trends and then make assumptions for future forecast. Scientists gather heaps of data, develop complex models that provide benchmarks that will guide planning for the future (ie: an % increase of CO2 ‌ as the benchmark being discussed in the recent gathering of world leaders). Data analysis will also use test and control methods which determine which one has yielded the best results. A theological approach is not interested in what has worked but what is good.

As I approached the end of my theological education, I found myself longing for integration. In that pursuit, I began to ask what it would look like to interact Theology with technology. This convergence started taking shape as breakthroughs in computing power, big data and promising algorithms ushered Artificial Intelligence to the spotlight. Because data science is an essential part of AI, I saw opportunity in the horizon. As industry titans make their bet on Artificial Intelligence, data science became a promising field for employment. If these investments yield concrete applications, data science will become a regular function of organization across all industries just like finance and accounting is today.

Apart from the impact on data science, the advent of Artificial Intelligence raises profound questions. The idea that machine could act in such human-like manner that we may confuse them with people is mind-boggling. This clearly marks a new era of technological advancement requiring a  multi-disciplinary engagement. Simply put, will human-made intelligence mirror our best or our worse? In that question, I believe the Christian tradition has much to contribute.

Yet, I don’t see many voices addressing the intersection of technology and Theology effectively. At best, these topics are discussed separately as if they did not interact. This in turn becomes my personal attempt to integrate the very worlds I live in, with the hopes it may bring insight and wisdom in answering the perennial question: How shall we then live in a world where Artificial Intelligence is a reality?

Here is a list of topics I plan to address in this blog:

  • What are the ethical implications of the increasing use of AI applications in our world?
  • What would it look like to do theology with AI and vice-versa – what would a theologically-informed AI look like?
  • Can AI be used for good and what would that look like?
  • Who gets to decide how AI will affect our way of life?

These are just a few questions worthy of exploration. Let the conversation begin.

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