Elon Musk, the man who started four billion-dollar tech companies, is worried that computers are on course to kill us. As he told an audience at MIT in 2014, “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” In his nightmare, a future superintelligent machine will outwit and then eliminate humankind. Accordingly, Musk is working on plans to colonize other planets in case we, or the artificial minds we create, make human survival on Earth impossible.
Is Musk paranoid? Inconveniently for his detractors, he’s no agrarian crank, and his concern about artificial intelligence (AI) is shared by people as diverse as Henry Kissinger, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates. According to their line of thinking, AI may soon rank among the threats to humanity’s survival alongside nuclear war and biological terrorism.
These anxieties exemplify a wider shift. For a generation, a utopian glow has hung around Silicon Valley and all its works. Now that glow is fading fast. Critics on both the political left and right assail the monopolistic power wielded by Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. From Washington to Brussels, Big Tech’s gospel of libertarian capitalism twinned with libertarian morality has worn out its welcome. Once upon a time, Mark Zuckerberg’s motto of “move fast and break things” sounded innocently boyish; now it seems to sum up all too well the menace of machines to humans. Already, robots are replacing workers at an alarming rate.
Stung by the backlash, technophiles point to technology’s achievements: What about the myriad ways it has reduced misery and enhanced the quality of human life? What about the printing press and electric lights and antibiotics and instant global communication and cancer drugs?
Nobody wants to return to a tech-free world of surgery without anesthetics.
It’s a valid point. No one, from Apple engineers to Amish farmers, wants to return to a tech-free world of fifty-percent child mortality and surgery without anesthetics. The urge to invent and use tools, to pioneer new frontiers of ingenuity, is part and parcel of being human and has brought astounding benefits. To Christian eyes, this inborn inventiveness reflects the Creator himself and corresponds to the task that he gave to humankind in the Book of Genesis: to be master and steward of creation on his behalf.
Still, this doesn’t provide much reassurance when new technologies are rewiring the brains of today’s children and will likely soon be used to edit the genomes of those to be born. We’re living in a radically new situation. How do we stay human?
We can start by taking Elon Musk literally: “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” Whatever Musk meant by these words, they fit with strange precision into the New Testament’s view of reality. As the biblical writers saw it, the major social systems that shape human communities are not merely impersonal. Rather, such systems – which include the state, religious institutions, and today surely also the technological structures that govern modern life – operate under the influence of distinct spiritual forces. The New Testament uses a range of names for these spiritual powers, among them daimonia: “demons.” It’s an awkward word. Yet in view of Silicon Valley’s fascination with transhumanism and rationalist ideology, to speak here of demons may be all too apt.
Recognizing that uncanny forces lurk within technological structures doesn’t require us to flee the Information Age. But it does mean Christians must stop pretending that technological products are just neutral tools.
The example of social media proves the point. Sean Parker, a founding president of Facebook, recently admitted in an interview that Facebook was designed to be addictive, adding, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Actually, even without special revelation, we already know: studies of teenagers show a strong correlation between heavy social media use and anxiety, depression, and suicide, as documented by Jean Twenge in the Atlantic. This is not what human flourishing looks like.