The worldwide artificial intelligence (AI) revolution is on its way. Once the preserve of science fiction, its impact is likely to be so radical and pervasive it amounts to a new industrial revolution.
Whereas earlier industrial revolutions have been based on mechanisation in textiles, steam power, electricity, steel, and consumer products, the key shift in the AI revolution is towards mechanised autonomy.
As robots become increasingly independent in making decisions, philosophical and ethical issues are surfacing amongst ever widening circles of technologists. To what extent, for instance, can robots become conscious moral agents operating an ethical code?
For people of faith, these questions can appear inappropriate. Human beings may be made in the image of God but no human creation can exercise consciousness, morality and conscience. Just as they cannot be virtuous, they also cannot sin and therefore have no need for redemption.
But serious theological engagement with such issues is yet to get underway. It remains to be seen how useful this engagement will be to public debate and whether it can be sufficiently nuanced and technologically literate to avoid extremes and misconceptions. The way theology tends to engage with contemporary capitalism suggests this will not be easy.
Yet whatever status theology is able to attribute to robots (whether they are called cyborgs, artilects, androids or transhumans) it is the dignity of the human person within its natural environment that will need to remain central. To the extent that AI compromises that dignity is the extent to which people of faith should join the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking in being wary of AI.
It will be important, however, to avoid knee-jerk reactions. It is true, for instance, that the AI revolution will – like all preceding industrial revolutions – bring job losses as existing knowledge and skills are made obsolete. But it will also create jobs, not least in the troubled manufacturing industry, and will help safeguard humans from the dull and repetitive jobs that are a chief cause of unhappiness and stress in the workplace. In helping humans to be more creative and productive, AI will increase human fulfilment.
The challenge for AI producers and consumers is to design and use machines that have greater autonomy for a purpose: to do things better than humans can do in the service of human and environmental flourishing.
Dr Peter S Heslam, University of Cambridge and Director of Transforming Business.