February 11, 2020 | Aaron Mercer, IFA Contributing Writer
“Hey Siri, how can I pray for you?”
Siri, the iPhone virtual assistant, didn’t know what to do with that question. I wasn’t surprised, but I was curious. Many of us interact with Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, or the Google Assistant, but should we be praying for them? Not for them as persons, of course – but perhaps as technology?
Siri and company are basic examples of artificial intelligence. So are new “smart glass” innovations and cognitive platforms like IBM’s Watson. Even if you don’t use such “techie” items, you have probably interacted with A.I. while checking your feed on Facebook, listening to songs on Pandora, browsing for a purchase on Amazon, or getting help on the phone from a customer service chatbot.
All indications are that we are just at the beginning of the age of A.I. The possibilities of neural network and machine learning technologies for medical research, transportation safety, national defense, and many other spheres are mind-blowing. However, with the rise of such machines, important questions are also emerging about fairness, ethics, and fundamentally what it means to be human.
Some people are looking to the U.S. government for clarity about rules of the road for A.I. In fact, just last week the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a watchdog group, filed a formal petition for regulations from the Federal Trade Commission. EPIC is particularly concerned with opaque employment screener algorithms used by major recruiter companies like HireVue, as well as the potential for unjust discrimination by A.I. in health, sports, criminal justice, and other areas. The group points to a lack of transparency and accountability in determinations made by A.I. in these applications that can have life-altering effects on individuals.
The Trump Administration has made A.I. a top priority with an “American A.I. Initiative” executive order signed by the President last February and a landmark set of regulatory principles rolled out by the White House just after the dawn of 2020. In a recent Bloomberg.com op-ed, U.S. Chief Technology Office Michael Kratsios said, “These regulatory principles are designed to achieve three goals: Ensure public engagement, limit regulatory overreach and promote trustworthy technology.” Ultimately, the goal is to encourage exciting innovations to be birthed and thrive without puncturing public trust and democratic values. Indeed, Kratsios argued that the U.S. and likeminded nations must strive to remain the hub of A.I. development so that the technology’s future is not determined by authoritarian regimes such as China, which is using it to become more efficient in surveillance and repression.
Businesses, governments, and public interest groups are taking A.I. seriously. So should Christians, particularly committed intercessors. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission produced a helpful statement of principles regarding A.I. and its relationship to humanity, moral responsibility, work, privacy, and other key matters. This excerpt from the preamble offers a great summary of their perspective:
“In light of existential questions posed anew by the emergent technology of artificial intelligence (AI), we affirm that God has given us wisdom to approach these issues in light of Scripture and the gospel message. Christians must not fear the future or any technological development because we know that God is, above all, sovereign over history, and that nothing will ever supplant the image of God in which human beings are created. We recognize that AI will allow us to achieve unprecedented possibilities, while acknowledging the potential risks posed by AI if used without wisdom and care.
We desire to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI, rather than responding to these issues after they have already affected our communities. In light of this desire and hope, we offer the following affirmations and denials about the nature of humanity, the promise of technology, and the hope for the future.”
Efforts like ERLC’s are intended to help Christians wrestle through implications of A.I. proactively rather than after cultural bombs have already detonated. Indeed, we need to be using our voices now in prayer and public engagement in hopes of encouraging truly liberating and life-bettering innovation in A.I. and its offspring.
So, let’s be praying for Siri and all her relatives! May our society flourish in a manner honoring to our Lord.
Have you prayed about artificial intelligence? Are you concerned about the growing capabilities and discoveries?
Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.’s public policy arena and Christian associations. A seasoned strategist, he aids organizations with research, analysis, and writing services, and he reflects on faith, technology, and the public square. Connect with Aaron on LinkedIn and Twitter.