The tension of technology: Hope and fear in the digital age

November 29, 2018

October 4, 1957, may not seem like an important date, but it was a major turning point for the history of technology. Newspapers across the country ran headlines about an “artificial moon” traveling in space at over 18,000 mph. It was launched by the Soviet Union as the first man-made object to ever leave earth’s atmosphere. The successful launch of Sputnik was a surprise, especially to the Americans. This feat didn’t seem possible because of the state of rocket technology.

As news spread about the satellite’s launch, the public’s reaction was a mix of panic and awe as they questioned its purpose. Many probably listened to the satellite’s steady beep on their household radios in a state of amazement and wonder, excited for the future. Others, however, were likely filled with a deep and paralyzing fear of the unknown as they tuned in. They had no context for what would come next. War? Weakness? Instability?

The launch of Sputnik also brought about a renewed commitment by the United States to regain its technological advantage. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously proclaimed that the U.S. would put a man on the moon within the decade. That proclamation was fulfilled and helped usher in countless other technological advances outside of the space industry that we still benefit from today.

The truth behind the technology

Most people, when thinking about technology, conjure up the idea of a smartphone, the internet, self-driving cars, or maybe even popular types of artificial intelligence such as Apple’s Siri or Google Home. But one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding technology is that it always has to do with the newest or latest gadget.

We tend to miss the fact that every generation of humanity has used technology in various ways for the benefit of society. From the advent of the wheel to the invention of paper, humans have always used technology to aid us in our work and lives. We are creatures fascinated by the new, and older technologies often become so integrated into our lives that we forget about them entirely.

Simply put, technology is a tool that God has soley allowed human beings to create. God created each of us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27), distinct from the rest of creation with a rational mind and specific jobs to do for our good and his glory. Adam and Eve were given the first jobs—“be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (1:28). They were also put in the garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Technology is a part of this calling because it allows us to do our work more efficiently. Its purpose is to help society by allowing us to work out our callings in ways that reflect the creative nature of God. The ability to dream up and make new things like technology is a way in which we display his glory.

Yet, we know that this world is marred by sin. Technology is often misused and abused, resulting in more pain and suffering. Cain and Abel are an example of this. Cain killed Abel in the field, presumably using some sort of tool that helped him work the ground. Likewise, the tools we make can be used in ways that don’t honor God or people. Our rebellion has led to a breakdown of the fundamental purpose of technology.

All is not lost, though. The earth is being renewed, and technology is one way that we can fight back against the brokenness of this world. So, we must keep in mind that technology, itself, isn’t good or evil. Instead, we must choose if we are going to use it wickedly or redemptively.

Hope, apathy, and fear as we think about technology

We often have a mix of three emotions when it comes to technology. We see its benefits, which fill us with hope for the future and encourages dreams of the good it can do. Conversely, we see the possible dangers, misuses, or pitfalls of a given piece of technology, which fill us with a great fear of the unknown. So, we choose to withdraw from it or outright reject an innovation as threatening. But more often than not, we simply don’t think about the technology around us and grow increasingly apathetic to its affect on our daily lives.

As a cutting-edge form of technology, artificial intelligence is a field that often evokes these emotions. It’s such a new, mysterious development that many are confounded by it or choose to ignore its implications on our society. And the mix of feelings is justified.

Its benefits are many. Through the use of AI, we have seen numerous fields transformed, such as healthcare, economics, transportation, manufacturing, education, and even security. For example, AI-empowered security systems are able to use video-image recognition to tell the difference between a potential threat at your home or office and a friend coming by to visit, all using algorithms that can decipher between faces. The system then alerts the user to anything it deems hostile.

Yet, there are dangers to this technology, as well. How might this type of AI recognition be used in malicious ways? It is already being debated for use in autonomous drone strikes, where the AI compiles a list of enemy targets that the drones then attack.

Or, think about the overlooked downfalls of something as seemingly harmless as a navigation app like Waze. My family uses Waze nearly every day to get to our destinations by the “quickest” way possible. While we often bypass traffic or find out about delays as they happen, many users have become so dependent on this technology that they are unable to find their own way home. Moreover, when is the last time we thought about how Waze calculates the fastest way to our destinations or how it might be using the data it collects from each drive? We already know the data is used to help develop personalized ads to display along our drives, but that data can also be used in a variety of ways not yet known to us.

Moving forward, thinking critically

So, with this reality in front of us, how are we to think about technology in a world that saturates us with it?

First, we need to remember the purpose for technology and the dangers in its use. As Christians, we must think about technology through the lens of wisdom. We should embrace its benefits, yet not blindly accept every new innovation. And we should be mindful of its dangers, but not outrightly reject the good gifts of God. The tools that the Lord gave us the ability to design are for us to use wisely to aid our work and lives, not to control us or to be used in unethical ways that harm others. We should seek to use them in healthy, God-honoring ways.

As a fallen people, we are often oblivious to how we embrace technology, falling prey to overuse and excessive dependence on it. We might not even recognize our addiction, but it’s pervasive. One way to combat this enslavement to technology and to think clearly about its effects on our lives is to take various breaks from its grip. It would be good for our minds and hearts to perform tasks manually from time to time. We can do this by evaluating what we choose to automate in our lives and asking key questions. Does a particular app or device aid or distract us from our callings? Are there hidden dangers that might warrant us changing how we use the technology?

Second, we need to connect with others. As we seek to disconnect from technology, we need to talk to friends about the potential blind spots we have in its use. We should also evaluate any ways that we are rejecting it because of fear. An honest dialogue will help us identify how we are misusing these tools. It will also help us identify underlying dangers and navigate how we will implement future progress in our lives and workplaces.

If we are uncertain about a piece of technology, we can ask trusted friends, or even pick up a book or read an article, to help guide us through it. They might help us make the decision to turn off the navigation app for once and find our own way home. Or, more importantly, maybe they will give us the extra push we need to put down our phones for a night and have real conversations with those around us.

Lastly, we need to be reminded about the foundational truths of our faith. Our God is not intimidated by our technological advances. He reigns sovereign over our past, present, and future. Nothing catches him off guard or will replace him as our greatest good. Technology is an instrument that he has given us to fulfill the greatest commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

So as we move forward in an increasingly complex and advanced society, we need to remember that all of technology, from “artificial moons” to artificial intelligence, is to be used for the glory of God and the good of others. We must be those who engage it with intentionality, using the wisdom that our God gives freely to partner in his redemptive work.

Check out our latest issue of Light here.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … 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