ERLC's Thacker: AI 'must be wielded with wisdom'

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Followers of Jesus need not fear artificial intelligence but should realize its continuing development calls for biblical thinking regarding its potential benefits and threats to humanity, a Southern Baptist ethicist writes in a new book.

Jason Thacker, associate research fellow and creative director with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, offers an explanation of artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact, as well as scriptural guidance on how to consider this technology in "The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity." The book, published by Zondervan, was released March 3.

In the book, Thacker says he doesn't fear AI, robots or the possibility computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence.

Instead, he fears "the people of God buying the lie that we are nothing more than machines and that somehow AI will usher in a utopian age," Thacker writes. "AI is not a savior. It is not going to fix all of our world's problems. It is a tool that must be wielded with wisdom. AI will lead to many great advances but will also open up new opportunities to dishonor God and devalue our neighbor."

AI "is everywhere, even if you don't recognize it," he writes. As examples, Thacker cites AI's role in smartphones, search platforms, smart speaker assistants such as Alexa and Siri, driverless cars and automated jobs previously performed by human beings.

In an email interview with Baptist Press, Thacker said, "AI is not a far-off technology but one that we use and interact with each day. As AI increasingly takes a larger role in our society, the danger is that we don't pay attention to the ways that technology is already influencing our daily lives as we buy into the lie that there is nothing unique or exceptional about humanity as a whole."

He told BP many discussions in culture about AI "focus on some very difficult ethical questions as well as some of the most foundational questions of life and the nature of humanity. AI doesn't really cause us to ask new questions per se but often old questions in light of new opportunity.

"I believe the Christian moral tradition is best equipped to help people navigate these difficult questions with wisdom and the hope of new life in Christ."

In his book, Thacker addresses how AI is bringing changes in individuals, families and society, as well as in such areas as medicine, privacy, war and work.

AI is "beginning to alter the way that we view ourselves and those around us," Thacker warns. God has made each human being in His image, and it is on this basis a person has dignity, he writes.

"Our dignity and worth aren't tied to our usefulness, and definitely not to the things we create with our own hands," Thacker writes. "They are tied to the one who willingly laid down His life to give us eternal life. Artificial intelligence might challenge these truths, but it will never be able to change who we fundamentally are in Christ."

AI "is not good or evil in itself but can be designed and used for good and evil purposes," he writes.

China, Egypt, Russia and North Korea are among the countries already using AI facial recognition technology to regulate dissidents and thereby subvert human rights, but AI can be employed also in ethical ways to identify criminals and prevent terrorism, he writes.

AI can benefit families, but its use also can undermine marriage and the home, Thacker's book demonstrates. For instance, the introduction of AI-enabled sex robots in 2018 is being offered as a solution for loneliness in society.

The church addresses the problem of loneliness, according to the book. "We were meant to live in community with other believers, those who serve over creation under the rule of God," Thacker writes.

He suggests families overcome the disconnections that AI can foster by taking breaks together from technology and establishing routines for its use in the home.

Regarding work, Thacker writes, "As AI machines get smarter and their application grows in society, AI will affect or change nearly every job that we can think of."

While this will not result in every job being replaced, retraining for a job will become necessary, he writes.

For Thacker, writing a book on AI resulted from research that began several years ago, as well as writing articles about the topic and conversing with people in the field.

"The more I researched and interacted with these wider conversations, I noticed the lack of a cohesive framework and resources for the church to use when thinking about the rise and influence of AI," he told BP. "This gave rise to this book as a way for all people to begin understanding how to use this powerful technology with wisdom grounded in the love of God and love of neighbor."

"The Age of AI" is available at LifeWay, Amazon and other booksellers. Links to various booksellers may be found at https://jasonthacker.com/publications/.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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