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Articles

Why we need a solid foundation for navigating the ethics of big tech

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April 27, 2020

There isn’t much that Americans seem to agree on these days. Even as COVID-19 brought some national unity, we are beginning to see the fraying of American society once again. Political, social, economic, and religious issues have sorted us into tribes and tribes of tribes. It is difficult to keep up to date on the number of differing viewpoints and interest groups. But there is one concern that seems to bring the fraying parties and proported enemies together: the power and influence of technology on our lives.

Last fall, Pew Research Center released a report that for the first time in their research, Americans now have less faith in technology companies than in churches. This is striking based on the secularization of society and many popular claims that religion only divides us. This study proves what most of us already know—technology is ubiquitous in our society. The power that these tools have over our lives is beginning to be revealed. 

Consider that both President Trump and Speaker Pelosi both agreed that the dangers of letting Huawei, a Chinese technology firm, build critical 5G infrastructure were just too great, given the power and influence of the Chinese government over Huawei. Leaders in both parties are sounding the alarm of the undue influence that China welds over companies like Huawei. While differing opinions on policy prescriptions for addressing technological and privacy issues still exist, the role that technology wields in our lives is the common factor in this rare bipartisan concern.

A solid foundation 

People from across the political spectrum are rightfully concerned about how these tools are being used but lack a common ethical framework to engage these weighty, and often thorny, issues with wisdom.

As we debate the merits and pitfalls of emerging technologies, we need a solid foundation on which to build our ethical decisions so that we are not blown about by the winds of an ever-changing public opinion or political class. We live in a pluralistic society with people from various backgrounds and faiths, but the Christian moral tradition provides us with a common understanding of how every human being has value and worth regardless of how society views them. Every human being is created in God’s image and thus deserves our attention and care.

Whether it’s the effects of automation on our jobs, privacy concerns over government surveillance, or the use of artificial intelligence in warfare, these technologies are raising tough ethical challenges that we must be prepared to engage. Christians are called to step in and fight for the dignity of every human being, regardless of social or economic status.

This dignity isn't based on what we contribute to society, by some ambiguous idea of fairness, or even by notions of personal autonomy often grounded in constitutional law. While these ideas may sound good on the surface or provide a common language with which to engage these issues, they are often unstable definitions; they lack a transcendent foundation on which to build our ethical guidelines for technologies. But the Christian understanding of human dignity is based in the reality of a creator God who made us and directs our daily lives. 

From the baby in the womb to the woman laying on her deathbed, the Christian understanding of dignity extends to all people, even our “enemies.” This principle of human dignity applies in every area of our society, but it can be incredibly beneficial in the debates over the ethical uses of technology, because it helps us to see that real people are being affected by our policies and social decisions. Real lives are on the line. Whether it’s the effects of automation on our jobs, privacy concerns over government surveillance, or the use of artificial intelligence in warfare, these technologies are raising tough ethical challenges that we must be prepared to engage. Christians are called to step in and fight for the dignity of every human being, regardless of social or economic status.

When we debate the merits and pitfalls of technology such as facial recognition surveillance in policing or the effects of tracking on public health and privacy, we must keep in mind that there are always good and bad uses of these powerful technologies. Police might be able to solve cold cases with a few clicks on a smartphone, as in the case of Clearview AI and their incredibily controversial use of scraping all publicly available photos on Google, Facebook, and Venmo to build their facial recognition system. But on the other hand, privacy advocates have long feared that this is the same technology we see being used in China as thousands of Uhigur Muslims are being profiled and detained based solely on the fact that they do not swear ultimate loyalty to Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Communist state.

Many U.S. municipalities, such as Oakland and San Francisco, have passed outright bans on facial recognition technology, with more on the horizon. These bans are being passed because people are rightfully concerned about how these tools can be abused to profile people of color or how our anonymity and privacy will be ultimately erased if deployed in mass, just as the famed 1984 novel by George Orwell predicted.

As the ethical issues with big tech continue to expand, our society must recognize the value, dignity, and worth of every human being as made by God and in his likeness. Nothing we create with our hands is more valuable than our neighbor. Jesus Christ reminds us of this in the Gospel of Matthew when he sums up the entirety of the law in the greatest commandments. Christ proclaims that we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. That love for our neighbors is based on the fact that they too are made by God and in his image. This understanding of human dignity can extend past our partisan divides and speak to the heart of the issues surrounding how we navigate technology’s growing influence on our lives.

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