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Is AI a Creature or a Tool?

‘I think it’s important to… think about GPT-4 as a tool, not a creature.’

These were the words of Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI (who own ChatGPT), who announced last week the opening of his company’s first international offices in London. The quote was from Altman's US Senate hearing in May, where he tried to reassure the Senate and the watching media that generative AI in general, and ChatGPT in particular, is both safe and beneficial for the world.

But is it adequate to view artificial intelligence as a mere ‘tool’? I’m not sure I agree.

Is AI a Creature?

I do agree with Altman that AI shouldn’t be characterised as a ‘creature’, insofar as I don’t believe AI will ever gain consciousness- the first-person subjective experience of being oneself. In his book Homo Dues, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are simply mechanistic machines made of proteins, and therefore consciousness (and indeed all other human experiences) can be ultimately reduced to the products of electrical brain activity. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before AI will be able to replicate this electrical activity and gain consciousness.

However, this only works within a naturalistic worldview. If consciousness is a result of non-physical elements of our humanity, as is repeatedly implied throughout Scripture (Gen 2:7, Phil 1:23-24), then no matter how complex its circuitry, AI will never gain a 'living soul' or genuine consciousness.

Is AI a Tool?

Equally, I also don’t think AI can be seen as a mere ‘tool’. In their lecture The AI Dilemma, Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin (the creators of Netflix’s docudrama The Social Dilemma) describe social media as humanity’s ‘first contact’ with AI. They highlight that social media algorithms, that purport to simply connect, inform and entertain users, have had cataclysmic unforeseen consequences, from the adolescent mental health epidemic, to the breaking of democracies (and much in between).

The power of new AI technologies dwarfs that of social media. If uncontrolled, what are we potentially unleashing on humanity? It’s certainly not a mere new ‘tool’.

What is AI?

I suggest that we should see AI, not as a creature or tool, but as an entirely new incoming stratum of reality. Humanity’s ‘first contact’ with AI changed nearly every element of life. Who knows what the ‘second contact’ will bring?

Therefore, I believe we need a new and comprehensive vision for what it means to live and speak for Jesus in this new reality.

How do we act with integrity when reality and fiction become indistinguishable? How do we establish authentic relationships when algorithms can replicate intimacy? How do we love our neighbours when their livelihoods are completely displaced by intelligent machines? How do we engage with corporations that transcend national legislations, and purportedly hold the power to destroy humanity?

For Christians in Big Tech, the urgent call is the prioritisation of integrity, dignity, and responsibility over profit and hubris. And for all of us, we need to be prepared for this incoming reality and willing to adapt in ways as yet unforeseen. The challenge is daunting. The question is: will we rise to it?

A shorter version of this article was initially published by the London Institute for Contemporary Christian, in their Connecting with Culture blog.


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