Who Am I if A.I. Can Replace Me?
On A.I. and Identity in Christ
About the author: Sara recently submitted her dissertation at the University of Aberdeen on the concept of divine personhood in Karl Barth. Sara is passionate about theological study, especially modern and contemporary doctrines of God, and its import for the life of the church and world. She currently lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, with her husband and two daughters.
Since the launch of ChatGPT, I have experienced a constantly increasing stream of articles, posts, and advertisements about artificial intelligence (AI). The ever-present and looming question on social media is: what are we going to do about AI? My social media feed ranges from ads trying to sell methods of using AI to create profitable side hustles to articles that raise pressing ethical concerns about AI to those warning of the possible future destruction of humanity because of AI advances. Although the dystopian nightmare of AI becoming sentient is part of the discourse and being addressed by scientists, the greater concerns are represented by several news stories over the last few weeks.
My goal here is not to advocate a Luddite position against AI. Rather, I intend to meditate on God here and now by theologically reflecting on the fears and ethical problems surrounding AI. Central to many AI-related new stories is the issue of profit, which I believe reveals the precariousness of our identities and lives in our market-driven world.
There has been a flurry of recent legal action and strikes related to the use of AI leading to job displacement, the issue of AI “borrowing” copyrighted data, and the already demonstrated ability of AI to produce misinformation and replicate racial stereotypes. The resolution of the Hollywood Writers Strike signaled a major victory over AI advancing on jobs and wages as writers successfully fought for a fairer share of studio profits. In the same vein, several famous authors recently filed a lawsuit against OpenAI for copyright infringement (see also, here, here, and here).
The issue at hand is—who profits from AI and at whose expense?
I believe the real issue with AI is succinctly summarized by Adam Conover, the WGA negotiator: “We didn’t get bogged down in the science-fiction version…We didn’t protect ourselves against the technology, we protected ourselves against the humans on the other side of the table who are trying to screw us every day.” Why not hire actors for one day’s wage so that you can digitally manipulate their image with AI in perpetuity? Companies and individuals recognize the vast potential AI has as a tool for increasing productivity and profit.
The well-founded worries about mass job displacement due to AI reflect the ever-onward march of our market-driven capitalistic world that reduces humans to their ability to produce and consume.1 For something to be ascribed reality or worth, it must be placed on the market.2 Our market-driven society equates our identities and security as persons with what we produce and purchase.3 We know that we are expendable, and AI seems just the sort of technology that could replace us so that someone else’s pockets are lined. Beyond the ethical issues, I think this is precisely why AI is so threatening to us. What if a computer algorithm becomes more efficient and profitable than me? What does that make me?
I struggle with equating who I am and my worth with what I produce while deeply fearing that if I do not meet the (academic) market’s expectations then the financial stability of my family will lie in ruins. Yet, I also find myself viewing and reducing others in this exact same way. At times, I feel trapped by the market’s omnipresence in my life. This feeling is only enhanced by AI’s potential uses. When the questions of AI and its role in our market-driven society loom, Karl Barth’s consistent affirmation of our secure identity in Christ provides an essential perspective to consider.
For Barth, the reality of our salvation in Christ, our identity as beloved children of God, is true of us from all eternity, whether or not we even know it. This truth directly opposes the unending insecurity and need to create our identities in a capitalistic world that often seeks to take advantage of others for profit.4 God eternally gives Godself to us in Christ for our benefit. Christ’s work on our behalf is secure, true, and real, because it is the accomplishment of God’s eternal decision to be for humanity.5 Christ’s life, death, and resurrection secure us for communion and fellowship with God and bring us into God’s community—the church.6 This means that nothing we do as human beings can add to Christ’s work and our identity in him. Rather, the Christian life entails the actualizing or living out what is already true about us.
This truth has important implications for all aspects of our lives, including our economic and work lives. While in no way devaluing the importance of human work or action, this allows Barth to properly situate its importance: “In no sense is it [work] heavenly or divine. When it tries to be, it can only be demonic.”7 Work is never done for work’s sake, but it is part of God’s wider call to serve the kingdom of God on this earth by witnessing to Christ and serving others. However, Barth is adamant that our human work does not add to divine action; instead, it is our creaturely response of obedience to the perfect work that God in Christ has already accomplished.8 Recognizing that our identity as loved children of God cannot be earned, but is always the free, eternal grace of God provides us with the necessary security and freedom to address AI in two important ways since it threatens our sense of self and what it means to be human in a market-driven world.
First, if we no longer view AI as a threat to our identity, there is no reason to view it as an inherently problematic tool. We are free to carefully consider how AI might be a helpful tool. I now use an internet search engine for questions that I used to haul out my printed encyclopedia to find the answer! What if we intentionally used AI to organize data and find information quickly to free up some of our time to build relationships and care for others? Yi-li Lin argued that AI assisted him in this way in his pastoral ministry.
Second, and most importantly, we must seriously consider the goals and aims of the use of AI. We should be asking: who profits? If it disadvantages and exploits others for the profit of another, we should resolutely stand against this use of AI. I am deeply troubled that our economy is structured in such a way that large corporations are disproportionately in positions of power to utilize AI and other technology to disadvantage others. The Writers Guild strike is an excellent example of action that sought to fight against the real possibility of exploitation. Barth opposed all conceptions of the economy and work that are based on competition that leads to the disadvantaging of others.9 Part of our identity in Christ means we are always for our fellow-humans, the particular individual person in front of us, and oppose the inhumane. AI is a challenge precisely because it is a powerful means that can lead to the inhumane exploitation of others.
When confronted with the rightfully troubling questions surrounding AI, may we pause before panic and anxiety set in by gratefully acknowledging that who we are is not determined by the market or our productivity. Instead, we can move forward in confidence because God’s eternal love for us motivates us to fight against any exploitative use of AI and our own tendency to reduce and use others.
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Daniel M. Bell, Jr. The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 94–110.
Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2019), 648.
My criticism of our market-driven society is not an apology for socialism or any other economic system, but simply because this is the reality of the current world. I am firmly convinced that the gospel of Christ confronts all political and economic structures.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. in 13 pts, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–75), IV/1, 211–357, 514–642, 740–79.
Barth, CD II/2, 94–194; CD IV/1, 22–66.
Barth, CD III/4, 470–564.
Barth, CD III/4, 521.
Barth, CD III/4, 482.
Barth, CD III/4, 537–55.