Artificial Intelligence and Human Hope

By Michael Paulus | Library Dean and Assistant Provost at SPU

Last year I published a book on artificial intelligence and human hope, in which I explore historical and theological resources that can help us imagine and create a better world with AI. I submitted the book to the publisher before OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT, and when the book appeared almost everyone was having the kinds of conversations I had been hoping we would have about AI. Today, in classrooms, boardrooms, government assemblies, and elsewhere, more people than ever before are asking important questions about how AI is impacting our lives and world. These discussions are inspiring realistic—but also fantastic—hopes and fears.

Although it is not clear how new types of artificial agency such as generative AI will shape our future, it is important to remember that technology has been entangled with human evolution and development from the beginning. Academic disciplines and professional expertise, which have been shaped by and have also shaped our long engagement with technology, can help us design and integrate new technologies into our lives reflectively and responsibly. But first we need to clarify our hopes and fears, avoiding the extremes of utopian optimism (AI will save us!) and dystopian pessimism (AI will destroy us!). With clarity about desirable futures, we can confront such ethical challenges as data biases and surveillance, algorithmic explainability and exploitation, and the abduction of attention and outsourcing of human agency. There are reasons for hoping for some progress on these and other issues, given the diversity of perspectives and organizations currently involved in addressing them. For Christians, there are also theological justifications for believing that some of this work can participate in the transformation of the world and the realization of a better future.

There are many theological arguments about the transformative power of technology. Some of the most interesting come from the twelfth-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor. Hugh identified three types of work: “opus Dei, opus naturae, opus artificis”—“the work of God, the work of nature, and the work of the artificer.” God’s unique creative work, which created something out of nothing, establishes the work of nature. Humans, who are part of nature, create new things out of existing things. The work of human artificers is flawed, though, and often deforms what God initially formed. But there is also the work of God in Christ, which transforms all natural and artificial works into something new. Because of this, Hugh believed human technological knowledge, work, and artifacts have a constructive role in transforming all things into new creation.

AI is much more complex than the medieval technologies known to Hugh, which included significant innovations in agriculture, commerce, and medicine. But Hugh’s insights can be extended to AI. By augmenting our knowledge and abilities, AI can be part of the human quest for wisdom and flourishing. AI can help us form new creations, reform what has been deformed, and—when it is connected with the work of a greater agent—we may hope that its transformative power may participate in new creation.

Michael Paulus is Dean of the Library, Assistant Provost for Educational Technology, and Associate Professor of Information Studies at Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Paulus is the author of Artificial Intelligence and the Apocalyptic Imagination: Artificial Agency and Human Hope (Cascade Books, 2023) and co-editor of AI, Faith, and the Future: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Pickwick Publications, 2022).

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