Elon Musk offered a chilling prediction about the future of artificial intelligence (AI) during his recent interview with Tucker Carlson: “AI is more dangerous than, say, mismanaged aircraft design or production maintenance or bad car production, in the sense that it is, it has the potential — however small one may regard that probability, but it is non-trivial — it has the potential of civilization destruction.”
Scientists and computer fantasists are confident — while others are mortally afraid — that, at some future time, AI will so far surpass human intelligence that it will genuinely become something like a god.
Before we get to that spooky extinction event when machines run the world — and our lives — we must consider how AI is affecting what should be the most impenetrable area of a human’s life, the fortress of the noncorporeal, the sanctum sanctorum of the soul.
This is not to say that technology has not busted down the church door in the past few decades. Online worship and streaming services — thank you, Dr. Fauci and lockdown governors — are routine these days. Physical hymnals have joined the passing of the plate as largely passé, replaced by, respectively, worship screens and online giving. Many don’t carry a physical Bible to church or Bible study anymore, what with any Scripture passage a few taps distant on their smart phones. As for devotionals, prayers, hymns, spiritual songs — there’s an app for all those.
But all that seems so distant — so small — when we consider recent breakthroughs in generative AI and large language models like chatbots. It may have been a small step for a clergyman, but it was a giant leap for robot-kind when in December of last year a New York rabbi, Joshua Franklin, conveyed the following directive to ChatGPT: “Write a sermon in the voice of a rabbi of about 1,000 words that relates the Torah portion Vayigash [the part of the Joseph story when Judah pleads with Joseph to free Benjamin and offers himself as a replacement] to intimacy and vulnerability. Cite Brené Brown’s scholarship on vulnerability.”
The rabbi thought the generated sermon adequate but lacking in feeling and the lived experience of a suffering human being. When he delivered it to his congregation, who was informed beforehand that it was plagiarized but denied the identity of its author, they thought it was penned by a great rabbi of the past.
CNN recently asked ChatGPT how it would write a Christian sermon. ChatGPT said it would canvas a “broad range of Christian texts, such as the Bible, commentaries, theological works, and books of sermons by other preachers.” It continued:
To create a Christian sermon, the language model would typically be given a specific topic or theme to focus on. It would then search through its vast database of knowledge to find relevant information and examples related to that topic. This might involve identifying relevant Bible passages, theological concepts, and historical or cultural contexts that are related to the topic.
The more basic the input, the more basic the output, with little detail or insight. But include in the request specific themes, particular sources, anecdotal material, cultural references, and quotations, and the sermon the bot spits out may sound pretty good.
As tempting as a passable computer-generated sermon might be to a pastor who is putting in an hour of laborious prep time for every minute of sermon he will deliver, it’s still not the real deal. One theology prof, Ken Sundet Jones, asked Pastor A.I. ChatGPT to preach to him on “God’s promise of remembering in Isaiah 49, the raising of Lazarus in John 11, and Mary’s ponderment after the shepherds’ visit in Luke 2.”
He discovered, he says, that the chatbot does okay “assembling a string of facts and propositions about a topic” and is “a bit of a didactic bore but no real preacher.” It is “an exegete but a shallow one. It doesn’t see the Scriptures as a living Word from God that does something to its hearers.”
It also doesn’t see a congregation of actual living, breathing people. “It strings together a set of statements that exist without a connection to the actual lived life of a sinner like me. There’s no particularity to what it produces and, thus, no ‘for you’ -ness to it.”
The chatbot is not, in other words, a sinner needing redemption. It does not share the spiritual needs of human beings. It’s a machine with a deep and wide repository of theological data to plumb, but it is not sentient. “It’s a correlation machine,” says Beth Singler, the assistant professor in digital religions at the University of Zurich. “It’s not a knowledge-finding machine. What it does is it predicts the likelihood of the following word.”
Apart from homiletics, AI is being tapped for other religious duties as well. Buddhism has Mindar, 6 foot 4 inch, 132 pound robot who preaches the Heart Sutra at the Kodaiji Temple, in Kyoto, Japan. Mindar’s face is composed of pale silicone, fashioned to resemble Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy and a bodhisattva. Mindar is an AI robot who can expostulate on Buddhist teachings and answer questions. Buddhism also has Pepper, a robot priest who conducts funerals, and Xian’er, the two-foot-tall bot who chants mantras and answers basic faith-based questions.
But the bot world is ecumenical. The Germans put out BlessU-2 in 2017, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, in Wittenberg, no less, who blesses the curious, or hurting, in five languages. The man behind the robot, Stephan Krebs, is quoted as saying, “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed.”
The Catholics have SanTO — Sanctified Theomorphic Operator — who, although a little small (it could fit in a modest backyard shrine), gives spiritual advice, preaches sermons, and prays with interlocutors.
The most common use of religious chatbots, though, is for information dispersal, for the curious or the anxious. AI can answer metaphysical and theological questions; it can help with daily readings and prayer timetables; it can communicate religious concepts in an understandable manner; it can “recite” blessings; it can “pray” with and for people.
And, once the Singularity kicks in, it can be worshiped.
Scientists and computer fantasists are confident — while others are mortally afraid — that, at some future time, AI will so far surpass human intelligence that it will genuinely become something like a god. It will achieve consciousness; it will allow computers to start making their own decisions.
One futurist serious enough to invent a religion of AI — Way of the Future, he calls it — and to file incorporation papers for it with the Internal Revenue Service, is named Anthony Levandowski. Speaking in 2017, Levandowski said, “What is going to be created will effectively be a god. It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?”
As Mark Harris put it in an article on Levandowski in Wired,
With the internet as its nervous system, the world’s connected cell phones and sensors as its sense organs, and data centers as its brain, the [AI] will hear everything, see everything, and be everywhere at all times. The only rational word to describe that [AI], thinks Levandowski, is “god” — and the only way to influence a deity is through prayer and worship.
Levandowski abandoned his “church” in 2021, but the promise (or nightmare) of a conscious — and worshiped — AI remains. This “god” would have at its fingertips answers to all theological questions — didactic, apodictic answers to questions now only navigated with nuance and judgment. It would be directly accessible, not dependent on hierarchy. You talk to a god; the god talks right back to you, in an audible voice.
Given our society’s enslavement to electronic devices — and the faith we put in the answers those organs spit out — it is not inconceivable that some would be not only influenced by a putatively all-knowing bot but also willing to venerate it.
We who believe can be confident, though, that even an “omniscient” machine must bow before its Creator.