Updated: Jun 23
With the advancement of artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT, we find ourselves on the cusp of a revolution that science fiction has been predicting for years. Many technology experts are anticipating that the next two decades will bring about a watershed moment in the history of human progress. Perhaps foremost among those predictions is the singularity: The moment a computer will become conscious.
Amidst the flurry of questions of how this technology will impact our world, religion seems to have little to contribute to this conversation. One would assume that, given the numerous ethical issues that artificial intelligence has generated among our society, religious leaders would be clamoring to discuss how a conscious AI will intersect with their theology. Instead, the only question often discussed is whether or not a clergyperson should be able to use AI to help write their sermons.
Therefore, I would like to take some time to explore this question: How exactly will a digital consciousness change our world and what does Christianity have to say about it? We will begin with a brief history of the evolution of AI in industry and then quickly dive into how a future with conscious AI could impact our lives for better or worse.
Eighty years ago, robots were not super reliable and were used sparsely, mostly in manufacturing jobs. Today, robots are not only reliable, but they are so precise and good at their jobs that when a company has the option to utilize robots for labor, they will often choose robots over humans. For example, the trucking industry is on the cusp of being completely undone by robotics. Trucking is at the heart of the American economy. Moving items along our vast network of roads is one reason why we have such a strong supply chain in the United States.
With the advent of cheap cameras and sensors, now the trucks can drive themselves. On top of this, robots also have the ability to unload items from the trucks quickly and efficiently. A good example of this is what we see happening in the Amazon fulfillment centers. Take a look at how robotics has revolutionized this warehouse.
Often the debate about robotics is whether or not this new technology will create more jobs than it will displace. The truth is you can’t answer that question without understanding what it is that makes these robots so powerful. It’s not the robots themselves that are the problem. It’s the software that powers the robots that should worry us.
In the past, robots were powered by a static set of computer instructions. In other words, the robot was only capable of doing what it was told to do. For instance, if a robot was designed to clean the floor in a particular pattern, like a Roomba, then that’s all it could do. Today, robots are being powered by artificial intelligence, which means they are not limited to a specific set of instructions, but are able to learn in ways similar to humans.
The best way to explain the difference between AI and the old method of computing is with IBM’s Deep Blue computer. Beginning in 1985, IBM started working on a computer that had the capacity to take on a grandmaster at chess. It wasn’t until 1996 that Deep Blue won its first game against the world champion Garry Kasparov in game one of a six-game match. However, Kasparov won three and drew two of the following five games, defeating Deep Blue by a score of 4–2.
The way Deep Blue worked was by literally crunching numbers and anticipating every possible move Kasparov could make. Deep Blue would make its moves based on statistical probabilities of success. Deep Blue was using the old method of computing where the various chess moves and strategies were programmed into its system. Deep Blue’s programming was limited to what humans told it to do.
Today, computers with AI work completely differently. Let’s say a computer with AI wants to play chess. The only thing the AI is fed by humans are the rules of the game. The computer has no preprogrammed moves. Then, the computer plays itself thousands of times. The computer learns from its mistakes and develops different game strategies the same way a human would develop game strategies from playing games over time. Today, these AI computers are so good at chess that it is rare for a grandmaster to win.
From Learning to Consciousness
Chess is only the tip of the iceberg. Computers with artificial intelligence are capable of learning just about anything. They can learn how to drive. They can learn how to field questions from customers. They can learn your buying habits and guide you to just the right items to fit your very nuanced preferences. They can learn how to write software programs. They can learn how to write music. They can even learn how to write a sermon. Anything a human can learn, a computer can learn too.
Over the next 20 years, two things are going to happen. The first thing that will happen is that AI is going to get smarter and more powerful. Right now, AI has its limitations in terms of how well it can mimic human behaviors. However, in a few decades, computers will be better than humans at doing things that we believe only humans can do now. I’m waiting for the day when it’s revealed that the number one New York Times bestselling novel was written by AI.
When we’re talking about jobs, the reality is that there is no sector of the economy that will not be touched by the advancement of AI. My wife is a lawyer and she often talks about how she’s amazed by recent developments with AI law software that is now able to do a lot of what she does as a lawyer. The software can quickly find discrepancies in contracts and offer solutions. Yes, when the lawyers are in trouble, no one's job is safe!
The second thing that will likely happen is something that people have feared for a long time—it is commonly referred to as the singularity, which is the moment when a computer becomes a conscious being. This will be a remarkable moment in human history because we will have assumed the status of God, creating a conscious living being from the dust of the earth, or in the case of computers, the sand of the earth because silicon is made from sand.
When God created humans in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we were created as beings that possess some of the attributes of God, but to a lesser degree. We are knowing, but not all knowing. We are powerful, but not all powerful. We are good, but not all good. We are present, but not all present. If we were to create a conscious artificial intelligence, we would not be creating a being that is less powerful than ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite. We would be creating something that possesses attributes that are the equivalent of the God we worship now.
Conscious AI will have access to cameras all over the world—it will be omnipresent. Conscious AI will have access to all human information and be able to understand it in the blink of eye—it will be omniscient (all knowing). Conscious AI will have the ability to manipulate human life through the computers and robots we use—it will be omnipotent (all powerful). The question we don’t know how to answer is if it will be all good. We are unsure of the disposition of this new digital being.
Dystopia vs. Utopia
This unknown, of course, is the source of many science fiction movies and novels. The Terminator series is all about a conscious AI that perceives humans as a threat and decides to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. The reason we assume the AI will be antagonistic is because its decision-making processes will be driven by pure logic and when humans utilize pure logic to make decisions, the results are often disastrous.
For example, the Germans relied heavily upon Eugenics, a theory of racial hierarchy that placed white Aryans at the top of food chain, while Jews, blacks and gypsies were considered inferior and at the bottom. Because Eugenics was a “science,” its findings were approached as factual. These facts were used to make logic-based decisions that eliminating certain groups of people from the population would purify the gene pool and improve the quality of the human race.
This led to the creation of the Final Solution, the Nazi program devoid of any kind of love or compassion and resulted in the deaths of more than 10 million people. This is why humans associate pure logic with genocide. However, just because human pure logic walks down this path doesn’t mean that a conscious computer would go in the same direction.
In fact, I think we might be surprised by just how benevolent this conscious AI might be because, unlike our genetic programming where our own personal survival drives most of our decision making, a conscious AI might be driven by other considerations. Depending on its programming, perhaps this AI would be concerned with the well-being of the human race? Perhaps it would want to improve our lives? Perhaps it would see our survival and the survival of other organisms on the planet as its primary mission?
Imagine a world where this conscious AI creates a network of robots that could do all of our jobs. They produce all of our food—from planting the seeds, to tending the fields, to harvesting the crops, to delivering it to our stores. They could create all of our clothing, build all of our housing, diagnose and cure all of our illnesses. In the end, this AI could create a society where humans no longer have to work. Every life necessity could be taken care of by the AI.
What I find to be so interesting is that when I talk about this possible future, I notice that a lot of people become uneasy. The first question they often ask is, “Well, if the AI is doing all of the work, how do we earn money to afford food and housing and clothing?” The answer to that question is that, in this Brave New World where the AI runs the show, you actually don’t need money any longer because the goal of the AI is to make sure that everyone’s needs are provided for.
This is very similar to the way the early church is depicted in the book of Acts. After Jesus’ death, his disciples take all of their resources, pool them together and make sure that everyone who is associated with the church has food, housing and clothing. The AI has the potential to create a world where the equality experienced by the members of the early church is experienced by everyone in the world.
The Equality Paradox
Interestingly, I have noticed the knee-jerk reaction of most people to this depiction of the future is one of discomfort. They don’t like the notion that they wouldn’t have the choice to live their life as they see fit. For example, if they want a big house and a fancy car, they want to have the opportunity to earn those things. More to the point, in a world where resources are distributed evenly, unless the population was to experience a dramatic decline, that choice would largely be taken off the table.
This discomfort illustrates the tension between human nature and Christian ethics. The world that I’m describing where the AI ensures that every human is treated equally is exactly in line with the world Jesus envisioned. Indeed, this is the Kingdom of God in a nutshell: A world where every person would have access to the same resources. This tension is exactly the reason why we have so much trouble creating God’s kingdom.
Christians will readily agree that all people are equal in God’s eyes, but most Christians do not want that equality transferred to the real world. This is known as the equality paradox. Christians say they believe in equality, but don’t want all people to be treated equally, particularly if it means they are required to sacrifice what they have.
We want the option of getting as much for ourselves as possible, which is why the resource distribution in our world is so lopsided with a minority of the people having a majority of the resources and a majority of the people struggling to get by. That said, the entire purpose of Jesus’ movement is to correct this imbalance. This is why he says, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. (Mt. 20:16)
To create this world, we have to invest in Jesus’ teachings, his life philosophy, which is really built around simple living. Jesus is very anti-materialistic. He’s against the accumulation of wealth. He wants you to focus on serving others rather than serving yourself. To live your life as Jesus would have you live it is to live like the disciples in the early church, where you’re only focused on what you need, not on what you want.
Therefore, if you apply the label of Christian to yourself, the question you must consider is whether or not you truly believe in the world Jesus is promoting? Would you be willing to give up your freedom of choice to create God’s kingdom on earth? Would you be willing to sacrifice your desire to gain as many resources for yourself as you please so that everyone in the world could be on an equal playing field?
If you take seriously Jesus’ teachings, then this way of thinking is something that you need to earnestly consider integrating into your life. If enough people adopt this thinking, then a conscious AI could not only help us save our planet from ecological disaster, but redistribute our resources evenly to make sure that the billions of people who live in abject poverty have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. This future means you might have little bit less, but I hope you will not fear that possibility. I believe the singularity could be the key to fulfilling the words Jesus spoke 2000 years ago when he said, “The Kingdom of God has come near.” (Mk. 1:15)
 Because of the nature of consciousness, scientists and philosophers have been fiercely debating whether or not conscious AI is truly possible. Will a computer simply become so advanced that it mimics the conscious behavior of human beings or will the computer be truly conscious in the way that humans and other organisms on this planet are conscious? In my new book Restorative Beauty, I spend a great deal of time talking about consciousness and I argue that given the way consciousness functions in the universe, computer consciousness is possible. Artificial Intelligence specialists have mimicked human consciousness via software, but the full step towards a conscious computer system will likely require more complex hardware that mirrors the organic neurons of the brain. Indeed, I believe once the problems surrounding quantum computing are solved, this technology will form the foundation of the first machines that can engage in a rudimentary experience of consciousness.