Perhaps you’ve heard of Google’s self-driving cars. Those incredible robotic machines are capable of fully autonomous driving. Back roads and busy intersections, merging traffic and jaywalking pedestrians—they can handle it all. Modified versions of the Toyota Prius, these cars are equipped with an array of cameras, radars, GPS units, and other sensors that allow safe driving.
Recently, the state of Nevada granted the first license to test such autonomous vehicles on public roadways. To many, this is exciting news. Blind people and others may now have a chance to travel on their own. Beyond the convenience and opportunity, these high-tech cars could also drastically reduce accidents. They are, in theory, much safer than cars driven by humans. After all, most accidents are caused by human error.
But not everyone is happy. What do we lose by handing over our responsibilities to machines? The more we allow them to do, the more we become dependent on them. If one of these cars must choose between hitting a child or another car, who’s to blame for its decision? How much control do we really want to give up?
The word robot is derived from the Czech robotnik meaning “slave,”1 but at what point might these slaves become our masters?
For Good or Evil?
There are clearly pros and cons to such technology. What should a Christian think? God’s Word must always be our guide (Psalm 119:105; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). While the Bible may not mention robots specifically, it does have quite a lot to say about technology.
The word technology comes from the Greek words téchné (“art,” “craft,” or “skill”) and logia (“the study of”). Technology includes any tool or craft, no matter how simplistic, as well as the process of developing those tools. The first record of a manmade “tool” is the clothing that Adam and Eve made to cover their nakedness. They tried to solve their problem with fig leaves, but that was insufficient. To provide a full covering, God in His mercy made clothes from animal skin.
This may sound like a small thing, but it has great significance. It set a precedent. Technology is not inherently bad, but it should be done God’s way. Ever since the Garden of Eden incident, we have developed tools to overcome problems. Technology not only helps us perform tasks but also temporarily relieves the effects of the Fall. After God made the first clothes, which protect our bodies from the elements, people continued to employ their God-given ability to make tools.
Technology is just one way that those who were created in God’s image imitate their Maker.
Technology is just one way that those who were created in God’s image imitate their Maker. Although humans are incapable of creating in the same sense that God did (Hebrew, bara), as God’s image-bearers they are able to make (Hebrew, asah) new tools to transform their environment and help them survive in this sin-cursed world.
To Heal or to Kill?
Robotic technology is just one of the latest developments in humanity’s increasingly complex arsenal of tools for overcoming the effects of the Curse. Consider cancer.
Microscopic robots, or “nanorobots,” are being developed by researchers at Harvard to seek out and destroy cancer cells.2 They are built using a technique known as DNA origami, which builds structures out of DNA molecules. These robotic machines are specially designed to carry antibodies right to the cancer cells. Although still being tested, they have huge potential.
Few would dispute the wisdom of technology that helps others. But what about robots that are advancing another age-old human occupation: killing enemy soldiers? Robotic assassin drones—sound like science fiction? Think again!
The U.S. military has deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for almost two decades. Primarily for reconnaissance, they can also be equipped with lethal missiles. The original models were remote controlled, but the recent MQ-9 Reaper (also known as Predator B) is capable of autonomous flight and may soon be able to fly search and destroy missions without directions from a human controller.
General T. Michael Moseley explains, “We’ve moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunterkiller role with the Reaper.”3
Sound scary? It is! Are we really prepared to hand over the task of killing to a machine with no ability to make moral judgments?
That moral dilemma may sound far-fetched. But some would argue that robots are killing people right now without firing a single weapon. Every day, more and more robots perform valuable work without requiring a salary. Unlike human employees, they don’t need much rest, and they don’t take sick leave.
As technology improves and becomes more affordable, it’s no wonder that many companies are opting for robots. Foxconn, the Taiwan-based manufacturer of iPads and iPhones, recently announced plans for a million-strong robotic workforce by 2015. That could mean fewer and fewer jobs in an already-struggling world economy.
So is this field of technology bad? Should Christians simply avoid all technology?
We must be careful, as Paul warned, to “
not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12, ESV), including technology. But the ultimate question is whether it will
help us glorify God.
To the Glory of God
Technology itself is amoral. It does not force us to do good or evil, but it does provide choices that can be good or evil. The Bible is full of examples. Noah built the Ark for good—to provide physical salvation. In contrast, the men at Babel built the tower for bad reasons—to rob God of His glory. For many people, technology is even viewed as part of man’s ultimate salvation4 or even god.5 But for the believer, technology must serve the higher good: God’s kingdom.
In His amazing providence, God has used technological advances to aid His work, even spreading the gospel. The first evangelists used the Roman roads, while Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press allowed Bibles to be reproduced quickly and inexpensively. Ultimately, this allowed the Bible to be printed in the common tongue, paving the way for the Protestant Reformation.
Today, the World Wide Web has made God’s Word readily available—in hundreds of different languages—to anyone with a connection to the Internet. Those with smartphones can access the Bible anywhere at any time via free apps.
Churches and other Christian ministries also use many different technologies to serve God. Websites are invaluable for conveying biblical information. Almost every pulpit and other Christian speaking event utilizes a projected presentation and amplified audio. Smartphones and tablets have enabled new interaction among huge numbers of believers.
And yes, even robotics can be specifically used to bring God glory. For instance, the use of robotics has helped mankind fulfill the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28 to fill and rule the earth. Robots enable us to explore God’s creation in ways that are simply too dangerous for humans in a fallen world. For example, robots can enter collapsed buildings after earthquakes to find survivors, and they can explore ocean floors, the frozen Arctic, and even other planets.
Robots can also make great teaching tools, helping young people to see God’s handiwork in creation. For several years, one of the authors of this article helped oversee a Christian robotics team that traveled to schools all around the country and is coming to the Creation Museum.6 The team teaches young people how to build and program their own small robots. In the process these young people learn about teamwork, problem solving, the marvelous engineering of God’s created things, and a biblical foundation for using technology to glorify God.
The same biblical principles that have guided believers for thousands of years still apply today.
But what are the limits of technology? Can we give up our moral responsibility and let robots kill autonomously? How far can we go with technology to save time and labor? The same biblical principles that have guided believers for thousands of years still apply today. If a choice is consistent with God’s revealed purposes, then it can be appropriate. If not, it is wrong.
As our world becomes increasingly complex, it is crucial for believers to understand a biblical theology of technology. The danger of promoting man’s glory above the Creator is as great as ever. Yet the potential for good is just as amazing. Used wisely, technology can provide temporary relief from the Curse’s effects, to the glory of God. It can also point sinners to the gospel—God’s permanent relief for our suffering.
If understood properly, technology is yet another reminder of our loving Creator who desires all to know and worship Him.
* Some inspiration for this article has been taken from John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City (2011). In his thought-provoking book, Dyer offers Christians a biblical perspective of technology, how it shapes us, and how it can be redeemed for God’s purposes.