You don’t have to own a robot vacuum or a digital assistant like Alexa or Siri to use artificial intelligence. In fact, AI has become part of our everyday lives in ways we don’t even notice, let alone control.
When you check your news feed on Facebook or search the internet on Google, you’re interacting with AI. It offers great benefits, like robots assisting during surgery, but also gives rise to troubling moral questions.
That’s the subject of Wallace B. Henley’s thought-provoking new book, Who Will Rule the Coming ‘Gods’? The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence.
“Increasingly godlike” machines
Henley, the author or coauthor of more than twenty books, brings an impressive background to this weighty topic. A former White House and congressional aide, he has also been a journalist and teaching pastor at Houston’s Second Baptist Church and at Grace Church in The Woodlands, Texas.
A friend warned Henley of the dangers of artificial intelligence, a field of computer science that enables machines to simulate human intelligence.
“I suddenly became aware of how vulnerable humanity will be as the machines seem increasingly godlike in an age when people are rejecting beliefs in God as the Transcendent Being to whom all are accountable and giving the contraptions of their own making an almost godlike power and position,” Henley wrote.
“Who or what will control all of this? To what values and worldviews will the machines be programmed to submit? In the final analysis, will they obey their human masters, or will human beings become the mastered?”
Henley can foresee a day when machines can build machines greater than themselves, when “transhumans,” blends of human and machine, have amazing abilities and powers.
Worshiping artificial intelligence?
No wonder that some of the developers of AI seem prone to idolatry. Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, pardoned by President Trump for stealing trade secrets, founded a church (now closed) to worship at the throne of AI.
“It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes,” he said. “But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?”
Lest this seem like science fiction, you should know that the late physicist Stephen Hawking said, “AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.” And entrepreneur Elon Musk warned, “Artificial intelligence is a fundamental risk to human civilization.”
The most important question
As the advent of social media has shown, new technology tends to develop faster than our ability to anticipate or regulate its problems. And Henley wrote that the nature of science is such that “if it can be done, it will be done.”
He would like to see a group of “scientists with a conscience” speak out about the dangers of AI, much like Albert Einstein and others warned of the dangers of the atomic bomb before World War II.
Henley believes that the creators of AI “will unwittingly program their own worldviews into the machines.”
“Thus, the most important question we must ask as we dash into the AI Age with the naivete of a puppy scampering across a freeway to retrieve a bone on the other side is this: What is god to the technicians who wire moral codes and ethical boundaries into the machines?” he wrote.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described Silicon Valley as “an extremely left-leaning place.” Former Google engineer Carl Cantana painted a bleak picture of the culture.
“Very few people seem comfortable admitting that maybe, just possibly, they are not changing the world,” he said. “Many people have a savior complex, even if they are working on a food delivery app.”
They believe they are helping humanity, but few of them have a Christian worldview.
“The human being is Imago Dei, made in the image of God,” Henley wrote. “According to the Bible, that image has been defaced by evil. Now fallen humans will construct imago hominis, robotics bearing the image of sin-marred humans.”
As the book began to draw to a close, Henley mused, “Where will all of this lead? Those who cross the transhuman threshold and become immortal may discover that they have not stepped into Heaven but into Hell itself and dragged the rest of humanity down with them.”
And that is truly frightening.