Losing our autonomy: Technology’s increasing authority in our lives

March 8, 2017

As February came to a close, there was a far-reaching event that few noticed. It wasn’t the Oscars, or even the President’s first address to Congress. Amazon S3 web servers went down, which is a much bigger deal than might be expected. These server outages primarily affected the East Coast, but the implications reached farther.

Amazon S3 web servers host many websites and services including ERLC.com, Wix, Apple’s iCloud.com, Netflix and Hulu. These same servers also run many popular and increasingly critical apps like IFTTT, Slack and YNAB. They also help control Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, Google’s Nest thermostat and other home automation functions. While the servers were only down for a few hours, it caused lingering headaches.

As we increasingly become tied to the internet by utilizing tools like social media, cloud-based storage and control, the Internet of Things (IoT) and online entertainment, this outage is a needed reminder of our increasing dependency on technology. As a result, it’s important that we think critically about how to engage with technology. Here are a few thoughts to get us started:

1. Technology is a good gift from God

Modern advancements in technology have contributed great things to our culture and society. For example, countless lives have been saved through the use of medical technologies, such as the ability of an ultrasound to show us life within the womb and light bulbs that can disinfect and kill bacteria in hospital rooms. These advances are just the beginning. In just 50 years, we are able to do things and connect with people across the world in ways that our grandparents never would have dreamed.

The development of technology is a good gift from God and is one of the many hallmarks of being created in the image of God. Human beings alone are given the ability to reflect our Creator by using the things around us to cultivate and create technologies for the good of society. We are able to take dominion over creation and cultivate it for the advancement of society. For example, humans have learned how to harness the power of water to create electrical energy, channel that electricity through power grids that light up our homes and businesses, then use that electricity to automate our homes using the Internet of Things (IoT) through devices like smart thermostats. Moreover, we use technology to monitor our homes on our smartphones from almost any location.

These advances should remind us how richly blessed we are as a people. We should try to take a step back, remember how amazing it is to be part of the technological revolution and worship God for his creativity and provision. After all, he’s the one who has given us the intellectual faculties that are able to create for the benefit of society.

2. Our dependency on technology comes with dangers

While technological advances are a great gift from God, they can and will be abused because we are broken and sinful. We have the innate ability to take the good that God gives us and manipulate it in an attempt to glorify and set ourselves as gods over our lives.

As a society, we are increasingly becoming dependent on these technologies to the extent that we aren't able to live without them. Our addiction to social media and our smart phones isn’t the only area of temptation. With the rise of the IoT and smart devices, we now have the option to set things and forget about them. We can automate simple things like turning on/off lights at certain times of the day or have our news curated for us by our digital assistants. When some of the Amazon S3 servers went down, some people complained about not being able to get into their houses or workplaces. While some of the situations are comical, I think, in many ways, we have become so dependent on technology that we don’t even see the dangers.

Yuval Harari sheds light on the implications of technology and our dependence on it in his new work, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He was recently interviewed in Wired magazine about this new book and gave the example of someone using Google Maps or Waze for directions. He states, “On the one hand they amplify human ability—you are able to reach your destination faster and more easily. But at the same time you are shifting the authority to the algorithm and losing your ability to find your own way.”

For the first time in human history, we have created things that have the ability to usurp the authority and dominion given to us by our Creator. Whether it's big data or technology with human characteristics like the ability to learn, we are facing the temptation to give over our authority to our creation and lose part of what it means to be human. Technology, while a great gift from God, can easily devalue and dehumanize us.

Not only are we becoming so dependent on technology that we lose the ability to do things for ourselves, but we are also becoming so connected to our technology that a server glitch can wreak havoc on our lives to a great extent.

So, what should be our response when faced with these truths about the goodness and dangers of technology?

Recognize limitations: We need to acknowledge the limitations of technology and guard ourselves from making them our own demi-gods that control various aspects of our lives and take away part of our human identity. We must keep our minds set on the fact that God is our Creator and Sustainer. Technology should not control us or take away our ability to do things for ourselves, unless it’s something vital to our protection or health. One practical way of remembering this is to take a technology break every once and awhile—totally disconnecting from our phones, IoT and watches. Take an afternoon to go for an extended walk with friends or family, making it a point to remember who you are in light of who God is as you enjoy the display of his majesty in nature. These breaks can help reset our hearts and minds and help us to keep things in perspective.

Seek accountability: Talk with friends or your spouse about how you engage with technology and ways that you can live a more balanced God-honoring lifestyle in regards to technology. These simple conversations can open up areas that you might have been blind to and allows you to have real human interaction undeterred by technology.

As one who loves technology, I’m keenly aware of the need to be wise and think through the pitfalls and dangers that we’ll increasingly face in this age. Internet outages and downed servers are not common, but they provides us with an opportunity to think about how to prepare ourselves—ethically and relationally—to navigate the complex technological days ahead. Our technology will fail us. It’s not infallible or permanent. We must seek to maintain a proper relationship with it, lest it take over areas of our lives and take away, little by little, what it means for us to be human.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as a research fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. He is the author or editor of several books including The Age of AI, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, and The Digital Public Square. In addition to his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24