Millions of our global neighbors live under authoritarian and autocratic governments where the power of artificial intelligence (AI) is abused to retain a sense of control over others. Nations, such as China, use these tools, created for the common good, to diminish dignity in minority groups. Religious freedom and the pursuit of justice are threatened by the implementation of these tools each day.
This is why a group of over 60 evangelical leaders, including Russell Moore, Jackie Hill Perry, J. D. Greear, and Richard Mouw, have signed a new statement of principles on AI this week in Washington, DC. The project was organized by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention to help the church navigate the issues surrounding AI with wisdom and hope proactively rather than responding to them after the effects are widespread.
AI tools and their limitless potential can be at odds with a belief in human dignity based in the image of God. To be clear, these tools lack a moral sense. However, individuals can use and develop them in ways that demean and oppress other human beings.
Furthermore, the use of technology doesn’t always lead to a dystopian future as some futurists predict. These same tools can be used in righteous ways that can give a voice to the voiceless and help set captives free. As Christians living in a fallen and broken world, how are we to navigate these tensions in a way that parallels how our Savior taught us to live in the world? (Matt. 22:37–39)
The Pursuit of Power
Every human being desires power and control over their lives. At its core, sin is a desire for autonomy and power outside the design of God. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that technology is often used in ways to exert this desire. Autocratic and authoritarian rulers are not new. The Bible is filled with rulers such as Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Herod who sought to control their people through military might or forced labor.
In our own time, authoritarian regimes like those of China and North Korea commit some of the most blatant violations of human dignity and deny many of their people basic God-given rights enjoyed by many of us in the West. Other countries like Russia and Egypt are not far behind in deploying these AI tools like facial recognition.
Along with other nations, China has been involved in controversial uses of technology and artificial intelligence for many years, such as the use of a massive surveillance network to control what their people can see and share online.
In one blatant example of technology being exploited, the Chinese government forced its citizens to download an application called Xuexi Qiangguo, which roughly translates “study to make China strong,” to their phones. The Chinese multinational corporation Alibaba developed the app for the government. The app is filled with Communist propaganda and some claim that the app also tracks citizens.
As sociologist Michael K. Spencer explains, “The internet is legitimizing a dark use of technology that’s now going way beyond privacy invasion and censorship [and] getting into social credit ranking and conformity punishments.”
As Spencer alluded to, the government assigns social scores, which rank individuals and their loyalty to the state. This system is used to stamp out any political dissidents.
Chinese officials use technology to reinforce power over minority groups, like Christians and the Uighur people, who are ethnically Turkic Muslims living in western China.
In August 2018, a UN human rights committee was informed by human rights groups that Chinese officials had detained over a million Uighur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, where these people were subject to re-education programs. Reports from Human Rights Watch claim that Uighurs are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, swear loyalty to the Chinese president, and renounce their faith. These image bearers even have DNA samples taken from them and are tracked wherever they go using tracking systems powered by AI.
China also proudly boasts that it deploys AI facial recognition systems to follow its citizens’ every move under the banner of national security. Many law enforcement officers are equipped with augmented reality glasses that allow the government the ability to constantly track citizens alongside the government-accessed public cameras that many cities have installed. This is a growing reality for Christians in the country as well.
People of faith are often targeted by authoritarian governments, like the Communist Party of China, precisely because they answer to a higher authority. As Christians, we know that government is not ultimate and that even our leaders are accountable to God for how they rule. Freedom of religion will naturally weaken these authoritarian structures because it allows for a pluralistic society where differing viewpoints are discussed and a single unified belief system is stifled.
Some, like historian Yuval Noah Harari, have argued that technology favors tyranny and authoritarian states because it re-centralizes knowledge into a single figure. According to his argument, democracy was born out of a realization that no one person or group should have access to all data and knowledge. With the rise of AI and other technologies, power can now be re-centralized into smaller groups or individuals. This centralized power is then used to stamp out dissidents. But this vision for the future of governance does not have to be the case unless we allow it.
Power can corrupt, but it doesn’t have to
Technology like AI will continue to be used by rogue groups and nation-states to deny God’s design for humanity: people who can exercise their God-given rights to conscience, speech, and freedom. But when used with wisdom, this same technology can also enable human flourishing.
Christians must advocate for the vulnerable, those whose voices have been suppressed, such as the Uighur Muslims, and for the very concept of human dignity in our age. Through the internet, and specifically through social media, we in the West learned about these injustices, giving us better tools to care for the oppressed.
As a major technology-producing nation, we can also stay involved in improving the development of AI. When we see unfairness, we can participate in the solution. Last week Facebook was sued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development over algorithms for housing ads discriminating based on race, gender, and religion. We can examine closely how these tools highlight injustices committed here and how we can improve them.
We can also use our power and influence for selfless gain as we proclaim a rich vision of human dignity grounded in the doctrine of the imago Dei. When we advocate for international religious freedom, we do so with this vision of dignity and freedom for all people created in the image of God, whether or not they ever come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. When use of AI threatens that foundation, people lose their voices. Religious freedom does not only mean freedom to believe but also freedom to be seen as more than just data in the pursuit of ultimate power.
As we continue to pursue innovation, let us do so in a way that upholds the value of every human life. Let us pursue justice, uphold liberty, and advocate for the least of these just as Jesus did over 2,000 years ago. Technology will not and cannot change the truth of who God is, who we are, and our responsibility as humans to love our neighbor.
Jason Thacker serves as the creative director and associate research fellow at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the author of a forthcoming book with Zondervan on artificial intelligence and human dignity releasing March 2020.