What does blockchain have to do with a Christian’s need for fellowship?

June 29, 2018

The newest frontier in the world of technology is called blockchain. Blockchain may be a foreign concept to many readers, but if you’ve heard of Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, you’ve heard about blockchain. Bitcoin is usually in the news whenever its price spikes overnight, bringing fortunes to amateur investors. These get-rich-quick stories make great headlines, but Bitcoin is only part of the story. Blockchain is the foundation, or “building block,” of Bitcoin. It’s a broadly applicable piece of technology with wide-reaching implications. For a more in-depth explanation of blockchain and how it works, some introductory resources may be found here, here, and here. For our purposes, a simple analogy to explain blockchain will suffice.

Consider your checkbook. Let’s say you write a check for $100 to your neighbor, Patrick, as a graduation gift. The check contains your bank account number, the amount to deduct from your account, and the amount to credit to Patrick’s account. For the transaction to actually take place, Patrick has to take the check to the bank; the bank has to verify that the transaction is legitimate; then the bank executes the transaction.

Imagine if, instead of being taken to a bank, the check is broken up into a thousand tiny pieces, and the pieces are instantly distributed to thousands of different computers that independently verify the legitimacy of their piece of the check. Then, if each computer agrees, the transaction is executed and recorded by each computer. Patrick receives his $100. No one verifier ever possessed the whole check or knew exactly who the check originally came from. The check could never have been stolen, and the transaction was instantly verified and recorded. This is blockchain.

A revolutionary technology?

On the surface, this might not seem like a technology that will change the world. It could put some bank tellers out of a job, but it’s not as obviously revolutionary as, say, the internet was in the 1990s. So why is blockchain such a big deal?

Let’s start with transactional intermediaries (like the bank in Patrick’s example) that verify a transaction’s legitimacy. Every transaction requires some kind of verification. When you swipe your credit card, Visa or MasterCard is responsible for processing the payment. That means Visa or MasterCard has a central database that contains every customer’s financial information. If that database were to be hacked, every customer’s financial information would be at risk.

Enter blockchain. If Visa were to start using blockchain data storage, any customer’s financial information would be virtually impossible to steal, since no one computer would have an entire customer’s information—just like no single computer had the entire check in Patrick’s example. This concept is transferable to any storage of any data. Health records can be completely secure and instantly available to any physician. Financial records can be spread among all participating computers.

To put it simply, anything that can be recorded—health records, contracts, music, financial records, etc.—can be distributed to every computer in a network, making the data instantly secure and eliminating the cost and risk of intermediaries.

Smart contracts and removing human interaction

The ethical implications of blockchain appear most clearly in smart contracts, which are also known as self-executing contracts. First theorized by Nick Szabo in 1997, smart contracts are a natural result of blockchain technology. These contracts are not written on paper, but in lines of computer programming. An example will again serve as a definition:

Imagine an artist releases a new song on the internet. It is completely digital, and the code is written in terms of a smart contract utilizing blockchain technology. Built into the code of the song is a contract that recognizes how a listener is using the music. The contract may require no payment from a user just listening to the song, but it could require payment for using the song in a TV commercial or YouTube video. The smart contract identifies the usage of the song and automatically deducts the appropriate amount of money from the user. This may sound far fetched, but British musician Imogen Heap is already attempting to use smart contracts with blockchain technology.

These self-executing contracts may soon become commonplace, and they may have some important implications for Christians. The issue with these contracts is that they are so easy to use and are so good at their jobs. In terms of efficiency, there is no better way to avoid human error than to take humans out of the equation. For instance, we pay our bills automatically every month so we don’t forget to pay them.

The same idea is taken a step further by using smart contracts. Using this technology, we get a guarantee that the other party will follow through, eliminating the risk that people will be negligent or malicious. So what do we lose when we gain this security? We lose some of our freedom to err, which also means that we lose a little bit of what it means to be human.

With smart contracts governing our relationships, there is no benefit to working with a close friend instead of a complete stranger. Our built-up social capital is meaningless because we have a blockchain-backed guarantee that our agreement will automatically happen. No person is more trustworthy than a contract that has been coded in such a way that it is literally unable to act outside of the agreed-upon terms.

Transactions without trust

It is not hard to imagine a future where blockchain databases are integrated into all aspects of life. As we saw with smart contracts, interactions which are backed up by blockchain are distinctly impersonal, and there is danger in embracing technology that reduces our capacity to make mistakes. There is no reason to ever interact with a person if a transaction is accomplished via blockchain. In fact, when it’s both cheaper and more secure to use a computer, we are actually incentivized not to interact with people.

This is a troubling proposition for several reasons. When there is no interaction, there is also no trust between two people. When every piece of information is independently verifiable, there is no reason to trust anyone. While this does not imply mistrust, it does imply a complete lack of the need to trust. Trust becomes superfluous, and could even be a hindrance to exchanges. We are walking into an era where the risks inherent to dealing with people can be mitigated by using computers.

The Christian’s response

This article is not intended to be a doomsday piece. There are definitely good uses of blockchain, and those uses deserve to be celebrated. Whether the good outweighs the bad is up to the individual. Blockchain is here to stay, and it will shape our society in ways we can’t anticipate. Christians need to be prepared for these changes as they happen.

A high view of community is essential for Christians as the very fabric of relationships is redefined. As followers of Christ, our duty is to remember that we are relational creatures, made in the image of God to live in community with one another. Even if our relationships lose some of their cultural value because of technology, it is up to Christians to embrace our fellow humans because God has placed them in our lives. The gospel of Jesus Christ must dictate our view of man, regardless of the current technology. There is no substitute for fellowship, not even through blockchain.

Editor’s Note: Check out the Light Magazine issue about technology and the Christian’s response, Navigating the Digital Age.

Corey Fawcett

Corey Fawcett will be a Ph.D. finance student at Rice University, and he has worked in venture capital focusing on blockchain technology. Read More by this Author

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