Thoughts on the ERLC’s Statement on AI

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention recently published a widely shared statement on Artificial Intelligence.

As a founding member of the AI & Faith Consortium via Theotech, I was asked for some personal thoughts on the statement, which I wanted to share through this blogpost.

News outlets like Christianity Today, Religion News Service and The Christian Post reported on the wider response to the statement.

Others have produced some thoughtful work prior to this statement and I’ve spoken and been interviewed on the topic of AI and Faith as well.

A Good Start with Good Intentions

First, I was glad to see people making a contribution to the conversation around faith and AI. It’s something I hope other Christian organizations and denominations do as well.

Unfortunately in its present form, I felt like the statement focused too much on grounding its principles in human dignity instead of what God is doing through technology to fulfill the Scriptures.

This means that for people who research, develop, train, and use AI in their work, the document doesn’t provide much ethical guidance beyond the human rights promoted by the UN and the privacy practices of the Western world.

The statement may help Christians reaffirm their beliefs, values and tenets, but it’s not helpful as a document to operationalize.

Could I take this statement into the Google (or Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.) board room? Maybe not.

Does it provide substantive moral and ethical guidance for the engineers, scientists and product managers in these companies? Would it help Christians in the tech industries of Europe, China, Russia or elsewhere in the world?

I think these questions show that simply affirming human dignity as creatures made in the image of God doesn’t get us very far in the present ethical conversation around AI.

What’s Interesting

I was happy to see the final article on the “Future of AI”. It’s one place that I felt went beyond boilerplate ethical statements about technology to address some of the unique questions artificial intelligence brings up.

It tries to address the following questions:

  • Will AI surpass human abilities (i.e. superintelligence)?
  • What role does the church have as AI pervades and dominates more of society?
  • What does AI reveal about what it means to be human?
  • To what degree can AI bring about the world we hope for?
  • What is God’s purpose for AI?

These are very weighty topics and since Article 12 is only two paragraphs long, I think it’s the questions themselves that are more valuable for Christians to think about and discern.

Discerning how God is using AI (and how we should too)

The statement rightly speaks of God’s omniscience and redemptive plan for creation. However, it fails to proclaim God’s design in the advancement of technology to bring about God’s cosmic purpose to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church.

Our discoveries and work in AI while powerful and dangerous are also directed by a sovereign God to help bring about the future the Scriptures bear witness to. And for Christians, that is exceptionally hopeful. God is using AI and we Christians get to join God in directing it to fulfill God’s purpose.

Ethics for us is interwoven with vocation.

For such a task, the Christian role is not simply to preserve human dignity, but to also carefully seek the will of God so we can prophetically discern and say what unique contribution God is calling every Christian to make in the disruption AI is inevitably bringing to all of society.

Appendix

Brief thoughts by article:

Image of God – This section is a good foundation for the statement–I only wish it included “the Purpose of God” for technology.

AI as technology – Upholding human dignity/mitigating suffering/promoting flourishing is good, but may not be the ultimate telos of technology. Again, I wish the statement affirmed that God is using technology such as AI to fulfill his purpose in Jesus Christ to reconcile humanity to its Creator and that we affirm the use of AI towards that very same end.

Relationship of AI & Humanity – Thoughtful section on responsibility, but hard to operationalize in practice. Once you’ve created an autonomous agent you can hold its creator or operator responsible, but sometimes they really don’t have control.

Medicine – I’m not well-versed in medical ethics, but this section sounds good. I think the last sentence speaks to the question of transhumanism. It assumes transhumanism comes from a materialist/consequentialist worldview, but the two do not have to coincide.

Bias – The issue with bias is that our training data for AI comes from past human decisions and datasets. So AI naturally amplifies the biases we’ve practiced for a long time. I think this article should have addressed the human aspect of the problem more thoroughly.

Sexuality – Sex technology has existing for a long time. The issue with AI would seem to be the substitution of human beings with artificial bodies and minds. The article could do more to address this, which is potentially even more problematic than the present pornography crisis.

Work – I loved this section, including how it calls out the dignity of work and rest by not using AI to pursue lives of pure leisure. (Check out my friend Al Erisman’s Theology of Work project).

Data & Privacy – Privacy is jeopardized by the idols of money and power. I think this addresses the power issue, but not quite the money issue, which is a big problem in the West at least.

Security – Sounds standard. I wonder if they could have affirmed the use of AI to preserve and promote individual freedom and responsibility via better self and community-based policing. There’s also some challenges around easily abused tracking technologies, social credit scores, etc.

War – AI is easier to proliferate than nuclear weapons. This article reiterates that humans are responsible without providing guidance on how AI can be used in war ethically. This is an issue some Microsoft, Google and Amazon employees were concerned about because of their company’s Pentagon contracts. How can Christians in those companies serve their companies and countries in the deployment of their skills in wartime?

Public Policy – This article focused on public policy governing AI, but I wished this article addressed how AI can benefit civil liberty and righteous governance. This would guide conversations like how to ethically use big data to make policy decisions, which AI may one day be making on the fly.

The Future of AI – I already gave my thoughts on this earlier.

Published by

Chris Lim

I'm the founder of TheoTech (www.theotech.org), a company activating a movement of Technology Entrepreneurship for the Gospel. This means beginning with God as the Customer and working backwards to invent products that deliver outcomes He desires. I created Ceaseless (ceaselessprayer.com) and SPF.IO (spf.io) as two examples of this principle in action. I'd love to connect if you're passionate about using the best business and technology have to offer to advance God's Kingdom.

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