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Bishops identify benefits and risks of artificial intelligence

28 July 2017


Looking to the future: the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, stands next to a humanoid robot at the Research Institute for Science and Engineering at Waseda University, Tokyo, last week

Looking to the future: the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, stands next to a humanoid robot at the Research Institute for Science and Engineering at ...

THE Church of England must start considering the implications of artificial intelligence now, two bishops who are leading the Church’s engagement with the rapidly developing technology have said.

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, has joined the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence (AI), which has just launched a call for evidence.

“I wanted there to be a voice of the Church in this very significant debate about what it means to be human,” Dr Croft said on Tuesday. Apart from considering the ethical implications of computers and robots that could think for themselves, the technology spoke directly into theological concerns, he argued.

“There’s also a broader debate underpinning AI about what it means to be human, and the faith communities have a long tradition on what is also a philosophical, if not theological, question.”

Other questions he hoped to explore with the committee were the future of work if AI results in the loss of millions of jobs, as some have predicted (Comment, 2 June); the control over personal data; the use of AI in targeting and persuading people in the political process; and the concept of remote warfare and weaponisation of autonomous machines.

Some of these concerns have already been raised in Parliament. Last month, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that it was vital that the Government’s promised industrial strategy engaged with “the challenges that the next generation of automation will pose to the livelihoods of people and communities in the north-east and across the country”.

The cross-party committee of 13, chaired by the Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones, has asked experts and others to make written submissions by 6 September, and is to report its findings next March.

This was a discussion not simply to be had between scientists and politicians, Dr Croft said. “My presence on the committee has been warmly welcomed, and people recognise very readily there is an ethical dimension to this to which a bishop can contribute.”

Neither was it something that was bound to be ignored by the public, he said. “There are press articles almost every day about AI; it features in science fiction and portrayals of what life in the future is going to be like. People are very stirred up by this debate.”

©EVTV/YOUTUBEBlessing machine: the “BlessU-2” robot, developed by the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau, in Wittenberg, near Berlin. It can give automated blessings in five languages with beams of white light (News, 2 June)

Almost every day, whether through searching online using Google, or speaking to the Siri voice assistant on an iPhone, ordinary members of the public interacted with the cutting edge of AI technology, Dr Croft said.

It was especially important not to lose sight, as a country, of the longer-term view. “People are focusing on Brexit and national identity, and that has to be dealt with, but there is this much larger set of issues driven by global technology, which is coming to us very fast indeed.

“I don’t think, at the moment, our politicians are really focused on what is a massive issue for the next two decades. We want to maximise the benefits and minimise the potential dangers.”

The idea that AI posed both huge benefits and risks was echoed by the Bishop of Kingston, Dr Richard Cheetham, who is co-leading a Templeton Foundation-funded project that is also examining the theology behind AI.

“I see scope for both — this is a significant technological advance with potential both for good or ill,” he said on Tuesday. “That’s why the ethics and the theology are so important. It’s an enormously powerful tool; the question is: how do you use it well?”

Earlier this year, Dr Cheetham and other Christian leaders visited scientists working on robotics and similar technology in their laboratories at Durham University. Besides listening to the researchers explain what might be coming next as the science develops, the group also had an opportunity to discuss the ethics and theological implications.

“Historically, people thought animals, humans, and machines were all in completely different boxes,” Dr Cheetham said. “Science is challenging us now because there is a lot we hold in common with the animal world, and, increasingly, with the machine world. What does that do to our understanding of what it means to be humans made in the image of God?”

One critical question that his project, Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science (News, 10 February), had started to grapple with was how replacing carers with robots, as is starting to happen in places such as Japan, would affect how society viewed the elderly or those with dementia.

“This forces you to think very hard about that in the real context in which we are living in the 21st century. This thinking is already being done in wider society; there’s plenty of films and TV programmes on some of these issues.

“[The Church] doesn’t want to be playing catch-up.”

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