It is difficult these days to know if the news around AI is alarmist or alarming. Experts differ, arguments and counter arguments are put forwards, and those of us in the non-specialist world are left somewhat adrift. Is AI tech an existential threat to the welfare of humanity or a virtual storm in an online teacup?
Regardless of where we land on the spectrum of concern, it is clear that major changes are in the wind with regard to our relationship to tech and our relationship to truth. There is a possibility that tech jobs, once a surefire arena for well-qualified people to be well paid, could be changed utterly by the terrible beauty of AI. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that our relationship with truth, disturbed twenty years ago by postmodernism, could finally disintegrate thanks to its technological incarnation. For a ‘consult Google’ generation the concept that we could eventually be asking for the answers to life’s big questions from the echoes of yesterday’s ignorance is frightening indeed. Our base of knowledge could eventually be reduced to the aggregate of relativism’s unknowing.
There are many angles from which these discomforting possibilities can be viewed, but from the perspective of faith their impact on belief and theological knowledge are groundbreaking. Whether it is the final one, or one in a long succession, this latest ‘strong delusion’ is frightening in its proportions. How can believers think clearly about the issues of faith and AI? What priorities should we be setting now to prepare for what is ahead. Below I suggest two things that we will need to navigate the unknown path before us. Much more could undoubtedly be said.
You will need the local church
Medium and message have always had a complex relationship. Whether we think of the relative degrees of fidelity that manuscript culture attached to texts, or the seeming certainty and stability of meaning that the printing press introduced, how something is communicated matters enormously.
Until the late twentieth century, truth, text and meaning had physical embodiments. The great theological movements of church history depended on meetings, councils, encounters, premises, and argument, to reach consensus and resolution. The outcomes of those physical meetings was codified in multiple iterations of manuscripts that allowed access to what had been argued and decided.
The internet has at once democratised and relativised what we know as human beings. Ours is a wiki world, with editable data of debatable origins. False information and deep fake technology have disconcerted the idea that we can know things with any certainty. With AI now harvesting and creating meaning from amassed information, humanity finds itself in the position of Hamlet, calling out endlessly on the ramparts for a word from its long-dead (possibly murdered) father.
When this reality fully takes hold, when the alternative world of the internet becomes fully destabilised and automated, there may be a movement by some people to seek knowledge personally, tangibly, in physical spaces that cannot come under the deranging influence of AI. The local church might again become the locus church, a centre for seeking and saying, teaching and conveying, which is refreshingly bereft of what the web is offering.
It would be tragic if, at that very moment, we propagated the post-Covid contagion of downplaying physically gathering together. A time could conceivably come when no one will know whether what they ‘see’ online bears any relationship to reality. In that world the local church will become a sleeper cell of certainty , a haven of living, breathing, truth. How sad if we degraded this, and allowed our sense of community to become fully outsourced just at the moment when the genius of Christ in creating local churches was about to be witnessed most vividly.
You will need your physical Bible
Among all of the tools of resistance in the world, the book has always been chief among them. Totalitarian regimes have always been as careful about decommissioning words as they have been with weapons. Learning, thinking, engaging, critiquing, are the staunch enemies of groupthink and social control.
Electronic books are a modern marvel. Many of us (the present author included) have embraced them as a portable and employable resource which reduce the time and space required to read and think. All of this is undoubtedly good, but fearful possibilities also reside here.
Texts purchased under Digital Rights Management are never truly ours, and their content is arguably untethered. Where large tech companies charge us for the loan of books on a platform where they can be withdrawn or (more worryingly) amended, the capacity for the manipulation and deletion of truth is genuinely fearful.
Add to that the collective psychosis and amnesia that AI could bring, and texts which cannot be revised, withdrawn or completely rewritten may become our lost valuable commodities once again. Asking questions of ChatGPT demonstrates its innate biases, and it is not hard to imagine a context in which the less ‘savoury’ parts of Scripture could be reworked, or where an AI generated series of scholarly articles posit a different (fictional) manuscript tradition to erase their feasibility as being original to the text. The Bible you carry on your phone and the Bible you hold in your hands are worlds apart in terms of textual stability.
In the 1980s my father worked in an oil refinery. A colleague, by no means a learned man, was committing Scripture to memory lest the government should ever confiscate Bibles. A paranoid thought, perhaps, but what if our move to exclusive online Scripture has relinquished our copies of the Bible without force or coercion. In an AI world that publisher’s mark of 2016 or earlier might eventually be one of its strongest authenticating marks.
All of the foregoing might seem to be on the fringes of conspiracy theory. We are, however, entering a period of societal change which could overshadow the impact of the Industrial Revolution. What is up for grabs now is not the nature of locality and labour but the nature of learning, knowing, and believing. The simple defiant acts of gathering in a community of truth and securing textual truth may eventually seem like moderate or minor measures in view of the challenges that AI will bring. They are, however, priorities we can pursue now, coordinates we can set to navigate the brave new world that lies ahead of us.