We live in a “smart-everything” world. We have artificial intelligence (AI) at our fingertips for nearly every part of our day. From AI-based wearable technology to phones, tablets, computers, and even appliances, nearly every aspect of our lives is being tracked, recorded, and processed by some form of algorithmic technology. And there are incredible advantages to these technologies. We now have safer and more effective medical treatment and vaccine development. Our neighborhoods are more connected and safer than ever before because of video surveillance and various communication tools. Our homes are even more efficient and comfortable. And our families have convenient access to more information than previous generations could have imagined.
Before the onset of COVID-19, one popular narrative suggested that our technological progress might ultimately lead to the eradication of sickness, disease, and in some cases even death itself. In his New York Times best-seller Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, world-renowned Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that, with small exceptions here and there, humanity has essentially overcome the three big problems that have plagued our lives since the dawn of civilization: famine, war, and plague. He then proudly predicts that we will shift our creative energies toward tackling two other major issues: happiness and death itself. Even granting that Harari’s views of humanity and technological progress are fairly extreme, there is widespread hope and hype surrounding the field of AI and its potential to remake our world.
But how does the turbulent and momentous year of 2020 fit into this grand vision of the future? So far, we have seen devastating famines in Africa, major conflicts between world powers such as the US and China, grotesque racial injustice, and a ferocious worldwide pandemic. And we still have several months to go.
As a Christian, the travails of this year have reminded me of the proper role of technology in our lives and where our ultimate hope is placed. While there are incredible and God-honoring technological innovations being deployed for noble ends across society, we must keep perspective and understand that these tools must be wielded with wisdom if we are to see true human flourishing. How does the Scripture guide us to embrace the real benefits of these tools while navigating the potential pitfalls, ethical dilemmas, and dangers?
Bursts of Innovation
The rise of artificial intelligence occasions a variety of responses. Often, when I talk about AI, people conjure up images of sci-fi Hollywood movie plots involving futuristic societies where a heroine saves the world from the rise of rampaging robots. Some fear that AI-powered innovations will only exacerbate problems of unemployment and economic insecurity, as automation takes over existing jobs or renders them obsolete. Others have decided against buying into the hype of emerging technologies because they just don’t seem terribly relevant at the moment.
Yet most of us use these technologies every day, often without realizing it. In all likelihood, there is a smart device or an AI tool within a few inches of you right now. Computer scientist and author Ray Kurzweil rightfully points out that without these tools, we would struggle to communicate with one another or get money from the bank, manufacturing would grind to a halt, and our national security and even our economy would falter.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, it is easy to overlook the role of AI in driving the fight against it. From drug research to testing and treatment options, some of the most exciting innovations on the AI front are in the field of medicine. AI-enabled tools are able to process vast amounts of data, often more efficiently than their human counterparts can manage. They can be copied quickly and deployed widely as needed.
We see this dynamic at work in drug and vaccine research, where AI systems make rapid connections between various pieces of data, greatly speeding up the process of bringing a drug or treatment into clinical trials. In April, The New York Times ran a story about a company called BenevolentAI from London that turned its attention to coronavirus research earlier this year. The company used AI to scour the literature surrounding COVID-19, and within two days its system had identified a drug called baricitinib, originally designed for rheumatoid arthritis, as a potential treatment option. This drug recently underwent clinical trials with the UK’s National Institutes of Health.
Alongside aiding research on potential treatments and cures, AI is assisting hospitals and staff in triaging patients and protecting health care workers. Radiologists and other physicians at UC San Diego Health have begun clinical trials using an AI system to scan chest X-rays of patients for cases of pneumonia, which often occur in the most severe forms of coronavirus. These tools can rapidly speed up patient testing, saving countless hours that hospital workers can devote to treating the worst cases.
Since many AI systems require large amounts of data, there have been increasing calls to open up access to that data for the purposes of research and testing. The Mayo Clinic and many other hospital systems have launched processes to share anonymized patient data with companies that can use it in the fight against COVID-19.
Outside of the medical community, AI is helping our schools and workplaces safely transition back to their ordinary rhythms as some stay-at-home-orders begin to lift. Some school systems and businesses are experimenting with various security measures, including the use of high-tech surveillance, to slow the spread of the virus. This fall, as part of a test for some new tracing techniques, students in New Albany, Ohio, will be equipped with electronic tracking beacons. This trend will likely continue, as businesses and other gathering places begin deploying tools like temperature-tracking cameras and contact-tracing apps in order to protect customers and employees alike.
Of course, much of this technology is only in the trial phase, which means we’re unlikely to see it used on a wide scale anytime soon. And it’s almost a foregone conclusion that many of the lofty promises made on its behalf will never be realized—at least not in time to make a dramatic difference in defeating COVID-19.
While some will cite such failures as grounds for skepticism toward the hype surrounding AI, it bears mentioning that periods of cultural crisis often spearhead significant bursts in creativity and innovation. This was certainly true of the great wars of the 20th century, which gave rise to sophisticated weaponry and technologies—which, in turn, gave rise to the modern space race and the computer age. Even as the current pandemic rages, one can hope that it might enliven human ingenuity and creativity as we push the limits of technology in the pursuit of human flourishing.
But how can we pursue these powerful and life-changing innovations without going beyond certain ethical boundaries? Surely there is a balance to be struck between a posture of “innovate first and ask ethical questions later” and an overcautious approach that risks grinding technological progress to a halt.
What are some of the ethical dilemmas we’ll need to address? Because of the immense power of AI and other emerging technologies, it is critical that these systems are deployed in ways that help to build trust in our communities, especially between governments, technology companies, and our neighbors. According to a 2019 Pew Research report, Americans have an increasingly pessimistic view toward technology companies and their influence in our daily lives. One-third agree that these companies are a negative force in our society, while only half say the impact is positive. This divide reveals a massive amount of distrust, even as we depend on these companies and their tools more and more throughout the pandemic.
But technology companies are hardly the only object of public distrust. As the virus continues to ravage our nation, there is also a growing distrust in government leaders and even public health systems, due to factors like perceived failure, hyper-partisanship, or the pending presidential election. How are we to trust these same officials and leaders to use powerful technologies like AI wisely in this pandemic if we already have difficulties trusting them to perform their ordinary responsibilities with integrity?
In a chapter for The Oxford Handbook of the Ethics of AI, scholars Alessandro Blasimme and Effy Vayena argue that the call for “continuous surveillance, tailored nudging, and paternalistic intervention can generate an Orwellian form of individual control and constrained personal freedoms.” The increased use of AI in our society will naturally infringe upon certain freedoms and ideals of privacy. Without measures to ensure adequate transparency and bolster public trust, our society might reject many lifesaving advances in AI because we fear the other possible uses to which unscrupulous governments might put them.
One major worry that goes hand in hand with this rising tide of distrust is the potential for AI technologies to precipitate a massive erosion of personal privacy. Today, nearly every aspect of our lives is captured in data of some form, and at least some of that data—like digital health records, testing results, or location tracking—could be useful in helping combat the spread of COVID-19. Google and Apple recently joined forces to develop and deploy Bluetooth-powered contact tracing that would inform public-health officials and individuals about potential exposure to the virus.
Not only is our personal data constantly tracked and stored. It can also be exploited by powerful organizations or even governments seeking to control their people. As Professor Mark Coeckelbergh of the University of Vienna observes in his new book AI Ethics, “In [our] networked world, every electronic device or software can be hacked, invaded, and manipulated by people with malicious intentions.” Personal privacy has already been sacrificed in many places throughout the world, including in China and Hong Kong, where ruling Communist Party officials have abused surveillance technology in an effort to subjugate China’s Uighur Muslim minority and silence free expression.
A Biblical Foundation
Ongoing debates in our society about technology and ethics show that there is much work to be done. As AI technology continues to evolve, the church has an opportunity to address many of the fundamental questions that people are beginning to ask. Many debates within the sciences, especially in areas of emerging technology like AI, revolve around age-old questions concerning the nature of ethics and what it means to be human.
How are Christians equipped to enter these conversations in light of the Scriptures? Christianity is not a dead faith that is unable to speak into modern times, as some may claim. Ours is a rich and living faith centered on the God of the universe who created all things, including human beings made in his own image (Gen. 1:26–28) and endowed with a touch of his own creative ability. Not only does being created in God’s image distinguish us from the rest of creation—it also forms the foundation of our ethical thought in every area of life, including how we seek to live our faith out in the public square.
In Matthew 22:37–39, Jesus tells his disciples, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” These commandments, summing up the entirety of God’s holy law, help ground our approach to major technological innovations like AI. As we consider the role of government in a pandemic and the complex nature of personal privacy, we know that we are called to love God and neighbor in ways that honor the image of God himself. We treat our neighbors with respect—affirming their dignity and value—because they too bear the imprint of God. We work toward justice and transparency as we seek to live out our God-given calling to love one another as God loves us.
As the waves of COVID-19 continue to break upon our fellow image bearers, it is helpful to remember humanity’s place as the crown jewel of creation, which provides a sturdy ethical foundation for navigating the challenges of our digital age. From that place of confidence, we can seek to harness powerful AI tools to serve our neighbor and to stand up for the rights of all people. Artificial intelligence is one of God’s good gifts to us, but it must be wielded with a wisdom grounded in the person and work of the true Homo Deus, the god-man Jesus Christ, who took on flesh in order to save his people and secure their future.
Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity.