Sleepless AI

Friday, 21 February 2020

Earlier this week I was asked to give some thoughts to what keeps me awake at night thinking about the church and AI. This is my starter for ten…

This is complicated. AI is complicated. I’m not talking about the moral and ethical considerations (which are boggling), I’m talking about technology. I mean, there are those who are working with it right now, they get - for sure, they are off, racing ahead making things, building tools that all kinds of incredible things. The 2016 update to Google Translate was just the tip of the iceberg of amazing things that showed that Machine Learning and AI powered things were not just a passing thing. But there is this legitimate feeling that AI is just too complicated for the mere mortal to understand.

But then there is “AI”… Everything in 2019 was powered by “AI”. My smartphone’s camera, email search, toothbrush… At what point is AI just a gimmick to sell products? At the stores over Christmas Oral-B was selling their all new, bluetooth connected, smart AI powered, batteries included, toothbrush. AI smoke and mirrors. What does the AI inside a toothbrush do? I don’t know?! But I must spend £169.99 (RRP) to get one!

On the other side we live in a sci-fi dystopian loving society that in 1984 pictured Sarah Connor shooting the AI powered skelton dead. It is burning in the fire, and you think that she is safe, right until that metal hand rises from the flames and comes at her. That wasn’t the first sci-fi glimpse of AI, and we have loved it all the more. Dreams of the end of the world at the hands of AI.

What keeps me awake at night isn’t if a robot will make my job, or my fiancé’s job, or my neighbours job as we humans become obsolete. I’m not worried about my pastor skilling up to support thousands of Uber and Deliveroo drivers in this city should they need to find a new profession (if the need arises he will be great at it). What worries me is that we will fall off one of these three sides of the horse because our church leaders and our technologists don’t know how to communicate. The three sides to avoid:

  1. The complexity overwhelms us and we don’t try to understand.
  2. The hype cycle that AI is just a marketing term means that we don’t bother.
  3. Any potential to look into AI is lost to doomsday singularity scenarios.

Technology has been one of the many tools that disciples of Christ has reached to proclaim God’s word and to live out the great commission. The codex and the printing press are worn examples that I’ll not dwell on now, but we forget that the Roman road network were huge innovations of their day that sped the gospel message far. Or what about the trained light aircraft pilots at the end of the second world war who turn their trade to set up Mission Aviation Fellowship, or those who looked at the radio and thought that it would be a smart idea to set up a broadcast antenna at the borders of countries closed to the gospel send in Christian broadcasting, or the vicar who realised that installing a phone line into a central London vicarage might help those at their most desperate moment’s in his parish…

What keeps me awake at night is not that we don’t see the needs in our local church communities, and in our world. One of the things that keeps me awake is that those who see the need look at all this tech as unapproachable, incomprensible, unrealistic, and a lot of other words starting with the letters ‘u’ and ‘n’… even if they look at it in the first place. And as for our church leaders, let’s be honest they have a lot of other things on their plates right?!
Meanwhile, and part as a result, in our church congregations, the technologists are being told that if they want to serve at church using the skills that they have, the best way they can do this is to maybe run the lyric powerpoint, perhaps the PA desk (which, for the record, most have no idea about), or, if they are very lucky, they can look after the website - a massive poisoned chalice with endless PCC meetings.

How will we enable both the church leaders, and the technologist in the pew, to learn from passages like Exodus 31? We see God fill Bezalel son of Uri and Oholiab son of Ahisamak with His Spirit, to use their skillsets to bring glory to God’s name through the construction of the temple. Those technologists, sitting in the pews, enjoying union with Christ, being sealed by His Spirit, being equipped to use their skillsets for His purposes… could those purposes be more than advancing a tech startup?

These two groups in the local church have a chasm of communication and understanding to break through and it is tragic because as a church we’ll be so late to the party of what this technology could do for us…

I mean, one idea: imagine as the data from the 2021 census comes out, and we have in place AI and machine learning (ML) systems looking and chewing over the data comparing it with 2011’s data set, and all the other datasets that we have in the public domain and as a church. Data analysts within the church could do an amazing job working with church leaders and networks to indicate the gospel needs in every community in the UK, where to focus on church planting, how to support community groups, schools, youth services or foodbanks.

That’s doable. It’s just if we encourage people to talk. As a Church community if we set people aside to do the work.

At the moment it is the big players in the mission world who get this. SIL and CV are just two ministries that have people working full time in this field - SIL (Wycliffe) works to translate the Bible, and they are reaching for tools that will speed up that process. But they are the outliers. From what I’ve seen, we’re not thinking this way, we’re not looking to the potential, we’re not encouraging the investment; there are so many other needs beyond tech, and let’s be honest tech investments are expensive. How can a small mission agency fund even one person to turn down their £60–80k salary working at some cool and trendy Silicon Valley job to work for them? But before that, I worry that they won’t even think to try because they can’t see the impact that they might have, and the church doesn’t invest in training up her technologists to use the skills that they have to their full for Christ.

Going back to our three sided horse… I’m not denying that these things aren’t something we need to think about. We must. AI is complicated, but we must embrace that as a church, we must face into it, we must work to understand the things that worry us and mitigate against them… But we must also explore the potential. How could technology be used in the same way that the early church used the network of roads built by the Romans to preach the gospel to all nations, tribes, and tongues? How could AI help us complete the charge of the Great Commission?

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