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Will robots destroy humanity?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Robots at the USR Factory, awaiting final programming and processing prior to shipment (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

A center for “terminator studies,” where world-renowned academics will investigate the threat that robots pose to humanity, is making news this morning.  It is set to open at Cambridge University, which recently celebrated its 800th anniversary—one aim of the center “is to reduce the risk that we might not be around to celebrate its millennium.”

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) is the result of a growing fear that advances in “artificial general intelligence” could produce machines that would wipe out humans and take over the planet.  One of the center’s founders explained: “We should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence—in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history.”

We may not need robots to destroy us—a growing number of Americans think we’re doing that on our own.  Forty-five percent of likely U.S. voters feel that America’s best days are in the past, while 43 percent think they are in the future and 12 percent are not sure.  Fifty percent of American adults believe the economy will be weaker in a year’s time, a 27-point jump from October.  Most telling, only 16 percent of American adults believe today’s children will be better off than their parents.

What explains the growing anxiety in our culture?  Our economic recovery, while slow, is stronger than in most Western nations.  Our losses in Afghanistan and Iraq are tragic, but nowhere near the number of troops killed in the world wars.  While we may be grateful one day for the work of CSER, most of us are not worried this morning about “terminator” robots taking over our world.

Could the deeper roots of our apprehension lie elsewhere, in a source Cambridge’s researchers are not planning to study?  Assume for a moment that the Westminster Catechism is right: the “chief end of man” is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”  In your lifetime, has our culture moved closer this purpose or farther from it?  In your experience, if something is used for a purpose it was not created to fulfill, what has usually been the result?

The psalmist noted, “Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord” (Psalm 89:15).  Such people “rejoice in your name all day long; they exult in your righteousness” (v. 16).  Why?  Because for those who seek God’s honor rather than their own, working to advance his Kingdom instead of theirs, “you are their glory and strength” (v. 17).

Whose acclaim will you seek today?