Christians confront the possibilities and impossibilities of AI

By Alan Brads

The artificial intelligence (AI) singularity:

A hypothetical point of no return, where machines surpass human intelligence, and learn to teach themselves without human intervention. Also linked with an “intelligence explosion,” where machines quickly improve their own abilities, leading to runaway technological progress.

The utopian view of the AI singularity suggests the exponential growth of AI would lead to unprecedented levels of technological progress, including cures for diseases, solutions to environmental problems, and the elimination of scarcity. Theoretically, the singularity could even lead to the achievement of a post-scarcity society, where resources are plentiful, and all basic needs are met.

But …

The dystopian view of the AI singularity says it could lead to a society where machines dominate or even replace humans. It suggests that as AI surpasses human intelligence, it could become uncontrollable or hostile to human interests, leading to catastrophic outcomes.

Pause — I must confess. I didn’t write any of that, nobody did. ChatGPT wrote everything you just read. And more than likely, you didn’t notice.

ChatGPT launched on November 30, 2022. Five days later it had over 4 million users. The newest innovation in AI appealed to the masses: a robot that could seemingly understand you. It gave rise to the question: “What is the limit?”

The possibility of a singularity is debated in all circles, including religious ones, but it falls squarely in the realm of speculation.

Dr. Seth Hamman of Cedarville University teaches computer science, heads up the center for cyber security and has published multiple scholarly articles regarding AI.

“We learn in the opening chapters of Genesis that humans have unique attributes,” Hamman said. “We have self-consciousness, we know who we are, we can think, we have a desire for relations, we have ethics and religion.”

Hamman argues that since we see no sign of these traits in animals, we can presume they belong uniquely to bearers of God’s image, humans.

“You can extrapolate from that that if computers aren’t created in the image of God, which is pretty definitive, they cannot be self-conscious, relational, or have volition,” Hamman said. “And if they cannot think for themselves, the singularity will never happen.”

Thinking outside of human designed programming would be necessary for the basis of the singularity, the ability to teach themselves things that humans did not program them to learn.

Hamman noted that while he finds this argument convincing, predicting the future is a dangerous game, and he addressed what a post-singularity utopia could be like.

“The utopian view is heaven on Earth,” Hamman said. “You could live forever. You could do away with your body and just transport you into this computer world, and then you could live in a heaven of your own creation.”

At first this strange idea, reminiscent of the Wachowski sisters’ “The Matrix,” sounds agreeable, but peeling back the layers reveals its problematic potential.

“You have to think about what an automated world does to human dignity,” Hamman said. “We learn from scripture that idleness is not good. We have the story of King David where his kingdom goes off to war and he stays home. Next thing you know he’s having an affair. Remember, Adam and Eve worked before the fall.”

Idleness hits at the heart of the threat that AI and automation, with or without a singularity, presents to Christian living.

Jeff Simon, professor of digital media at Cedarville with a master’s degree in animation and visual effects, deals increasingly with a new form of AI, machines that can simulate human art.

Controversy rages, regarding whether or not something created by 1s and 0s in a computing program can be considered art, but what’s undeniable is that it is one more field in which humans may soon no longer be the most efficient workforce.

“I actually lean toward saying a utopian reality would be worse than a dystopian reality,” Simon said. “In a dystopia, humans need someone else, we need God. The original sin was pride —saying that humanity did not need God, and utopia would be going back to saying we can do it all ourselves.”

Professor of digital media Jeff Simon believes that AI can compromise human integrity

Even in the absence of a singularity, temptation runs rife in the world of AI.

“AI like ChatGPT opens the door to all kinds of laziness and cheating,” Simon said. “It’s a useful tool that can help us generate artistic ideas and templates, it can save time on menial tasks, but to use AI to do all of our work for us is problematic.”

Simon said that ethical use of AI can be boiled down to one word: integrity.

“It’s like most things in life,” Simon said.  “It’s a tool, it’s not good or bad, it just depends on how you use it.”

Exact visions of a post-singularity utopia vary, but most Christians scholars agree that a life without work is not a life for which God created humans.

But there is still room within the Christian ethic for advancing automation in certain areas. Developers look for jobs that fall under the three Ds: Dirt, Danger and Drudgery.

If a robot can be trained to sniff out bombs like a dog, few would argue that it’s better for an animal to risk detonation than a robot. Likewise, if we can train a robot to clean sewer systems, that seems like a superior alternative. Finally, some jobs are universally boring, like careful inspection of equipment with a 99.99% pass rate. Robots have an enormous advantage in that field, in that they don’t need to take breaks, eat or sleep, and they never get bored.

Predicting the future in one of the world’s fastest developing fields is about as easy as picking tomorrow’s lottery numbers, but there are a select few things that Christians can confidently say AI will not do.

“A robot will never encapsulate a soul,” Simon said. “No. That’s not happening.”

Hamman pointed out three sparks that no scientist has produced, all present in the creation narrative in Genesis chapters 1-2, and he presumes the same will be true of AI.

The spark of creation — “No scientist has ever created out of nothing. They can’t just make something appear.”

The spark of life — “Even taking the natural materials that we have that make up life and putting them together, no scientist has ever actually animated something.”

The spark of self-consciousness — “Whether it’s a computer program or anything, no scientist has ever made something that is self-conscious.”

“So you can argue that those three things require something supernatural,” Hamman said.

Despite its current limitations, ChatGPT’s release reminded everyone that scientists are still redefining the boundaries, and we haven’t reached a final limit quite yet.

Alan Brads is a sophomore journalism student and frequent contributor for Cedars. He enjoys playing the drums and speaking Spanish, and watches Buckeye football like his life depends on it.

Photo by Julia Mumford

Cover photo courtesy of Flikr

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