I still remember the day as a 10-year-old boy that I got my first calculator—with memory. I’ve loved computers ever since, creating things using logic. The very first program I created allowed me to play baseball against the computer. While the interface was pretty simple, it helped me understand how well machines follow exact instructions. How times have changed.
Back then we were inspired watching Rosie the Robot on The Jetsons and dreamed of computers that could one day do menial tasks like vacuuming the floor. With modern advances in computer power, algorithms, and innovative programming that imitates the nonlinear human brain, artificial intelligence (AI) has hit a whole new level.
I’m not talking about just beating the world chess grandmaster, as happened back in 1996. The IBM supercomputer Deep Blue simply crunched the numbers for all the billions of possibilities and found the best moves (as defined by the programmer) to beat Kasparov. No, now we build machines that are patterned after the human brain and can “learn.”
Just this year Google’s AlphaGo became the first machine to defeat the world Go champion. This complex board game requires intuition, creativity, and strategic thinking that goes far deeper than chess. At any point in the game, a player has about 200 reasonable moves to choose from (unlike chess, which has about 40). Each Go game has more potential variations than atoms in the universe! To beat the human player, the machine used two neural networks—a “deep learning” approach that is specifically designed to imitate the complex neural networks in human brains, not the simple binary number-crunching of traditional programming.
This year brought an even bigger shock. AI researchers at Facebook reported that two computer “agents” they had created to “talk” to each other in English had developed their own shorthand language to communicate more efficiently. Since it was simply part of a test to develop programs that negotiate like humans, the researchers eventually shut it down. But the implications are stunning.
Increasingly, leaders in technology believe we are approaching a day when machines can do what humans do, but even better. Physicist Stephen Hawking has warned that the rise of powerful new AI could be “the worst thing ever to happen to humanity” if not managed well. Billionaire Elon Musk, the brainchild behind Tesla and SpaceX, warned US governors that AI is the “biggest risk we face as a civilization” and needs to be regulated now.
For starters, they fear our jobs and lifestyles are at stake, where thinking machines could accomplish most of our tasks better than we could. That includes programs with algorithms that can make medical decisions, paint like a master, write poetry, solve real-life engineering challenges, design buildings, and so on. Some AI systems are so creative that we don’t even know how they reach some of their conclusions. (And that concerns politicians. For instance, who is responsible for the decisions of a self-driven car?) Astonishingly, AI can train other AI agents to fulfill tasks they created.
AI and machine learning is everywhere, making it harder and harder for human beings to keep up with the growing pile of data they produce. In the past, information doubled every century, but now human knowledge doubles every twelve months. When “the internet of things” is completed and everything in our homes and workplaces communicates, IBM predicts this doubling will occur every twelve hours! By 2027 an estimated 150 billion sensors will be collecting data on earth—20 for each person.
While this “big data” is too much for humans to handle, machines can easily sift through it all, “learn” from it, and suggest—or implement—solutions. Does this mean we’re in trouble, that humanity will someday become irrelevant?
A Biblical View of AI
Many non-Christian leaders believe that thinking machines mark the next stage in evolution and will allow us to escape the limits of humanity. Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, believes machines can be integrated with humans and allow us to escape constraints of biology, including death: “The human species, along with the computational technology it created, . . . will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future.”
Such challenges require believers to grasp and explain persuasively the biblical view of humankind’s role on earth, including the role of work and technology. Technology is not inherently bad. It assists us in fighting the immediate effects of the Curse. For instance, medical technology helps to cure diseases and innovate treatments leading to longer, healthier lives. Agricultural technology helps us fight against the “thorns and thistles” that make it so hard to produce enough food for a growing world population.
Technology, whatever form it takes, exists because God has created us in his image and given us amazing reasoning and problem-solving abilities. This is apparent from the beginning of mankind. Humans have always solved problems by innovation and creativity, even when they don’t give credit to the Creator who gave them the gifts to make this possible.
God has also charged human beings with the task of ruling over his creation (Genesis 1:28). In a fallen world, this requires creativity and problem solving. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has become a very successful way for mankind to collaborate and tackle some of the problems that plague our world.
AI was designed to help solve problems, too. But what if AI becomes just as good as—or better than—us at innovation, creativity, and problem solving? Does this mean, as some AI researchers argue, that we can overcome the roles and limits God has placed on humans? In a world increasingly dominated by intelligent machines, Christians need to be able to put them into biblical perspective.
Here are some fundamentals. First, as amazing as what AI can do is, our current technology allows us to make only “savants,” machines that are really good at one thing. Humans, by contrast, can master many things, from tying our shoes to cooking an omelet to solving complex math equations. The best AI hardly comes close to the incredible creativity and design of any human, and it’s an open question whether AI can ever become what its prophets claim.
Second, when we make AI, we are basically copying our Creator. He has made us in his very image (Genesis 1:27), and we are making AI in our image. It’s really nothing short of biomimicry—copying the Creator’s design of the brain and its learning patterns with our technology. This doesn’t lessen our value or uniqueness in God’s scheme. As we create AI that can learn and innovate, we are highlighting our own intelligence, which points back to the infinitely vaster intelligence of the Designer who made us.
As AI seems to sweep past us in “intelligence,” including the ability to innovate, learn, solve problems, and perform some of the most valued work in society, many of us will be driven to question our sense of purpose and value. That’s a good thing. Rebellious humans who want to “make a name for themselves,” as they did at the Tower of Babel, as their primary purpose and goal in life, will realize that our significance and value doesn’t rest on what we can do better than anyone (or anything) else.
Our intellect is not what makes us unique and sets us apart from the rest of God’s creation. We are not human because we reason—that’s not what gives us value.
Our intellect is not what makes us
unique and sets us apart from the rest
of God’s creation. (After all, angels
surpass us in every way, too.) We are
not human because we reason—that’s
not what gives us value. What gives
us value and sets us apart as human is
revealed in Genesis 1:27: “
So God created
man in his own image.” We are
unique because we—unlike the plants,
animals, and AI—are image bearers of
the King of kings. Our role is to take
the lead in praising him for all that he
does and makes possible.
Most of all, we know that we are of infinite value because God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to die in our place that we may be forgiven and find life and meaning in him. And that’s something AI robots and computers will never understand or experience.
How Does Our Brain Compare to a Supercomputer?
|Weight||Space||Processor Speed||Energy Efficiency||Multitasking|
|1/6 basketball (80 cubic inches or 1,300 cm3)||Up to 1,000,000 trillion operations per second||20 watts||Performs all conscious and subconscious activity simultaneously, including processing all sensory input (billions of sensory cells) and supervising body functions (breathing, heartbeat, etc.).|
|150 tons||Basketball court (cabinets over 4,350 square feet, or 400 m2)||93,000 trillion operations per second||10 million watts||Performs one task at a time.
(Of course it can do lots of tasks quickly but not simultaneously.)