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Tough questions for technology

19 January 2018

Artificial intelligence can do immense good — but also harm, warns Steven Croft


Robots on a production line are only a hint of far-reaching developments

Robots on a production line are only a hint of far-reaching developments

A SELECT COMMITTEE of the House of Lords has been hearing evidence on every aspect of artificial intelligence (AI) as it affects business, consumers, warfare, health, education, and research (News, 28 July).

The committee is due to report in April, and we are just beginning the process of distilling all that we have heard into the critical issues for public policy. But it is clear to me that the traditional life script of 20 years of education followed by 40 years of work and retirement may no longer be normal.

As Christians, we should be concerned with fair access, privacy, and personal identity, about persuasion in the political process, about what it means to be human, about the ethics of weaponisation, and about the limits of human endeavour.

So, at the start of 2018, these are my top eight issues in AI, and the deep theological questions that they raise.

First, we need a better public debate and education. There is consensus that disruptive technological change is on its way. Public debate and scrutiny is vital so that we can live well with artificial intelligence, protect our data and identity (and that of our children and grandchildren), and ensure that technology serves us well.

Second, the nature of public truth and political debate is changing. AI and social media are already leading to sharper, more antagonistic, and polarised opinion. We listen and debate in silos and are less likely to trust single authoritative sources of news. This is partly responsible for the unexpected outcomes of elections and referendums in recent years.

Third, AI will massively transform the world of work. According to some estimates, between 20 and 40 per cent of jobs in the economy are at high risk of automation by the early 2030s. The economic effects will fall unevenly: the greatest impact will be felt in the poorest communities still adjusting to the loss of jobs in mining and manufacturing.

Fourth, education is crucial. The UK has some of the best research in the world, but without continued investment and better education at all levels we will fall further behind the global leaders. The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and computer sciences are vital, but not to the exclusion of the humanities.

Fifth, data and data security: there are huge advantages to ever-increasing computing power and high-quality data, such as better diagnosis of diseases; but without equitable, secure access to data, the large companies that are already ahead are likely to increase their advantage.

Sixth, ethics needs to run through everything. AI brings significant potential for harm if it is used solely for profit and without thought for the consequences. There are obvious areas where AI can do immense damage: weaponisation, the sexualisation of machines, and the acceleration of inequality.

Seventh, we need to grow the AI economy. New jobs and positions will be created in this fourth industrial revolution, but many organisations are yet to make the transition to a digital economy, let alone AI-ready. The UK’s economic prosperity will depend on how seriously we take investment in this area.

Eighth, we need great leadership to shape the future. Leadership of developments in AI is dispersed and unclear. They demand a sustained and coordinated response across government and wider society, and clear and ethical leadership that is alert to both the dangers and the possibilities of AI.

In the 19th century, and for much of the 20th century, science asked hard questions of faith. Christians did not always respond well to those questions and to the evidence of reason. In the 21st century, however, faith needs to ask hard questions once again of science.

My list is growing, but five currently stand out:


  • What does it mean to be human? As every advance in AI leads to deeper questions of humanity, our faith has fresh and profound things to say about human identity, ethics, and values.
  • What does it mean to be created and a creator? A key part of being human is understanding that we are part of creation but also have the power to create. We need to understand both our limits and our potential.
  • Ethics needs to run through everything. Statements of ethical intent, education for ethics, and codes of good practice need to be universal. The Church’s task is to speak afresh of the importance of truth, faithfulness, equality, and respect for individuals.
  • We must be alert to increases in inequality and poverty of opportunity. Without intervention, AI is more likely to increase inequality significantly. AI needs to be held within a deeper and better vision for global economics and politics than free-market capitalism. We will need radical new ways of structuring support across the whole of society, such as Universal Basic Income or Universal Basic Services.
  • There is immense potential for good in AI, but also for harm. Serious damage can result from the wrong use of data, and lives can be distorted. Machines can and will be sexualised, which will shape the humanity of those who use them. Weaponisation of AI requires very careful international debate and global restraint.


Dr Steven Croft is the Bishop of Oxford and a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence.

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