ONE of this month’s more stretching conversations was with an entrepreneur whose company is in “deep tech”. After quite a long time talking about it, I realised that this was an expression of artificial intelligence (AI), which gave me some kind of entry point into an exchange that took my brain to the limits of its capacity.
The meta technology that is being developed will (and here, perhaps, you could forgive my naïvety, as my very patient companion did) allow many different solutions to a problem to be piloted at once — dissolving time, in a way, by running simultaneously millions of different processes that would normally be tried in sequence.
I am, as a non-scientist, fascinated by the potential and danger of AI. Even while algorithms have been shown to be as prejudiced as their human creators, and face-recognition software is in more controversial use than we would like to think, there is obvious benefit, for example, in developing technology that could test different vaccines for a new virus many times faster than we can now.
But I also remain spooked by the possibility that a driverless car, when programmed to take you to the restaurant, calculates your body mass index and the potential cost to the NHS of your menu choices, and locks you in, driving you to the gym instead.
THE substance of our deep-tech conversation was that there are very few questions being asked in the industry about the limits of the use of this tech, and the morality of regulating it. The old idea that “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should” was, my interlocutor suggested, not an issue, and wasn’t being addressed at all.
When I suggested that there was an existing national infrastructure in society for whom these deeper questions were an everyday focus, this kind, bright thirty-something looked completely blank, until I offered the view that the Church might have something to say — or at least be a place to talk about it.
It was yet another reminder that the vast majority of people in the UK live their lives without reference to any organised religion, and that the need for the Church to be in the storm of events — right in the mix of the huge challenges and dilemmas that our society faces, as modelled by the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth — is urgent and pressing.
AS THE most acute effects of the pandemic start to ease, our congregational art, poetry, and science project, “Aftermath”, is coming to a close. Taking our cue from the unusual plants that sprang up in the aftermath of the bombing of the church in 1940, we have planted these once again, watched them grow, witnessed them wither, and seen their seeds blown to other parts of London, just as their seeds were blown here.
Members of our Eco Church team have been an inspiration, reminding us that these plants that were classed as “weeds” were, in fact, pioneer plants, restoring scorched soil, growing in the devastation, providing food for other creatures, simply being themselves in the created order, and becoming “patient, resilient friends of unfriendly spaces”.
This month, learning from the example of these beautiful and varied pioneers, we will pray, “As we strive to build God’s Kingdom on earth, teach us patience, persistence, and boldness to challenge ideas which seem long-established and hostile.” Amen to that.
Crossed in love
THE time of burning is nearly here again. Next Sunday, we will burn the palm crosses from last year to make the ash for the beginning of Lent this year — a ritual that has been disrupted by the pandemic-generated need to keep everyone apart, but that has, at the same time, found new expression.
Last year, close filming made a powerful video for YouTube to aid us in our meditation at home; and the invitation, on Ash Wednesday itself, to our online congregation to make the sign of the cross with oil on their own foreheads caused many to feel that they had been moved and marked in a new way by this unexpected anointing.
CLEARING out my study, I found a notice that had been pinned to the notice board on 23 March 2020. It read: “Public worship is suspended until further notice.” We were wrong, because we didn’t understand clearly enough that we could gather in new ways, interpret our ancient rituals in new ways, and find innovative — dare I say it, pioneering — ways to be church in a society that is hurting and divided, just as is, in many ways, the Church itself.
If the novelist Iris Murdoch was anywhere near the truth when she observed, back in 1970, that “Christianity is not so much abandoned as unknown,” then that is even more acutely true in 2022. Once again, the opportunity presents itself for the Church to become more known — and felt — by a population that very often doesn’t even know that it could join in. And, if it does, doesn’t think it’s for them.
These days, I’m feeling more invigorated by the challenge, knowing that the weeds and the wheat grow together, and that the deepest tech belongs, as do all human dilemmas and endeavours, right at the heart of the gospel.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.