with Rev. Alex Lang
January 17, 2021
In recent decades, we have made amazing strides in our capability with robotics. Eighty years ago, robots were not super reliable and were used sparsely, mostly in manufacturing jobs. Today, robots are not only reliable, but they are so precise and good at their jobs that when a company has the option to utilize robots for labor, they will often choose robots over humans. What does this robotic evolution mean for our future as Christians?
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For our first series of the New Year, we are doing sermon series called Brave New World, named for the famous book by Aldous Huxley. We find ourselves on the cusp of a revolution. It is estimated that the next two decades will bring about some of the most incredible technological innovation that will change the course of human progress indefinitely. These changes will be so dramatic that it will alter the landscape of how the world functions. Each sermon will start with an innovation that will fundamentally change our world. We will consider this innovation from a lot of different angles, drawing out the ethical implications. Then we will turn this innovation around and see what the Christian faith has to offer. How does Christianity provide a perspective that could benefit our society as we interact with this new technology? As we explore each of these innovations, I think you will see that Christianity has an important role play in this Brave New World. Last week talked about how technology could significantly alter the way we reproduce as humans. Today, we are going to talk about how technology will significantly alter the way that we work in the world. In recent decades, we have made amazing strides in our capability with robotics. Eighty years ago, robots were not super reliable and were used sparsely, mostly in manufacturing jobs. Today, robots are not only reliable, but they are so precise and good at their jobs that when a company has the option to utilize robots for labor, they will often choose robots over humans.
For example, the trucking industry is on the cusp of being completely undone by robotics. Trucking is at the heart of the American economy. Moving items along our vast network of roads is one reason why we have such a strong supply chain in the United States. But with the advent of cheap cameras and sensors, now the trucks can drive themselves. On top of this robots have the ability to unload items from the trucks quickly and efficiently. A good example of this is what we see happening in the Amazon fulfillment centers. Let’s take a look at how robotics has revolutionized this warehouse. As you heard, the debate about robotics is whether or not this new technology will create more jobs than it will displace. The truth is, you can’t answer that question without understanding what it is that makes these robots so powerful. It’s not the robots themselves that are the problem. It’s the software that powers them that should cause us worry. In the past, robots were powered by a static set of computer instructions. In other words, the robot was only capable of doing what it was told to do. For instance, if a robot was designed to clean the floor in a particular pattern, like a Roomba, then that’s all it could do. But robots today are being powered by something called artificial intelligence. Essentially, artificial intelligence is when a computer is not limited to a specific set of instructions, but is able to learn in the way that humans are able to learn. The best way to explain the difference between AI and the old method of computing, is with IBM’s Deep Blue computer. Beginning in 1985, IBM started working on a computer that had the capacity to take on a grandmaster at chess. It wasn’t until 1996 that Deep Blue won its first game against the world champion Garry Kasparov in game one of a six-game match. However, Kasparov won three and drew two of the following five games, defeating Deep Blue by a score of 4–2. The way Deep Blue worked was by literally crunching numbers and anticipating every possible move Kasparov could make. Deep Blue would make its moves based on statistical probabilities of success. Deep Blue was using the old method of computing where the various chess moves and strategies were programmed into its system and it could only do what the humans told it to do. Today, computers with AI work completely differently. So let’s say a computer with AI wants to play chess. The only thing it is fed by humans is the rules of the game. The computer has no preprogrammed moves. Then, the computer plays itself thousands of times. The computer learns from its mistakes and develops different game strategies the same way a human would develop game strategies from playing games over time. These AI computers are so good at chess that it is rare for a grandmaster to win. But chess is only the tip of the ice berg. Computers with artificial intelligence are capable of learning just about anything. They can learn how to drive. They can learn how to field questions from customers. They can learn your buying habits and guide you to just the right items. They can learn how to write software programs. They can learn how write music. They can even learn how to write a sermon. Anything a human can learn, a computer can learn too. Now, over the next 20 years, two things are going to happen. The first thing that will happen is that AI is going to get smarter and more powerful. Right now, AI has its limitations in terms of how well it can mimic human behaviors. But in a few decades, computers will be better than humans at doing things that we believe only humans can do now. I’m waiting for the day when it’s revealed that the number 1 New York Times bestselling novel was written by AI. So when we’re talking about jobs, the reality is that there is no sector of the economy that will not be touched by the advancement of AI. My wife often talks about how she’s been amazed by recent developments with AI law software that is now able to do a lot of what she does as a lawyer. The software can quickly find discrepancies in contracts and offer solutions. When the lawyers are in danger of being out of work, you know the whole ship is going down! The second thing that will likely happen is something that people have feared for a long time—it is commonly referred to as the singularity, which is the moment when a computer becomes a conscious being. This will be a remarkable moment in human history because we will have assumed the status of God, creating a conscious living being from the dust of the earth, or in the case of computers, the sand of the earth because silicon is made from sand. This is exactly what the story of the Tower of Babel is all about. The story tells us that a group of people came together to build a very large tower by cementing bricks together with a mortar called bitumen. At the time this story was being written, every major city in the Middle East had large, tower-like structures, known as ziggurats, which were essentially stepped pyramids that could be upwards of 300 feet tall and were used for worshiping the gods. The height of these buildings is important because the Hebrews believed that if you could get high enough in the sky, you could literally step into heaven. When the ancients looked up into the sky at night, they believed they were literally looking at heaven. When the ancients looked at the stars, they thought those stars were gods or angels. They had no idea that those stars were other suns just like ours. So the Hebrews believed that if you could get high enough in the sky, then they reasoned there would be a stairway that would allow you to walk into heaven. Therefore, these ziggurats represented a challenge to God’s authority, because if they could get high enough in the sky, then humans could get into heaven and take over, removing the need for God. This is why God confuses their languages and scatters the people of Babel over the face of the earth. In essence, the story of the Tower of Babel is really a cautionary tale of how the technological innovations of human beings would render God unnecessary because if we can control heaven, then we can control anything. What’s fascinating about the prospect of creating a conscious artificial intelligence is that the warning of the Tower of Babel is more relevant than it has ever been. When God created humans in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we were created as beings that possess some of the attributes of God, but to a lesser degree. We are knowing, but not all knowing. We are powerful, but not all powerful. We are good, but not all good. We are present, but not all present. If we were to create a conscious artificial intelligence, we would not be creating a being that is less powerful than ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite. We would be creating something that possess attributes that are the equivalent of the God we worship now. Conscious AI will have access to cameras all over the world—it will be omnipresent. Conscious AI will have access to all human information and be able to understand it in the blink of eye—it will be omniscient (all knowing). Conscious AI will have the ability to manipulate human life through the computers and robots we use—it will be omnipotent (all powerful). The question we don’t know how to answer is if it will be all good. We don’t know what the disposition of this new being will be like. This unknown, of course, is the source of many science fiction movies and novels. The Terminator series is all about a conscious AI that perceives humans as a threat and decides to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. The reason we assume the AI will be antagonistic is because its decision making processes will be driven by pure logic and when humans utilize pure logic to make decisions, the results are often disastrous. For example, the Germans relied heavily upon eugenics, a theory of racial hierarchy that placed white Aryans at the top of food chain, while Jews, blacks and gypsies were considered inferior and at the bottom. Because eugenics was a “science,” its findings were approached as factual. These facts were used to make logic based decisions that eliminating certain groups of people from the population would purify the gene pool and improve the quality of the human race. This led to the creation of the Final Solution. This program was completely devoid of any kind of love or compassion and resulted in the deaths of more than 10 million people. This is why humans associate pure logic with genocide. But just because human pure logic walks down this path doesn’t mean that a conscious computer would go in the same direction. In fact, I think we might be surprised by just how benevolent this conscious AI might be because, unlike our genetic programming where our own personal survival drives most of our decision making, a conscious AI might be driven by other considerations. Perhaps this AI would be concerned with the well-being of the human race? Perhaps it would want to improve our lives? Perhaps it would see our survival as its primary mission? I want you to imagine a world where this conscious AI creates a network of robots that could do all of our jobs. They produce all of our food—from planting the seeds, to tending the fields, to harvesting the crops, to delivering it to our stores. They could create all of our clothing, build all of our housing, diagnose and cure all of our illnesses. In the end, this AI could create a society where humans no longer have to work. Every life necessity could be taken care of by the AI. Now what I find to be so interesting is that when I talk about this possible future, I notice that a lot of people become uneasy. And the first question that they often ask is, “Well, if the AI is doing all of the work, how do we earn money to afford food and housing and clothing?” And the answer to that question is that in this Brave New World where the AI runs the show, you actually don’t need money any longer because the goal of the AI is to make sure that everyone’s needs are provided for. This is very similar to what we read this morning from the book of Acts, when Jesus’ disciples form the early church take all of their resources, pool them together and make sure that everyone who is associated with the church has food and housing and clothing. The AI has the potential to create a world where the equality experienced by the members of the early church is experienced by everyone in the world. Now, I have noticed that the knee-jerk reaction of most people is they don’t like this idea. They don’t like the notion that they wouldn’t have the choice to live their life as they see fit. For example, if they want a big house and a fancy car, they want to have the opportunity to earn those things. And in a world where resources are distributed evenly, that choice would be taken from them. And here we actually see the tension between human nature and Christian ethics. The world that I’m describing where the AI ensures that every human is treated equally is exactly in line with the world Jesus envisioned. That is the Kingdom of God in a nutshell that every person would have access to the same resources. And this is exactly the reason why we have so much trouble creating God’s kingdom. Christians believe that all people are equal in God’s eyes, but we don’t want to be treated equally. We want the option of getting as much for ourselves as possible, which is why the resource distribution in our world is so lopsided with a minority of the people having a majority of the resources and a majority of the people struggling to get by. But the entire purpose of Jesus’ movement is to correct this imbalance. This is why he says, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. To create this world, we have to invest in Jesus’ teachings, his life philosophy, which is really built around simple living. Jesus is very anti-materialistic. He’s against the accumulation of wealth. He wants you to focus on serving others rather than serving yourself. To live your life as Jesus would have you live it is to live like the disciples in the early church, where you’re only focused on what you need, not on what you want. And so the question I want you to consider today is whether or not you truly believe in the world Jesus is promoting. Would you be willing to give up your freedom of choice to create God’s kingdom on earth? Would you be willing to sacrifice your desire to gain as many resources for yourself as you please so that everyone in the world would be on an equal playing field? That’s what Jesus is asking us to do and if you take your calling as a Christian seriously, then this way of thinking is something that you need to earnestly consider integrating into your life. So as we look towards the future, where it’s possible that a conscious AI could help us to create God’s Kingdom on earth, I hope you will not fear that possibility, but realize that it could be the key to fulfilling the words Jesus spoke 2000 years ago when he said, “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Amen.