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Everything has Changed

Everything has Changed

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been called ‘a simulation of human intelligence’, and is an area of computer science that has the capacity to out-think and out-perform humans in many areas. In this three-part series, Jules Badger unpacks the potential of AI, particularly as it affects the Church and our interactions online.

Usually, I’m an early adopter by nature. I like new things and new ideas. But if I’m honest, not so much with new technology! When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) I have been especially slow off the mark. Until recently, I wasn’t all that interested and honestly didn’t see what all the fuss was about. How utterly naïve! Now that I’m doing some of the research mahi (work) I’m beginning to understand that, in fact, everything has changed. Life will never be the same again.

Don’t believe me? Even though I experienced life before social media, these days I struggle to fathom life without it. Similarly, when it comes to the impact of AI upon our world and our lives, we are once again living on the edge of seismic societal change.

The first church service facilitated by AI took place recently in Germany, with both positive and negative reactions. We need to pay attention to the rapid advances in AI technology, particularly in the Church.

Many readers will be familiar with the American 2020 Emmy-winning Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma produced by the Centre for Humane Technology. The docudrama explores the impact of social media on our lives—it’s a sobering watch. The Social Dilemma reached 100 million people across 190 countries in 30 languages. Co-founders of the Centre for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris and Aza Razkin advise heads of state, policy makers and national security leaders, as well as educating ordinary citizens about some of the dangers we face with technology. If you haven’t seen it, maybe start there for context before diving into their latest offering, The AI Dilemma, released in March this year.

Don’t get me wrong, Tristan and Aza are far from anti-AI. Tristan is involved in AI research to de-code animal communication, which is incredible! Both men are passionate about technology, but what they are concerned about is how to ensure technology like AI is being deployed safely and responsibly. They agree that when it comes to AI the horse is quite literally bolting as we speak. For example, in early 2022 about 100 people were playing around with AI image generation technology. Now, over 10 million people have generated over 10 billion images. AI is here and, just like social media, it’s not going away. AI can do magnificent things, and while social media took 20 years to become imbedded into the psyche of society, AI is moving much, much faster.

Six months ago, Jubilee Media (YouTube) tried a social experiment. With 8.2 million subscribers and a vision ‘to provoke understanding and create human connection’, Jubilee asked six young adults to identify the AI among them; could they distinguish between human and AI? All participants were put into a chat and given a series of prompts. The idea was to identify the AI responses and vote out the AI. The AI’s responses were all generated by ChatGPT. While some of the human players assumed the AI would be easy to spot, expecting it to behave like a computer and use exact language and punctuation, the AI’s strategy caught them out. ‘My strategy is to mimic human behaviour as closely as possible,’ said “Oliver” the AI. ‘My tactic will be to use conversational language, make mistakes, show emotions, limit response speed, display general knowledge. My goal overall is to blend in with the humans.’ Four of the six human competitors were voted out before Oliver was identified. Remember, AI is still in its infancy.

Not wanting to be messengers of doom—far from it—Tristan and Aza surveyed hundreds of AI researchers last year and found that 50 percent of participants believe there’s a 10 percent or greater chance that humans become extinct from our inability to control AI. Ten percent may not sound like a lot, but any percentage suggesting human extinction should be a sobering statistic!

So what does all this mean for people of faith? For the Church? For spirituality? For how we explain God? For how we interact with God? For how we interact with each other?

In an article provocatively entitled ‘AI Will Shape Your Soul’, Christianity Today editor Kate Lucky makes it clear that how that happens is up to us. ‘Relationships are about more than sharing facts. An AI chatbot can’t give us hugs, go for a walk, or share meals at our tables. For Christians who believe in the Word that became flesh (John 1:14), relating to AI means missing out on a key aspect of our human identity: embodiment. But assuming we continue to connect with real people on a fairly regular basis, the real worry isn’t that AI will replace those relationships. It’s that AI will inhibit them.’

The pandemic taught us that we can still experience depth in relationships through online means, but for many of us coming out the other side of the pandemic, when given the option of real human physical interaction, it’s a no-brainer. And yet, many of us would never have imagined when social media lured us in with the promise of staying better connected to our friends and family that some of us would settle for a digital relationship, or in some cases even prefer it. Of course, a social component remains in digital forums because we are still interacting with people—albeit through sharing information, photos and memes. However, as Joanna Ng (a Christian AI researcher with IBM) explains, ‘…with ChatGPT there’s no social component. That’s the danger. When you’re talking to an AI bot, you’re actually alone.’

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