Praying beyond the clever contrivances: An Overview of AI

Jun 5, 2023 | Cyber Warfare, Flashpoints, READ

Whatever sources you draw on for keeping up to date with events, you are sure to have heard broadcasters and experts discussing the increasing role that Artificial Intelligence is already playing in our lives. From the creation of music and the arts, from student essays to dating partners, and influencing medical developments to those of social governance and military strategy, it has extended its influence over every stratum of life. But top tech leaders have now partnered together to send out strong warnings to the effect that our whole way of life is at risk, unless urgent safeguarding measures are put in place immediately.

Do the recent stark headline warnings merit the claim that AI should now be bracketed along with nuclear weapons and global pandemics as posing a grave threat to humankind’s continuing existence?

Even though the technical aspects of AI may lie well outside our personal experience and knowledge, when the winner of the Turing prize resigns from leading Google’s AI department so as to be free to voice his concerns about AI and the future of the entire world, then we as watchmen and women should be sitting up and taking notice.

But let’s be sure to do so from a faith-filled starting point, rather than an anxious, reactive one. It is the Holy Spirit of God who indwells us, and who leads us into all truth, helping us to discern truth from error and to navigate our way through all the challenges that surround us.

To help us do just that, we are offering two very different resources. Firstly, a piece I wrote way back in 2011 that I called Digital Electrical Servants – long before many recent developments had occurred, or AI had reached anything like the place it now occupies.

Ruach Breath of Life · Digital Electro Servants

Secondly, I came across this excellent Litany for Faithful Engagement with Artificial Intelligence from Seattle Pacific University. It makes a very good starter for prayer. 

What is AI?

Forbes Magazine describes it thus:

AI involves using computers to do things that generally require human intelligence, like “creating algorithms, or sets of rules, to sort, study and draw predictions from data. It also involves making decisions based on this data” – that is learning from new data and improving it over time.

Many of you may remember the story of HAL – the computer that went rogue with such devastating consequences in the film of Arthur Clark’s novel, “2001 A Space Odyssey.” Many, perhaps subconsciously, are concerned about something like that occurring in real life.

This article seems to me to be balanced starting point for exploring the question Will AI really make humans extinct? Seven deadly scenarios and how likely they are.

The Chairman of Google considers that perspective to be overly alarmist, arguing that if the people who had warned about electricity when it was first discovered had been heeded, we would never have enjoyed its inestimable benefits. Just think about it. Which of us does not find it convenient to ask our phone a question and come up with an instantaneous and helpful answer? If only it were all as simple a matter as asking Google or Siri the name of the capital of Mongolia!

A Wall Street Journal writer teamed up recently with technologists to create an avatar of herself and to swap roles with it for a day. She found that it was able to successfully attend to many of her tasks, including writing articles, and accessing her bank account. The fact that AI – which is still very much in its infancy – has already progressed to such a point that it was able to fulfil so much of her role for her demonstrates not only its potential for valuable time saving, but also for potential deception on a grand scale when used in the wrong hands. For example, many are warning that AI could stop banks accounts from working rather than helpfully spotting rogue transactions.

It is important to make it clear that our concern about this issue in no way stems from seeking to adopt a ‘Luddite’ position. The original Luddites certainly had genuine cause to be concerned about their employment, and it is entirely understandable that people should fear that developments in the field of AI will do away with their jobs, since that is what happens initially with every great leap forward for humankind.

The bugle call being sounded by the tech chiefs concerns not so much what is often referred to as ‘narrow’ AI of the sort we hear about every day (chat bots, driverless cars etc), but rather ‘Artificial General Intelligence’ (AGI) which:

. . . can feel, make decisions based on its sentiments, solve problems, learn, process languages, and perform other cognitive abilities. Without prior feeding of data, AGI should come up with something meaningful, regardless of the variables involved.’  

This article explains the differences between the two types of AI, as well as hinting at the really staggering pace at which progress is being made in these fields, so that things that were once regarded as being way-over-the-horizon possibilities are now considered by some to be within reach within the next year or two. This is a really helpful article in terms of showing how sophisticated Generative AI is now becoming.

Hearing Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI (who developed ChatGPT,)  warning a Senate committee concerning AI’s potentially huge dangers, and pleading with it to regulate the ways in which artificial intelligence develops, struck me at first as being as unlikely a development as the money-focused chiefs of the British Football Premier League pleading to cap the overly bloated wages of footballers! The fact that Sam was shortly joined in this request by many other tech chiefs reinforces the fact that this was no lone nervous voice, but rather a matter of serious concern. A widely publicised open letter signed by leading figures in the tech industry to business and political leaders around the world, has ensured that the matter of AI remains firmly centre stage in people’s minds and thoughts.

Many of these same people have suggested a global pause on the development of AI is vitally necessary, so as to allow time to determine and establish what ethical and social boundaries need to be imposed in the field. Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent physicist, and the business tycoon, Elon Musk, wrote a similar letter as long ago as 2015, warning of the potential risks as well as the benefits associated with AI. We will have more to say about the idea of such a pause later in this article.

Geoffrey Hinton, long considered one of the ‘Godfathers of AI,’ goes still further in this 4-minute clip from an interview with CNN. He cautions not only about such things as the risk of rogue nations manipulating electorates and the use of robot armies, but goes much further to warn of an existentialist threat: that if AI ‘gets the better of humans’, then every nation and every human being is in danger.

Hinton notes that at present something like 99% of the vast sums of money being spent on AI are focused on development, with barely 1% being devoted to the equally as important matter of ethics and security. Hinton would consider something much closer to a 50-50 split being more appropriate.

The simple fact is that AI is developing faster than even its programmers can keep up, let alone anyone else. It is entirely right and proper for Rishi Sunak to meet with Google and other tech giants, but there are just so many bases to cover if satisfactory and workable guidelines are to be drawn up and regulations passed. Seeking to find and implement some successful form of regulation is a challenging but necessary task – though whether anything that is purely voluntary will prove sufficient to ‘corral’ the massive pace at which AI is developing is another matter altogether.

In the right and wrong hands . . .

AI is here to stay. So much is obvious. The challenges come when dark powers are able to manipulate it for their own purposes, to control others and to ‘play’ God. We are well aware that these forces are already at work in every sphere, as satan seeks to pervert everything that is good. The joy and gift of companionship, for instance, has suffered much twisting and distortion under the power of social media, so that the worldviews become of many have become dangerously blinkered and unbalanced. It is so important to turn to the Word of God, and to godly friends to help us think and live ‘outside the box’ of our own small-mindedness. How grateful we can be for resources such as Bible Gateway and Bible Hub that enable us to dive ever deeper into the Word of God.

Many people ponder what the end of the world will look like, and many prophesy that it will come about as a result of X, Y and Z. With its unparalleled ability to comb the wealth of the whole worldwide web to come up with plausible answers to theological as well as personal questions, many are sure to be deceived if they put their trust only in what AI directs them to. Many false Christs have manifested through the centuries around the world, but the global reach of AI could well take this deception to entirely new levels.

To speculate for a moment, with regard to Jesus’ return, for example, might it be possible for people to create avatars, and to project apparent manifestations of our Lord’s second coming in many places around the world in order to lend credence to some counterfeit gospel? No wonder Jesus took such care to warn against being taken in by deceptions of many different kinds.

When people will tell you, ‘There He is!’ or ‘Here He is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in His day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. (Luke 21:23-24)

Scripture has a great deal to say about ‘The Day of the Lord,’ but it is before Jesus whom we will all one day stand. (2 Cor. 5:10, cf Rom. 14:10-12) Ellicott reminds us that whilst Jesus’ disciples recognised that He alone ‘has the words of eternal life,’ (John 6:68) Jesus Himself went further by declaring that His words are themselves spirit and life (John 6:63); that knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3), is a “word of life;” and that all these statements are summed up in the great declaration that He Himself is ‘the Word of life.’ (1 John 1:1)

The more we truly know Jesus, the more we should be able to recognise both false prophets and antichrists, as well as any false claims that the Messiah has returned, and to do our best to present the real Jesus to people.

In the meantime, it is good to share in prayer in what is happening now. We can already see the highly ambiguous ways in which facial recognition is being used in China not only for such useful things as spotting missing persons, or tracking criminals, but also for exercising social control over the population – and the Chinese are exporting their models to other countries, thereby raising the likelihood of these nations become ever more autocratic in their mindset and practices.

China already leads the world in terms of its surveillance of its citizens, with half the cameras of the entire world in just that one country. We are dangerously naïve if we do not perceive the end to which sophisticated microchips can be put. Much though we would prefer to focus purely on positive spiritual things, it is important to realise where developments in AI have taken us, as the following articles about home gadgets and other everyday items explore.

People have long reacted against cheap goods being made in China because they flood domestic markets and further diminish our manufacturing base. The new dimension to this known state of things are the security risks that come with everything from nuclear power stations to humble fridges. Thus we see seemingly positive things such as Chinese-made smart meters being installed into British homes and thereby becoming a security risk for denial of service.

Other items are sold or imposed on people as being a positive measure, whilst their potential for control is overlooked. Take a look at this post, for example, which tells of the introduction of the ‘Smart Pen’ in China, which keeps track of everything that students are writing.

AI and the focus of our prayers

In Malvern Mashal 451 we asked the question Why pray when the Bible tells us there is a time for war, and that there will be wars and rumours of wars? Since AI is here to stay, as we said before, perhaps we might wonder if it is far too big a subject for our humble and small prayers. Can we pray for it to be as great a blessing as the Lord can make it be? And to ward it off from many of its apparent attendant dangers?

Our fundamental focus in prayer should always be to see the Kingdom of God come on earth, and for the gospel of Christ to be preached to the ends of the earth. We would swiftly lose our true spiritual focus were we to become focused more on the state of the world than be concerned for the harvest of souls.

On the basis of Jesus’s prayer, “Your kingdom come,” however, along with the understanding that the Kingdom of God is bigger than the Chuch, an extremely important aspect in the outworking of prayer is that the core principles regarding who God is, and His intimate relationship with all that He has created (human and creation alike) are essential for a thriving, nourishing, wholesome world. These things are a matter of prayerful concern to us – in which case how can it not include such things as filling the Earth with truth, peace and righteousness, rather than allowing falsehood, hostility and tyranny to proliferate?

Writing to his protégé Timothy, Paul makes it clear that our prayers are meant to extend beyond immediate Church matters to be concerned for the whole of human society outside – not least to prepare the ‘soil’ to make conditions receptive for sharing the gospel. (1 Tim 2:1-6)

The more misinformation abounds, for example, the more difficult it becomes for the truth of the gospel to be communicated. All the more so in a world where trust in truth is fast disappearing, it is hard for people even to believe the gospel when they do hear it. Paul speaks of shining as lights in the midst of a warped and crooked generation, holding fast and holding out to others the word of life, so that on the day of Christ we may be found not to have run and laboured in vain. (Phil. 2:16)

No wonder we are called to walk upright! But if we live in a crooked society, that presents us with nothing but flawed examples of uprightness, and nothing to help us align ourselves to truth, how can we not grow crooked? It would be like asking runner beans to grow straight and tall without staking them.

We are watchmen . . .

The watchman [says], “Morning is coming, but night will soon return.” (Is. 21:12)

As watchmen and women, we are called to look and see what is coming our way, and to announce it so that right actions can be taken, and preparations made. In that respect, this whole matter of AI should surely be something of a central plank in our watchman’s turrets.

In chapter 21 of Isaiah, the prophet is carrying the burden of the Lord concerning a number of Gentile nations, and speaks out a warning. Commenting on this verse, Matthew Henry wrote:

There comes first a morning of light, and peace, and opportunity; but afterward comes a night of trouble and calamity. If there be a morning of youth and health, there will come a night of sickness and old age . . . It is our wisdom to improve the present morning, in preparation for the night that is coming after it. Inquire, return, come. We are urged to do it quickly, for there is no time to trifle. Those that return and come to God, will find they have a great deal of work to do, and but little time to do it in.

That AI has brought morning light to many is certainly true. There is, for instance, the example of the person in Holland who was paralysed, but who can now walk again as a result of the power of thought-controlled technology being implanted just above the brain region that is responsible for leg movement.  Or the new ‘superbug-killing antibiotic that AI has discovered’.

But we have also heard the tech watchmen raising their voices to warn of a very dark night ahead if these new technologies are not safely ‘corralled,’ while there is yet time to do it.

So here is our watchman’s call: we invite you to harness your friendships, prayer partnerships and fellowships to seek God urgently over this issue. Ask Him how He would have you pray, and intercede as He leads you. Judging by how poorly American senators understood the core issues when confronting Mark Zuckerberg, the social impact that his social media platforms are having on young minds, highly informed and thought-out responses are clearly what are called for now, rather than ones that will almost immediately be superseded by events. The EU are certainly taking this seriously. Pray for safe measures to be incorporated into wise legislation policies and guidance.

How does AI fit into the battle for Truth in a post truth era?

Despite the necessary rise in fact-checking web sites, differentiating between truth and falsity is becoming a more complex matter all the time. As a perhaps not so remote example of the sort of issue that could arise, what would happen if a recording were to surface of a certain person saying something they most certainly should not have said: what is to stop them claiming now that they never said it, and that it must clearly be a fake recording? In a world where so many leaders lie so egregiously, may the real truth surface and prevail.

See also our article Understanding the Times (i) : The Bridge of Truth in a ‘post-truth’ Era

The blurring of what is real and what is not

Artificial Intelligence runs considerable risks in terms of blurring the distinction between objective reality and subjective manipulation, leaving people – and young minds in particular – vulnerable to subtly or blatantly sown biases and distortions of the truth. How important it is, then, that we ask the Lord to raise up a generation for Himself. May we be like John the Baptist, who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah to pray for the Lord to turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and of the proud and disobedient to humble themselves before the Lord and to acknowledge Him in everything. (Lk. 1:17; cf Mal. 4:5-6)

Send forth a cleansing wind over the children and young people of the world, Father. We are grieved at the self-reliance our pride has led us to adopt, but ask for the power of the Spirit to make the ways of the Lord known to millions. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Would a pause in development help?

The tech chiefs have called for a ‘pause’ in the development of AI to give time for due consideration to be given to these matters, and for binding regulations to be put in place before any further advances are made. Given that companies have invested so deeply in launching new products, however, and that there is no obvious way to enforce such terms and conditions around the globe, would such a pause not simply play into the hands of those who are less concerned with ethical considerations and more concerned with taking every opportunity to seize crucial initiatives? Not to mention slowing down research into truly beneficial developments, such as those in the medical sphere?

While it is true that the world has done reasonably well in terms of regulating nuclear weapons, the underlying reason for that perhaps lies in the fact that aggressor nations know full well that they are every bit as much at risk as any potential victim. By comparison, the ‘AI ‘horse has already bolted a very long way from its starting stall.

Further thoughts and articles concerning some of the complexities AI poses

I am old enough to remember looking back to the day when I envisaged futuristic developments as being little more than robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers to help us at home, smart devices to help protect those same homes, and more advanced instruments in our spacecraft.

As we have seen, however, rather than being merely some far distant imagined possibility on the horizon, AI ‘bots’ have evolved the capacity to invent, more or less instantly, highly sophisticated ‘counterfeit’ songs and music, art work, speeches and examination answers in the style requested: so much so now that myriad song writers, script writers, teachers and exam boards are deeply concerned that they are in danger of being duped by the thyat which was written by clever algorithms.

The issues are complex. AI trawls copyrighted material, for example, to get its information. What happens to copyright therefore when AI prepared documents that incorporate those findings? For example, suppose a lawyer asked a question concerning a case, and AI comes up with answers that prove to be purely made up, and therefore wrong. What happens if those ‘findings’ then get used in a real case? Who is responsible then? In such instances, AI is simply adding additional layers to already significant challenges in these fields. See these articles:

Exam board guidance
Hollywood screen writers

In this longer 18-minute interview, Geoffrey Hinton discusses what AI is, and equally what it is not, as well as going into more detail about its capacity for both good and evil and the huge need for balance.

And these, too, for providing an overview of some of the benefits and risks of AI – as well as this helpfully illustrated history of AI.

Scott Galloway adopts a more positive view on this blog page, arguing that in the long run, new technologies lead to greater employment opportunities, and he offers some interesting historical comparisons.

Space: the Final Frontier – and the Implications of AI for global control

I mentioned earlier the fictitious example of the sentient computer HAL that became too clever for its own circuits and went ‘rogue’ with devastating consequences to the crew. Like it or not, we are all caught up in a major space race now. The risks are huge, and AI will be right at the heart of it. We certainly cannot afford to underestimate just how seriously certain nations are taking the notion of warfare in space. The whole system of spy satellites is vital for keeping track of all military communications – as demonstrated by the massive ‘denial of service’ Russia caused in Ukraine as its invasion got under way in February 2022, and again subsequently, as this report from the European Parliament spells out.

Bearing in mind that China views space as an entirely legitimate part of its territory to defend or attack, their development of weapons that can ‘grab’ and ‘kill’ other satellites seems particularly sinister, and  threatens the network of military communications that the nations, and especially America, are so dependant on.

Any number of papers and articles are available online, charting the vital role AI plays at every stage of space exploration. I am more concerned here to help us keep in mind the threatening ways in which these developments can be used, with a view to praying into them. As this article makes clear, developments in this arena require offensive measures because, by definition, any response to an attack would come too late by the time that communications had been restored.

Not only are these threats very real, this whole area is fraught with potential miscalculation. Whereas the recent hostile Chinese measures against American planes and ships in the Taiwan Strait have avoided direct contact by the barest of margins, the potential for the misinterpretation of an event in space is huge. Imagine space debris shutting a satellite down, for example, and that then being misconstrued as a deliberate act. Neither can we afford to forget the very serious wildcard threat posed by North Korea’s unpredictable leadership, with its proliferation of ballistic nuclear missiles.

With such pressing dangers in both space, and on Earth (not least the war in Ukraine), it does feel as though the world is facing a renewed threat like that posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in their day. At the human level, while the development of superior weapons is by no means necessarily conclusive, it is obviously critical. But for us as intercessors, there are considerations here that extend beyond the purely military.

Back in 1980, I remember the Lord highlighting some verses from the very short book of Obadiah with regard to developments in space. (The Eagle, as in ‘The Eagle has landed,’ was, of course, the name of Apollo 11’s space capsule that touched down on the moon).

We have heard a message from the LORD:
An envoy was sent to the nations to say,
“Rise, let us go against her for battle”—
“See, I will make you small among the nations;
you will be utterly despised.

The pride of your heart has deceived you,
you who live in the clefts of the rocks
and make your home on the heights,
you who say to yourself,
‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’

Though you soar like the eagle
and make your nest among the stars,
from there I will bring you down

What vast amounts of national pride and scientific excellence, to say nothing of billions of dollars, humankind invested into landing people on the moon, and is now investing in exploring deeper space. And what a warning these verses contain against the pride of the nations America as well as China and Russia amongst others. Lord, have mercy.

When Paul urged us to “put on the whole armour of God, that we may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil,” he was well aware that the spiritual warfare we are caught up extends to embrace the whole cosmos. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:11-12)

Our desire is still to seek the ways of peace and holiness, but the West should not neglect taking appropriate measures to counter ever increasing threats from every quarter: from beneath the seas to above the skies. May the Lord bless all who are seeking to maintain peace, resist evil, protect the innocent and defend homelands honourably, whether at a physical or cyber level. May He watch and rule over all the ways in which AI both develops and is used.

A final reflection

Every one of us benefits today in countless ways from developments in AI. for which we can be entirely grateful. Our concern in this article has been to try to look at it in a broader way. I have heard it taught that, when the Lord God forbade Adam from eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it was because He wanted us to grow into an understanding of these things. In the same way, Jesus taught His disciples step by step, building on where they were up to and what they were equipped to handle. Even when certain teachings and insights seemed entirely beyond them, He was utterly intentional in developing their knowledge holistically.

Our trouble is that we want to know everything now, and to experiment untrammelled, rather than seeking to develop the ‘roundedness’ and the balance that God has in mind. So we see what we want, and look for the quickest and least inconvenient route possible to taking hold of it.

Daniel was so right when he said that in the last days knowledge shall increase (Dan. 12:4) but the commands in Proverbs to get wisdom at all costs are also relevant, together with the reminder that it is the fear of the Lord that is the hallmark of all true wisdom, knowledge and understanding.

As things stand, our knowledge far outstrips our experience and our wisdom, not least because we leave God out of the whole equation. We have forgotten that He is the source of all wisdom, that all things hold together in Him and that He wants to partner with us, rather than us forging ahead purely with our own light.

May our knowledge not run unchecked and detached from safety and ethical considerations, but rather work more closely in harness and in tandem with Him. He is the source of all wisdom, all things hold together in Him and He longs for us to partner with Him, rather than forge ahead under our own steam and by the light of our own fire.

Concluding thoughts

We truly do not want to downplay the enormous benefits and value AI can bring to every area of life, but it is important to sound a warning, for we are dealing here with an invention that can inflict serious limitations, and thereby do immense harm.

Whilst we do not want to over-spiritualise matters of technology, there is no denying that Satan takes every opportunity to limit people’s freedom of spirit and freedom of choice, especially when it comes to responding the Lord Jesus. It is perhaps all part of his strategy to make humankind think that it can solve all mysteries by its own efforts, not realising that we were meant to live in relationship with the Lord Jesus, in the image of God Himself, rather than to recreate ourselves in our own, fallen image.

AI does not have, and will never have, the capacity to conform us into the image of Christ. It cannot take the place of the work of the cross, nor renew in spirit all who look to the Lord Jesus. And at the end of the day, nothing can change the fact that it is appointed for everyone everywhere ‘to die once and then to face judgement.’ (Heb. 9:27) However much modern society may try to do away with such inconvenient and disconcerting truths, satan does not have the final claim on the human spirit; that belongs to God.

Father, thank You for the progress we have made to be able to think and imagine entirely new ways of working, living and inventing. We ask that You will keep us from selling our soul to entities that will exercise more control over us than you ever intended, but which of themselves can bring nothing of the life that is truly life.

LORD Almighty, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. No one is good, except You alone. You made heaven and earth; You alone do marvellous things and perform wonders. You alone are God. Amen.



Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash


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