Why artificial intelligence can be a threat to human dignity

June 11, 2018

About a month ago, Google announced a groundbreaking technology that it hopes will revolutionize the way humans interact with computers. Google Duplex was debuted at the Google I/O Developer Conference on May 8th in Mountain View, California. Duplex is a piece of artificial intelligence that can make phone calls for you. Google plans to release this technology to the public later this summer as a part of their popular Google Assistant platform. While this technology has incredible potential for customers and businesses, it also has a number of underlying social and ethical issues that we need to be thinking about as we soon engage with it ourselves.

An improved digital assistant

During the I/O presentation, Google Duplex called to book a woman’s salon appointment and a restaurant reservation for four without any human intervention on the user’s side. After the call, it sends a push notification to let you know that it has completed its task. Remarkably, Duplex sounded almost identical to a human being. The employees on the other end of the calls had no idea they were communicating with a computer. The AI system incorporates various “umms,” “ahhs,” and pauses to sound more natural. Duplex also has the ability to change the voice it uses depending on the user’s preference.

The rise of AI-based technology like Google Duplex is one of the most subtle threats to human dignity to come in our lifetime.

At its core, Duplex is a piece of artificial intelligence (AI) that is based on a recurrent neural network (RNN), where the system employs the newest type of machine learning that is able to understand what is being said, interact with the other caller in real time, pace itself, account for variables or misunderstandings, and then speak in a natural way that is virtually indistinguishable from another human in the context of a phone call. The system was able to learn these methods of communications from a set of recorded calls given to it by the developers. It processed these calls, learned from them, then it made practice phone calls with human supervision and was able to learn from its mistakes. Soon after these calls, it had no need for human supervision and was able to function on its own with a high level of precision and accuracy.

It is easy to see why Google and many outsiders are excited about this type of technology—it can automate and complete fairly complex tasks on behalf of end-users, as well as save businesses countless hours tending to calls for abnormal hours of operation. But the fallout of the announcement has been a little stronger than many at Google expected.

Many technologists and journalists covering the event expressed worry and concern about the ethical and social implications surrounding the technology, ranging from the recording of conversations without the knowledge of the human on the other end to the erosion of authenticity and trust in the age of fake news. How will we know if we are talking to a real human, or just another machine?

Bettering humanity?

One of the biggest concerns that surfaced was about how humans this technology seemed in its interactions. It could mimic us in speech and fool the employees. Technology has increasingly been able to perform tasks quicker, more efficiently, and more precise than humans, but until now, these machines were very robotic in their interactions.

Is it true that Google is trying to mimic or degrade humanity? Is Google simply trying to further erode trust and authenticity in our society? I don’t believe so, but this technology does leave some open questions about how it will be used and deployed. Throughout the presentation, and even in the post-announcement article on the Google AI blog, it seems that Google is seeking to develop a product that they believe will be lucrative for their business, all the while aiding and bettering human interactions with computers.

Potential fallout

In this age of AI, humanity is now creating technology that is able to assist or outright replace us by communicating just like us on our behalf. It leads many to question what it truly means to be human and what might happen if these machines are able to outperform us in more and more areas of life. These advanced forms of AI have already led to job loss through automation. Yet, we are now seeing the loss of jobs that have been immune to the effects of technology because of the need for social engagement and emotional intelligence. AI systems are not to the point where they are able to function with independence in most areas of life, but many predict that development is on the horizon.

Another potential issue is that this technology could contribute to the growing mistrust in our society. We already struggle to know if the news we hear or read is actually true. Now, it appears that we won't even be sure if we are really interacting with another human or simply a machine programmed to imitate one.

We don’t know exactly how this technology will be used, but we can already see the downfalls. This is a growing concern among many in the AI field, as well as technologists at large. Even many employees at Google, including top engineers, expressed fear about how another AI-based project from Google could be misused in terms of autonomous warfare.

A threat to dignity

The tools that we have created are becoming smarter, faster, and more adept at interacting for us. This shift has the potential to improve our lives by allowing us to focus on more complex tasks, but I believe this shift is more dangerous than many might think. The rise of AI-based technology like Google Duplex is one of the most subtle threats to human dignity to come in our lifetime. It feeds into the popular notion that our dignity and worth is solely dependent on our usefulness to society rather than bestowed on us in creation by God.

AI can also be used in ways that devalue human life and the deterioration of human flourishing because they can function as a substitute for us. It is already being implemented in many sectors of private and public life, including medicine, manufacturing, finance, and warfare. Yet, for all all the potential benefits, real dangers exist, and we must be aware of how it will affect our society.

As Christians, we know that God defines our worth and dignity, regardless of what we can do. In reality, we have nothing to offer God or others (Isaiah 64:5-7). Still, because of love (John 3:16), God chose to send his Son to earth to redeem us and give us everlasting life with him. And we must be the ones at the forefront of the movement proclaiming that true worth and dignity are not found in silicon chips or data sets, but in the heartbeat of those uniquely created in the likeness of our God.

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