I heard an interview last week with Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in which he spoke of a new statement coming out from the evangelical community concerning a Christian response to artificial intelligence. In the interview, he spoke about the concerns of Christians when technology begins to affect the ways we perceive personhood and our creation in the image of God. As one example among several he spoke of the encroachment of artificial intelligence into the area of labor and how it affects employment opportunities, especially for men.
I was intrigued by what he said because of the brief discussion on this topic in Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, in which the author says we should not decry the advancement of technology and fear the loss of jobs due to that advance. He said the logical implications of that kind of response would be that we would reject the use of all tools and machinery, even simple levers and wheels.
After I listened to the Russ Moore interview I went to my backyard for an early morning mowing of the lawn. I used my gasoline-powered lawnmower with a self-propelling feature. I considered my options. I could have used a human powered push mower. But I was still using wheels and a gear mechanism that would turn the multiple blades. I could have done what we saw done countless times in Indonesia and used a pair of scissors or shears, but then again, I was using a lever mechanism to work the scissors.
But these examples of Hazlitt’s logical end, or slippery slope, of rejecting technology are patently ridiculous. And these are certainly not the kinds of changes feared by Moore. Moore, rather, was speaking of technology or machinery that replaces the worker completely, citing the example of self-driving cars that will replace human drivers.
As I worked over the lawn, I thought through the implications of different technologies and came to the conclusion that the problem with technological advances, in part, comes from the lack of human agency in the work. I can cut my grass with a self-propelled mower, a push mower, or a pair of scissors, but I am still the agent cutting the grass. Suppose, however, that I had a machine that would cut the grass by itself, perhaps in the middle of the night while I slept. Imagine furthermore that I did not have to tell the machine when to work or to turn it on and off. It might have a sensor that would monitor the height of the grass and then perform its work at the appropriate time.
With the kind of machine I just described, there is now no human agency or will in the cutting of the grass. The variety of tools that I described above, from simple lever-operating scissors to gas-powered cutters, still rely on a human will and agency in the cutting of the lawn. With this new device, however, I am no longer involved in the process. I may not know when it is being done. I may not even realize after the fact that the work has been done. All I see is a manicured lawn at all times.
But this kind of detachment from the labor is surely, I assume, the kind of impact that Moore is concerned about when he spoke of self-driving cars and the impact on employment. When the human will and agency is divorced from the work, do we reach the point where our humanity has been negatively affected?
We can and should argue the merits and demerits of dehumanizing labor and the encroachment of artificial intelligence into our lives. Surely there is some sort of middle ground between the wholesale adoption of every technological advance and the Luddite rejection of any technology. I would argue that the deepest loss comes in the loss of human agency and will in the work.
In a different way, the government discovered long ago that the payment of taxes was easier when the human agency was removed. Now, instead of receiving a bill from the government each month and writing a check for a certain percentage of our income, the government takes that money before we ever see it. Prior to my marriage to an accountant I was one of the many who saw a tax refund as some kind of gift from the government. I was not aware when the money went out of my check each week. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, I would receive a bonus check each year. It took my wife to inform me that my refund I received was actually an interest-free loan I had given to the government. The best result was that I would receive nothing back, or perhaps owe money with no late fee when it came time to pay taxes. Of course, that required discipline and budgeting, but it also required the awareness that I still had a role in the paying of taxes. I stepped out of what had become a very passive and dehumanized process, and became the willing agent once again. Of course I would describe myself more as an unwilling agent when it comes to paying taxes, but that is not my point here.
The dehumanizing of the taxation process is related to why I am vigorously opposed to automatic giving at church. The last several churches I have been a member of have programs set up for automatic withdrawals for the purpose of tithing or making offerings at church. What could be better? No more of the old-fashioned envelopes we received once a quarter. No more finding a check to write each week. No more forgetting to bring the offering and having it back up on us. No more guilt over missing our tithe. Surely this is a technological advance we could use.
But in doing this, in addition to the things mentioned above that would be gone, we would also lose the willingness of the gift. We would lose even the awareness that we had given a gift. In fact, would it even be possible to fulfill Paul’s command to be a cheerful giver, if we are unaware that we gave anything to begin with.
In our striving for a more advanced world, may we never create a dehumanized religion that requires no will on the part of the worshiper. And may we never view our God as just another bill collector.