By Jim Towey
As a Christian, I grew up with an understanding of the Supreme Being as trinitarian: Father, Son and Spirit. Enter a new Higher Power Sextet: Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, Amazon and Google? Throughout human history faith and reason have been necessary complements. Now they seem as rivals, with the latter ascendant and dominant.
What are we regular people to make of the tech giants and the steady, relentless intrusion of artificial intelligence and internet-based commerce into our lives? Whether this invasive growth is a net positive or negative depends on whom you ask and how you frame the question. But it surely overwhelms the human mind to try and identify all of the aspects of A.I. encroachment in health, education, business and culture and the glorification of science through these largely unaccountable actors (and the legion of research institutions in academia and private business that support their work).
Not so Fast!
What is becoming clear to me is that a “pause” button needs to be hit soon to allow a reflection on how these technological encroachments affect human dignity, personal privacy, and religious liberty. Who gets to decide on whether life governed by algorithm is the way we want to enter the future? What is the role of faith and belief in God’s supremacy when scientific and technological advances threaten to displace the Creator with the Created-Genius that is all-powerful, all-knowing A.I.? Are men and women, made in the image and likeness of God, still the summit of creation? What ethical guardrails must be in place as science marches forward with A.I. “innovations” that individually make sense and seem innocent enough but collectively spell potential trouble?
“Apple is Researching Whether its iPhone Could Help Detect Depression, was a Business Insider headline that caught my eye this week. Well, who isn’t for the early detection of depression and cognitive decline? But using sensor and other data to create algorithms for such predictions by means of iPhone cameras, smart watches, and various data-collecting devices has the feel of treating human beings as lab rats. Apple promises that it will respect privacy concerns and not send the data to Apple servers. But such a voluntary promise is necessary to proceed with the work. How precisely will the massive corporation be held accountable if it breaks its promise? Earlier this month, Facebook’s WhatsApp was fined a quarter of a billion dollars by the European Union for failing to fully disclose how it collected and shared data about its users.
And speaking of Facebook and the Wall Street Journal, the latter’s recent “The Facebook Files” series on the former’s deceptive and allegedly abusive tactics (it is a likely Pulitzer contender and a refreshing reminder of what actual journalism – and not polarized punditry – looks like) is fascinating. It reported Facebook’s failure to heed employee warnings, with dire consequences for many in developing countries.
Making Things Worse
And just yesterday I read a compelling piece in The Atlantic, “Social Media is Attention Alcohol,” that provides insight into how Instagram knowingly exploits young women. Researchers published disturbing findings. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Why don’t these teen girls stop? Because they feel addicted, and in fact, are addicted. Meanwhile, Instagram powers forward, and as the movie “The Social Dilemma” documented, exploits the weaknesses of its users.
That isn’t exactly how God sees His children. Human beings were made to love and be loved. One look at Tesla’s robots makes you wonder whether love matters in a world where humans are reduced to mere subjects. History teaches us that subjects become slaves in a hurry.
And while the world focuses on mask and vaccine mandates, and government focuses on the urgent instead of the important, A.I. marches on. The question before us is simple: to where?