Justice, possibility, and Artificial Intelligence
In preparation for the recent NSW State Election I attended a candidates forum organised by the Hunter Community Alliance. The format was simple – gather together the candidates running for office, ask them about their policy positions, and then evaluate their promises against a scorecard based on community consultation done by the Alliance.
Of those candidates involved (and some parties chose not to participate) all agreed that they were committed to a “just transition” away from the fossil fuel industry in the Hunter region as Australia and the world moves towards renewables.
It seems that climate change is finally being taken seriously and the potential for economic and social disruption needs to be addressed. A just transition is focussed on helping those communities traditionally dependent on fossil fuels – in our case, mostly coal – to lessen the impact of the coming changes.
The candidates at the forum were not necessarily in agreement about how the transition program would work or about how it would be funded, but all those who attended committed to supporting a just transition away from fossil fuel production in the Hunter.
In a parallel but more global sense, many communities are grappling with other disruptive technologies including the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) computing.
From the earliest advances in ancient agricultural practices, technology has always unsettled economic systems and patterns of life and work and, in general, these changes have disproportionately affected work that is mostly dependent on human labour – in today’s terminology, “blue collar” workers. Though there are a few significant examples of technological advance which also affected “white collar” workers – the printing press, the typewriter, etc – major technological advances have largely involved harnessing the power of the elements to replace or augment the labour of the worker. The industrial revolution saw a dramatic increase in these changes.
With the advent of the information age, new technologies are impacting other areas of the labour force. Most recently AIs like the now famous ChapGPT are disrupting “white collar” jobs far more than previous technologies. When you can simply ask a website to write you a business letter, produce copy for advertising campaign, or even write you a sermon, the future of work is looking radically different.
Many jobs that we thought would never be replaced by technology now seem far less secure and people are feeling anxious about this. Take, for example, all those academics and administrators at our universities who are scrambling to re-write assessments and courses to be “ChatGPT immune”. AI is bringing disruption to a whole new sector of the labour force.
No matter how much we try, it is unlikely that AI will go away. Which means that the key questions are: How we will make the transition as just as possible. How will we support those workers whose livelihoods are no longer secure? How will we work to develop new and creative industries from these technologies?
And, perhaps most importantly, how do we best keep a careful eye on the companies who “own” the technologies, to make sure that the algorithms are trained on a diversity of data (not just the data that tech-bros can get their hands on easily), and to hold these large multinationals to account so that we are guarded from the worst excesses of predatory monopoly capitalism. While recent history doesn’t fill me with confidence, I hope we will do better in the future.
So, is there any good news? There are, of course, some amazing possibilities for creativity and innovation in AI for the world and even the church. The most significant of these opportunities will probably emerge from collaboration between human and computer to solve problems, develop new ideas and even explore new ways to communicate.
Straight out of high school I began a course in information technology and one of my favourite subjects at university was Artificial intelligence (AI). The first year programming class was asked to write a computer program to develop a limited timetable for a fictional university. As new students the task was imposing. But in a surprisingly short time we were able to develop heuristic algorithms that worked pretty well scheduling classes for a small number of students and subjects.
At the end of the project I asked our lecturer what software the big universities were using for their hundreds of subjects and tens of thousands of students. In the mid-1990s most universities didn’t use computer programs at all. Instead, each year they would schedule by hand – because this was the way they’d always done it.
Today, of course, the situation has changed, and computers do provide most of the grunt work in scheduling. But seldom will a university use a computer program in isolation. Indeed, most large complex computational tasks tend to be solved by human experts and powerful computer algorithms working together.
This approach means that we are now able to find solutions to difficult problems that were impossible only 50 years ago. In engineering and architecture, advanced design software has been used to develop elegant solutions to real world problems. Many of us use text recognition software to help us when our vision declines or even simply to read the zoom feed from church. It seems that when humans work with technology the most powerful and creative possibilities emerge. While it is true that some of the possibilities of AI are risky, the danger is not necessarily inherent in the technology itself but usually more related to the way we use and abuse it.
What, then, are the theological and moral implications of ChatGPT, AI and increasingly advanced informational technologies? Thankfully, we are not yet being confronted by the possibilities of consciousness, autonomy or robot rights – though we may need to examine these matters in the future. The questions for today are more about the direct material consequences for human flourishing across the world.
Will this technology make it easier for us and others to provide the basics of life? How might this new technology affect how people discern and claim their sense of purpose? What does it mean for us to be alienated from the things that give us meaning in life, especially if that meaning is found primarily in the work of our hands? How are we connected to each other and will we use technology to build relationships or tear people apart?
There are, of course, no simple answers to these questions. Humanity has struggled with them for thousands of years already with no simple answers. Nevertheless, the Christian affirmation that our core identity is not to be found in what we do but rather in God’s love for us, the understanding that we are only truly human when we are bound to each other in community, and a commitment to justice for all people created image of God means that the church has something to contribute.
We need to be careful, however, not to be overwhelmed by anxiety and retreat into the walls of the familiar. Instead, let us be at the forefront of just transitions (whether around climate change or the impact of new technologies in our lives) because we are called to love all of God’s people and serve them as best we can in the difficult times. Let us embrace and use these new technologies creatively “for good” – showing how they might enrich, rather than impoverish our lives. And let us remain committed to building new connections between people, seeking to overcome alienation, especially for people who find it hard to connect in traditional ways.
The exciting thing is that there are Christians out there at the vanguard of exploring technology in faith discipleship and Christian community. Here in Australia the ministries of Pastor Skar, or the Sonder Collective are already unashamedly “technology-positive”.
Many more traditional congregations would not have survived through pandemic lockdowns but for streamed worship and regular virtual morning teas. Let us hope that we continue to do our best to embrace new opportunities and technologies with a commitment to justice and for the sake of the gospel.
Rev. Dr Niall McKay is an Educator for Lifelong Learning for Uniting Mission and Education.