Since 2020, I have sought to write about some of the top technology issues to be aware of and how we as Christians can address them in light of the Christian moral tradition rooted in the love of God and love of neighbor. There have been a couple prevailing themes over the years centered on the ways that technology is shaping us as people—namely our understanding of ourselves and those around us—and how we as a society are to think through the power it holds in our lives.
Already, it seems 2023 is going to be an interesting year as we deal with an onslaught of emerging technologies like advanced AI systems and virtual reality, as well as continue to navigate pressing challenges of digital privacy and the role of faith in the digital public square.
Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT
Back in 2020, there was already social buzz about AI and how it was shaping our society. I published my first book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, with the goal of thinking about how some of these technologies might affect our understanding of human dignity and our common life together. As 2022 came to a close, there was a major release of a ChatGPT (chatbot) from OpenAI that caught the attention of our wider culture and confirmed that AI is (and will continue to be) a major part of our lives, especially in education and business.
The introduction of advanced AI systems like these in recent years has fundamentally challenged much of what we have assumed about the uniqueness of humanity. These systems are now performing tasks that only humans could in past generations.
In an age like ours, we all need to be reminded that the value and dignity of humans isn’t rooted in what we do but who we are as those uniquely made in the image of our Creator.
AI systems like ChatGPT have deeply concerning elements but also afford the opportunity for educators and students to evaluate with fresh eyes the purpose and design of education. Education is not simply about information transfer but whole-person transformation. These types of tools require that administrators, professors, and students alike learn about how these systems work, their advantages and limitations, and how we might seek to prioritize the transformation of their students above a simple letter grade.
Similar to the classroom, these tools may have limited use in local church ministry but must be thought through with the utmost care and wisdom. They may be used to aid one in research, writing reflection questions, or even rudimentary copy for church functions. However, one must keep in mind their limitations as well as be on guard for the temptation to simply pass off the output as their own work.
Current limitations with these systems are myriad and must be taken into account as one thinks through the ethical ramifications of their use. They are limited by data sets and human supervision used in training the system; are widely known to falsify information, misapply concepts, or even alter their answers based on the political and social views of their creators; and rarely account for nuance and complexity, leading to, at best, the production of entry level and/or basic material.
Privacy rights and children
A second issue we should be aware of is one that will inevitably be perennial. With the ubiquity of technology and our growing dependence on it, there is the vast and growing concern over personal privacy and how this data will be used by individuals, governments, and especially the technology industry.
We live in a data-saturated world, and there can be a lot of money made by harvesting troves of data and creating predictive products or optimizing our interactions with our daily technology use. Governments around the world are beginning to or have already regulated the flow of data and who has access to it, often focusing on a supposed right to privacy—a term that has competing definitions and proposed safeguards.
Christians, specifically, need to think deeply about what a right to privacy is and what it is not.
In 2023, four American states—Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, and Virginia—will follow a similar pattern to California’s groundbreaking privacy law, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) which went into effect in January of 2020, and begin implementing new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on data collection and use. These new state laws share many of the same types of protections as the CCPA and GDPR of the European Union.
This year, there will be increasing pressure across the board for federal legislation focused on privacy as it specifically relates to children, as is seen with the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and more broadly with other proposals.
Regardless of where these policies end up, the framing of privacy soley in terms of moral autonomy and personal consent often makes it easy to overlook data privacy as such a central concern to Christian ethics.
Instead, Christians need to be the ones asking the hard questions about how we as a society want to protect and guard the rights of the individual but in ways that also promote the common good.
Virtual reality and augmented reality
One of the technologies that was discussed significantly in 2022 and will likely continue to be in 2023 is virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). In recent years, we have seen a surge of new VR devices and an increasing number of wearable devices such as smart glasses. As the devices become more commonplace in our society and societal norms continue to shift, it seems likely that they will grow in prominence in our lives.
Some of the pressing ethical questions about their use are not as straightforward as ethical issues in technology, but a host of new challenges will arise, especially in light of the new mediums and means of connection that VR has created.
Aside from the more common concerns of data privacy, including the use of advanced biometric data such as eye-tracking and more, there are also novel challenges to long-standing understandings of free speech and religious freedom in these digital spaces. These developments are often spoken of in terms of the wisdom of VR churches and gatherings. However, I think the more pressing questions will be over how religious groups who may hold to culturally controversial beliefs—especially on topics like sexuality, gender—will be treated in these digital environments.
These spaces are not truly public because they are often hosted or even created by technology companies themselves. This represents a new angle on the continued debate over free speech, content moderation, and the nature of faith in the public square.
Overall, 2023 will be a year where Christians are continually pressed to think about how we will live out our faith in the public square amid an increasingly secular culture. One of the temptations when faced with complex or challenging ethical questions with technology is to rush to a position of full adoption or rejection.
Wisdom, which is at the core of the Christian moral tradition, calls us to slow down and think deeply about the nature of these tools, and discern if their many uses can help us better love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.