What does Theology have to do with Artificial Intelligence? What does Jerusalem have to do with Silicon Valley? In this blog, I want to address this question head-on to show that theology is not just relevant but much needed in the current debates about AI.
If social media is any indication, not everyone sees the connection between AI and Theology. Consider a recent discussion I had in Facebook where a contributor expressed the following view:
“The more I read [your blog, the more] I feel like you have to justify to us the introduction of the subject of theology in discussions about AI because I don’t see the relevance.”
Challenge accepted! Simply put, if I can’t answer this question satisfactorily, I have no business keeping this blog.
I acknowledge that readers come to this blog from diverse backgrounds. While a good number are Christians, there are also some that are not affiliated with Christianity or any faith at all. I want to respond having the second group in mind. The question that may arise is whether Theology (especially the Christian type, which is mostly associated with the discipline) is relevant to the topic of Artificial Intelligence. Furthermore, if it is relevant, does it have anything meaningful to say that warrants a place at the table of AI debates?
The Human Connection
For starters, I would define theology (and religion) and the development of Artificial Intelligence as human endeavors. Why point that out? I want to point to the fact that both disciplines emanate from our shared human experience. What differentiates AI from other technologies is its perennial connection with human intelligence. While human intelligence is not the only intelligence as one could argue that other animals have their own unique intelligence, it is inevitably our starting point. Technology, like all other human endeavors, is a creative expression of who we are, whether we acknowledge it or not. The primary focus of AI is to mimic human intelligence, therefore establishing humanity at the center of it.
Theology, while focused on the divine, is greatly interested in humanity. The study of the divine is incomplete without a starting point that emanates from humanity. In that sense, it is similar to AI, because it uses humanity as a primary point of reference. We cannot define or speak of the divine without bringing it analogically to a human dimension. Christian theology does not speak of an abstract idea about God but one that is deeply personal.
AI as Playing God
While the human connection is important, this is not enough to explain the relevance of theology. For that we must turn to the god connection that links these two subjects. Consider the provocative statement Kevin Kelly (one of the founders of Wired magazine) made in the turn of the century:
As we attempt to create from scratch life, and other minds, and perhaps someday other universes, we need a better catalog of god-ness, and a more exact notion of what species of god is best for what kind of creation. As we become better gods we must become better theologians. It is sort of like how the Web forces everybody to be a librarian; what once was left to esoteric professionals is now everybody’s business.
When we step in the business of creating intelligent machines, we are stepping into the realm of divine. This is new territory for humanity where we must thread with caution. If AI is playing God, can Theology offer a playbook? Yet, what if developing intelligence is a step in becoming more like God? If so, we might have something to learn from a discipline that has attempted to explain the divine for centuries.
Regardless of whether you see the divine as a human construct or a real being, theology can still be relevant. If you are in the first camp, wouldn’t it be interesting to learn how our ancestors imagined God? Wouldn’t their reflection, their cautionary tales and utopias, be instructive in helping us navigate the road to an AI future?
Hope and Imagination
In a recent article, Beth Singler explored the striking similarity between the language of techno-enthusiast and religious people. She shows how the conversation around AI today connects her to concepts she had heard in Sunday School as a child. What could be the connecting thread? Hope and imagination. To talk about an AI future, forces us to imagine what we cannot see. Faith is defined as believing in things we hope for but cannot see. In the same way, Science Fiction literature express a hope for a better future or a warning to keep what is most dear to us. They may express different values, but their method is surprisingly similar.
It is hard to do justice in a 900 word blog to a topic that deserves volumes of books. Yet, I hope this writing can challenge some established mental models and crack open new horizons. I firmly believe that the conversation around AI has much to benefit from a theological perspective. I don’t claim it should be the only or even the dominant voice. Consequently, Theology has much to learn from AI as well. The challenge is whether we’ll move forward in courageous dialogue or let fear and misunderstanding keep these disciplines apart.
I certainly hope for the first option. Do you?