How can the church speak about AI?

For better or worse, artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay, so how can the church speak to it? Professor Neil Dodgson, who has spent 30 years working across mathematics, engineering and computing, shares his thoughts on the intersection of faith and AI.

AI has captivated our attention, from digital optimists or idealists trumpeting all the ways that ChatGPT can streamline our workflow to doomsday prophets proclaiming that the end of civilization is near. Dodgson professes a more balanced view of AI, technology in general and the future of humanity.

“I’ve got the experience of spending 30 years in the church and spending 30 years working with computers; I can look at that intersection of technology and faith. There seems to be rather few of us who can do this,” says Dodgson.

Dodgson notes that “AI’s been going on around 70 years now and it’s never really impacted on Christian faith and ethics until the last year. Suddenly there are these systems that are doing things that we thought only a human being could do.” The public didn’t seem to be fazed back when AI was beating humans at chess and then at the game Go. “We got AI speech recognition working about 15-20 years ago. Now we’ve got things like ChatGPT writing beautiful prose – things society didn’t think computers could do – and that’s raised in the public’s perception,” he says.

About 15 years ago, there was a breakthrough in deep learning. This is a method in AI that teaches computers to process data in ways inspired by the human brain. “When you set one of this kind of machine up, it doesn’t know anything. Then you throw your input in one end and you know what output it’s supposed to get out the other. You can train systems that work as well as human beings in a specific task – in some cases better than human beings,” says Dodgson.

All the AI research has culminated in the release of ChatGPT in late 2022. ChatGPT can write a decent poem or a piece of prose, but what it doesn’t know is what is true. “It can write the most beautiful nonsense. A colleague had a cohort of students last year where 20 per cent of the essays that were handed in for an assignment were beautifully written but just rubbish,” says Dodgson. The actual information in the essays was nonsense. “We’re learning how to use this tool that can write beautifully because it knows how to string one word after another, but knows nothing about the world,” he says.

“The church has quite a lot to say about the value of a human being.” – Prof. Neil Dodgson

One of the great uses of AI is in skin cancer detection. “We have databases of millions of spots that doctors have taken photos of that are either benign or cancerous. AI trained on these databases can look at far more pictures of spots than a human doctor can,” shares Dodgson. This AI has rapidly improved, and in 2023 the latest software reached a 100% detection rate for melanoma. This is a great example of AI used for the betterment of humankind. “The combination of that with a human specialist can be a much more powerful thing,” says Dodgson.

Of course, there are the downsides of AI and technology: loss of jobs, troubling deepfakes, manipulative algorithms and the distortion of perception of beauty standards are just some of the concerns we face.

“These are places where we get into the ethics of this and where we get into ‘what can the church say’,” says Dodgson. “The church has quite a lot to say about the value of a human being. You are valued because you are a human being. The church can be a real champion for human beings,” he says.

Dodgson notes that the Baby Boomer generation started leaving the church, hanging onto the morality but abandoning the foundation of that morality. What we have now, he goes on, is a generation of young people who are asking why they should follow their parents’ and grandparents’ morality, when there’s no foundation for this. “The church then can speak into that saying, ‘we have a really good foundation for our morality’,” says Dodgson

“When you come to the questions of ethics from a point of view that human beings are intrinsically valuable, then you have a basis on which to say these things are good, these things are bad. So that’s where I think that the church can speak,” he says. Dodgson notes that the Vatican has a group looking at the ethics of AI and thinks “they have a lot of kudos in saying ‘we know how to talk about ethics and morality’.”

“A mind in a box is a very different thing to a human being who’s been brought up in community.”

According to Dodgson the church also provides a model for moving forward with wisdom and understanding as a community. “The churches I’ve been in, in the Protestant tradition, have bible study groups. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we will interpret what we’re reading collectively. We move forward as a community,” shares Dodgson. He goes on to say “the church doesn’t just say individual human beings are valuable in and of themselves. It says the community is valuable.”

Dodgson emphasises that “the community is what ensures that nobody goes off the rails, that everybody is looked after, that everything’s okay. We need to underscore the importance of being part of a community, being part of a group of Christian believers that you trust.”

“I’m concerned about if you train an advanced AI, which is a mind in a box, it’s a very different thing to a human being who’s been brought up in community. We could find ourselves with these very intelligent computer systems that we don’t understand, they don’t think in the way human beings do,” says Dodgson.

“The church has a very big history of knee-jerk reactions to anything new.”

After thinking about technology and theology for decades, Dodgson encourages the Church and Christians not to hasten to condemn all new technology as bad.

“The church has a very big history of knee-jerk reactions to anything new,” says Dodgson. He suggests that we might start by thinking about these tools as neutral, which can be used for good or bad. “Let’s talk about the good uses and let’s talk about the ethics of the bad uses,” he says.

Social media, for example, can negatively impact young people, but it also allows people to make and maintain connections with loved ones. Technology enables us to read the Bible on our phones, with multiple translations, to watch sermons online and listen to teaching podcasts to build our faith and enrich our lives. Dodgson asks what it might look like if the church looked at technology and asked, ‘What can we do with this’, rather than simply damning any new innovation.

Prof. Neil Dodgson is a speaker at the upcoming ISCAST event, AI x Christianity: Gospel Wisdom for an AI World. He is a professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Dean of Graduate Research at Victoria University of Wellington. Before this, he spent 27 years at the University of Cambridge working across mathematics, engineering and computing, all of which are crucial in the rise of AI.

Related Reading

Related stories from around the web

Eternity News is not responsible for the content on other websites