As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches, I want to offer some thoughts on how emerging technologies like AI will revolutionize the face of Christianity. At first, these two seem mostly disconnected yet this could not be further from the truth. AI and other emerging technologies have the potential to disrupt, re-organize, and re-arrange the institutional church for centuries to come. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me frame this question by first examining the role of technology in the Reformation 500 years ago
Simply put: without the printing press, there would not have been a Reformation in the early 1500’s Europe. With it, Luther and other Reformers were able to disseminate their ideas quickly, bringing turmoil and political unrest for most of Europe. This technological innovation sped up the process of disseminating new ideas enough to irreversibly change the course of history. Now individuals could own a physical copy of the Bible and that changed everything. Would the Reformation have succeeded without it? It is possible but it certainly would have taken much longer and have looked very different from what it did. The printing press enabled unprecedented access to knowledge that would lead to challenging the Roman Catholic’s claim of truth and usher in new centers of authority not just for religion but for reality itself. Along with the Enlightenment, they would lead to the scientific and technological revolutions of the centuries that followed.
Internet as the Printing Press of the 21st Century
At first glance, one could say that the Internet could play a similar role in our times. Internet extended exponentially the access to knowledge that the printing press had started. It allowed individuals anywhere in the world to access information in a revolutionary way. The individual did not need to own a physical copy anymore but could access the text electronically in real-time. Furthermore, with the increase in bandwidth and the rise of Internet 2.0, the dissemination of information was no longer bound to text alone but could now come with sound and moving image. With the emergence of social media, the process of information and knowledge sharing further increased exponentially since anyone could create and share content in a global platform.
However, it is important to highlight the limitation of the Internet as it exists today. While information is abundant, knowledge is scarce. The content is 10 miles wide but 5 inches deep. Then there are issues with accuracy, false information and simply a lot of triviality. The Internet is not a place for knowledge sharing only but also a place to entertain or simply express one-self. Content is abundant and being created each day but in a very disorganized and fragmented way. It is basically an amalgamation of crowds, for good or for ill.
AI Will Bring Order to the Internet Chaos
This is precisely why I believe AI can be a game changer that can truly harness the power of the Net towards more purposeful aims. How? AI will take Internet to a new-level of effectiveness by organizing and transmitting knowledge more efficiently. Intelligence is about analyzing data, identifying patterns and making decisions. Currently, content in the Internet is a mixture of some information with a lot of noise surrounding it. AI algorithms that can filter out the noise from the real information would be a welcome enhancement to the Net.
This can manifest itself in many fronts. One of them is in search engines where AI can improve the accuracy of a search by not only knowing the topic but also the context of the user. Furthermore, with improvements in translation, someone’s search can transcend the bounds of the user’s search language to capture content in other languages. It can also improve the ability to find content not just in text but sound and video which now is fairly limited. All of these enhancements would greatly increase the accuracy of searches greatly optimizing the process of research and knowledge sharing.
Another front is in machine-human interfaces. AI will revolutionize the relationship between humans and machines, therefore bringing the Internet much closer to our bodies. I have covered this extensively in my blogs about cyborgization. For here, I just want to highlight the fact that AI will move the Net closer to our brain. The culmination of this process is what some have called the Hive Mind. Basically, when our minds are connected to the Internet and can work as one collective consciousness. This is similar to swarms of insects that act in one direction with surprising coordination and purpose. Needless to say, this trend has seismic implications not just to the diffusion of knowledge but even how we experience reality itself.
Some of this is years if not decades down the road. Yet, even the process to move towards intelligent content and a collective consciousness is fairly disruptive on its own to upend governments, businesses and, yes, the church as well.
Glimpses of a New Reformation
How will this AI-enabled Internet facilitate a new reformation in the church? Before answering this question, we must recognize that unlike the 1500’s the Christian church is no longer the center of power and knowledge of Western societies. However, it is yet still a remarkable global hub of influence, especially in the developing world. In a world where political, technological and economic change fragments the legitimacy of all centers of power, the search of meaning becomes all the more salient. Many have found it in the ancient path of the Christian faith a contemporary way to make sense of their world (including the writer of this blog). I say this to qualify that any reformation in the church will have very different consequences than the one 500 years ago by the simple fact that now Christianity is just one of the many centers of influence on any given society. Hence, its effects will be more subtle and more spread out than the original Reformation.
With that said, the Internet is already disrupting the church. Computer Scientist and Researcher Allan Downey, believes the Internet is one of the driving factors in the decline of Christianity in the West. Would an AI-enabled Internet mean the end of the church? I don’t believe so. Yet, it would be naive to think that the church would survive this time without any major changes. The main question is what will the church look like in this new era of turbo-charged, AI-enabled disruption of how we create and share knowledge?
It is very difficult to anticipate all the changes that may come in this scenario. One thing is certain, for Christianity to prosper in this future it must learn to integrate advances of science and technology while also holding on to the century-old traditions of worship, prayer, Scripture reading, proclamation and service. Adapting to change while staying true to its values is the challenge for any institution trying to navigate the coming changes. This is especially true for an institution like the church that has notoriously resisted and combated change in the last centuries. It is time to replace old-wineskins with new ones if we are to receive new wine.
My prayer is that in an age of exponential knowledge creation and sharing, the diverging paths between the Reformation and the Enlightenment will come together in a view of the world that is unafraid of discovery but also filled with divine wonder. For the last two centuries, these currents have diverged and opposed each other. Now it is time to reconcile them. I am not sure exactly what that would look like, but I hope to see a glimpse of it in my lifetime.