Should We Be Worried About Artificial Intelligence?

Should AI be feared or celebrated? Can computers actually possess “intelligence” or “think”? Is human death merely a “technical problem”?

Oct 11, 2018

Should AI be feared or celebrated? Can computers actually possess “intelligence” or “think”? Is human death merely a “technical problem”? In a world where technology is advancing so rapidly, where do we ground our hope? This week on Ask Away, Jo Vitale and special guest John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, discuss the implications of AI (and AGI) for humanity and for the Christian worldview. To see Professor Lennox’s #TrendingQuestions lecture and Q&A on this same question, visit our Facebook page or our YouTube channel.

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Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. In the last several decades, technological advancements have seemed to outpace our ability to understand their ethical implications. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and other fields have given us a glimpse into a world where we can do things that were relegated to a science-fiction novels just a few decades previous. It's some people have become very nervous about what these advancements mean for humanity as a whole. Should Christians fear or celebrate artificial intelligence? What do these technological breakthroughs mean for human dignity and human worth? But before we get started, even though I am saddened to say that Vince is traveling today, I am excited to announce that we have joining us in our studios, Dr. John Lennox, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Oxford. John, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and about your new book called, Can Science Answer Everything? coming out in January?

Dr. John Lennox: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted to be with you today. I am, as you say, professor emeritus of mathematics, which simply means, I'm old.

Jo Vitale: Not quite.

Dr. John Lennox: That doesn't mean I've stopped working, and over the past years, I've been interested in the interface between science, philosophy, and essentially, the Christian faith, so I have been involved in many public debates. And one of the big questions in our culture is, what real authority has science? Because many people treat science as a guru that will answer everything, and they think science can explain everything. I've written out as a book that I hope is somewhat more accessible than some of the other books I've written in the past, to discuss this question of explanation. What do we mean by an explanation? How far can science explain? My major point in it is that science is successful because it asks a limited range of questions, but it's certainly can't explain everything.

Jo Vitale: I can't tell you how delighted I am to have John on the show today. In fact, I don't think John knows this, but the first time I ever had to speak for RZIM was at a training weekend in Oxford. And I found out as I was preparing for the day that I had to follow on from John. I can tell you what a terrible moment that was. The thing, "Oh, no, I have to follow John Lennox." But actually after sitting and listening to you for about five minutes, John, this sort of relief washed over me when I realized there's no way anyone expects whoever comes after John to be able to deliver this sort of content. And after that I thought, as long as I string some coherent sentences together, it'll all be fine. So John, we're thrilled to have you here today.

Dr. John Lennox: Thank you.

Jo Vitale: Thank you for joining us.

Michael Davis: Absolutely. We've got a lot to cover, and a lot of questions, so let's get into it. The first question is, as artificial intelligence research continues to advance, what is your opinion on whether this is something Christians should celebrate or something we should fear?

Dr. John Lennox: It depends entirely on what kind of AI we're talking about. Because the kind of what we should really call narrow AI that we're all familiar with, is the kind of thing that operates are digital assistants like Siri and Alexa. It's the kind of thing that's used in online selling to keep a track of what you are buying or what you're interested in, and then to suggest some other things you might be interested in. And it's has achieved some spectacular successes in medicine. For example, there are AI systems that deal with X-rays, and you can bring the X-ray of your lungs and they will be rapidly compared with hundreds of thousands of other X-rays, and the diagnosis will be given to you with an accuracy that is usually way beyond the world's best medical people. So, there's some hugely positive things to be thankful for, but there's a downside with all technology.

And even with the level of narrow AI, which can be used for recognizing a terrorist face in a crowd, it can also be used for surveillance. And if that gets into the wrong hands, you can have almost complete social control of a society. So, there are pluses and minuses. But the thing that tends to scare a lot of people is artificial general intelligence. That is the quest for creating a super-intelligence, either complicity out of enhanced humans, or based on silicon. But an intelligence that so far surpasses all of our intelligences, that people get concerned, "What if it doesn't want us humans to live?" That's the extreme negative scenario.

Michael Davis: Too many risks.

Dr. John Lennox: Now, masses of this is hype. And I think it's important that we separate the hype from the reality. So, on the one hand we should be very thankful for advances that are helping us medically and so on, but we need to turn a critical ethical eye on developments that could, for instance, as famously recently, invade our privacy in a very big way. And also then the end, the social control, and the fear, the remote fear because we're nowhere near there yet of a super intelligence that doesn't like us. Of course, a benign super intelligence some people would like to see it, right?

Jo Vitale: Right. It's sort of an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty really, isn't it? I mean, I for one, I'm all full self-driving cars because when in driving, it doesn't have much to be said for it. I guess as human beings, there's always that struggle we have that we tend to think what can we do rather than what ought we to do. And they say hindsight is 20/20, but it feels like one of those key issues with foresight would actually be much more important in this day.

Dr. John Lennox: That's absolutely right. And it is right to say that many people, looking at these long-term potentialities, are increasingly pushing hard on the ethical questions. If such a trajectory is possible, that might be very bad for humanity as a whole. What can we build into the systems to avoid it? So ethical concerns are not on the back burner, they're right in the front side.

Michael Davis: I think it's all signs, right? I mean, we are talking about like from genetics and some others, so it's not just an artificial intelligence, correct?

Dr. John Lennox: Oh No, it's not. It covers a whole lot of things, that's the problem. We have, first of all, the idea of enhancing human intelligence by building technology in. Then we have started from scratch with raw materials that are not conscious, building some kind of intelligence onto silicon, then we have other people who think we're going to be able to upload our brains on this silicon because biological material, bio-mass perishes, silicon is much more durable and so on. And often, people are thinking of a combination of these things. Perhaps a combination of humanity vastly enhanced by technology, but what is it in the end? Is it an artifact with virtually no human dimension to it, or is it very largely biology that has been enhanced in some way?

Jo Vitale: It brings towards the chilling line from Frankenstein by the novelists Mary Shelley, all the way back published in 1880 when the monster turns to Frankenstein and he says, "I ought to be thy Adam, but I'm rather the fallen angel." And you have that sort of feeling, don't you? Which way will it go? And I think for me, what I feel so overwhelming about is, how on earth do you regulate something when it's such a global interest industry? It sort of makes the Space Race feel a little bit like an egg and spoon race at an elementary school compared to how rapidly this is just taking off.

Dr. John Lennox: That's right, Vladimir Putin has said this is the most important thing, and whoever has control of it, controls the world. And he's right in that sense. Trillions of dollars are going into it, and there is an event center, national raised to train people to do research in AI so that their country will gain the upper hand.

Michael Davis: How do you see, let's say the fact that the Christian influence on Western civilization is taking back? Because we've seen in science, and how, let's say secular nations like China and Russia have viewed these types of advancements. How do you see the Christian worldview basically getting push-backed in regards to the ethical treatment of these technologies?

Dr. John Lennox: The Christian worldview gets pushed back. Here's the simple level. If you take a survey of the people who are writing all these things of a high level, people like Harari and so on, you discover that most of them are atheist by conviction. So the naturalist worldview permeates the AI business and drives it along in a very obvious sense. You see, if you believe that the human mind has come about without any guidance from outside, then of course, you will be much more predisposed to believe that if now humans take over the process and now use human intelligent design, they will get to a super intelligence far quicker. So, it's natural to suppose that if life arose essentially spontaneously in the biological terms, we'll certainly get there using human intelligence in terms of silicon and artificial life. So, that atheistic worldview is driving it, and it's a very strong warning in a way to Christians, that we've got to work out something intelligent to say about this whole business.

Jo Vitale: It has such fascinating implications, doesn't it? Around that central question of what does it mean to be human? Really. If your starting point is with basically flashing machines, then where do you get in terms of questions like morality and human value? It's fascinating to me because we're in this cultural moment, for example, with me too, which is really in the throws of where we are as sort of global culture right now. To me, when I look at the roots of that, it really comes down to objectifying human beings and dehumanizing them rather than seeing them as sacred and valuable and somehow made in God's image.

But what I find fascinating is the way we blur the lines that way by making people into objects, but then we're doing the opposite with machines and we humanize objects. I find it so interesting, for example, Alexa, that she's given a female name, and she speaks with a female voice. And it's like as humans, we can't help ourselves maybe because we're so relational in the way that we're made that we want to relate to machines. And so you find this sort of fascinating blurring of humanizing objects and objectifying humans.

Dr. John Lennox: That's right. The other thing that comes into this is the fact that people are voluntarily giving away a lot of themselves, of their personal information, of where they're going and what they're talking about. They're giving up quite voluntary to a machine that is almost appearing too many people omniscient, the Internet of things. And young people particularly, what I notice is, that if they lose their connection, they're dead. And so, the Internet of things, Facebook and all these other social media are becoming god-like in terms of the way in which people trust them, depend on them, and see their meaning as defined by them.

Michael Davis: Interesting. So you talked about, actually Jo, you were talking about the understanding what it means to be human. How is this in contrast to, let's say the biblical view of being human?

Dr. John Lennox: Well, it's in spectacular contrast because you see, if you're thinking of the main driver being naturalism, then the biblical message is the exact opposite of that. It's saying human intelligence, human life did not come to pass by mindless unguided processes. Human beings are created in the image of God, and I'm rather amused in a way of the quest for super intelligence because one already exists. It's called God. Human beings are created by a super intelligence, and this gives them infinite dignity, and we need to recover that dignity. You see, the biblical view is that we are made in the image of God. The universe, which is beautiful, shows God's glory, it wasn't made in his image, only humans are. They are unique as image bearers.

Now, in this kind of futurist AGI scene, we are trying to create things in our image, but unfortunately we are a damaged and flawed race. And so the problem is, unless we go back to the root of our being, we're going to fail to understand just how dignified human beings version 1.0 are, and so we're going to try and "improve them." But whether it's going to be an improvement or not, is a very big question.

Jo Vitale: John, could you speak a little bit to the implications for what it means in terms of our relationships. I'm just thinking of the fact that often as Christians, we'll talk about love only being possible because we have freedom of the will, and God creating us with freedom of the will. But how does that work when it comes to AGI, for example, and thinking down the line about robots and things like that? Do you think it's ... There've been some interesting movies in the last few years about human beings falling in love with machines and looking into that dynamic. Do you think such a thing could be possible in the future?

Dr. John Lennox: Well, if you first think of robots, the lowest level, which don't necessarily involve AGI. Robots, their intelligence is simulated because in them intelligence is decoupled from consciousness. Now, human beings version 1.0 are created by God who links together intelligence and consciousness. And of course, there's been a great deal of discussion about so-called robotic pets and robotic companions. That is a multi-billion dollar industry. But the experts are warning that what we need to be hugely careful about is whatever we make in this direction is not conscious and doesn't care. And therefore, one of the professions that's least likely to be replaced by robotic workers, even those equipped with artificial intelligence, is anything that involves emotional intelligence.

Now, having said that, one of the very useful things that is being done in AI, and I'd like to mention the name, Professor Rosalind Picard of MIT, who has single-handedly developed a whole field called Affective Computation. And she has been using AI systems to study the emotional reactions of autistic children. Now, the point is, these fleeting reactions can be recorded and recognized and some sense made of the digital patterns, and she's using that to help understand and eventually help these people cope better with life. That's a marvelous development, but we mustn't confuse the machines that can recognize facial twitches and so on, that are now being used in job interviews to see if you're suitable with the machine itself having emotional intelligence.

You see, one of the wonderful statements by professor Belli Champ who gave a lecture years ago under a brilliant title, the artificial in artificial intelligence is real. And we've got to recognize that. The hype that comes about by dangerous metaphors really it's petty thinking machines, but they're not thinking. They have no ability to think. They're not conscious, but we use words about them that seem to imply they're almost human, when they're not. So that, all of these areas that you've mentioned, we have to investigate extremely carefully.

Jo Vitale: Yeah. You can see some troubling implications of it. Even just looking at what the Internet has done in our culture in the sense that, they say we're more connected than ever, but more lonely than ever. And the next step, you could see people trying to find that intimacy that they're looking for with machines that as you say, that there's no one there.

Dr. John Lennox: Yes. And actually the connectedness is increasing their loneliness. Think of the self-harm among young people. Think what happens when they get unfriended on social media, because their meaning is in it. I believe that as Christians, we've got a message that can speak into that because we can give them a meaning that relates them vertically to God rather than horizontally to a lot of people on the Internet, and gives them a dignity and value that's independent of their technological connectedness.

Michael Davis: Do you think that our technology will ever advance to the point where machines can actually achieve consciousness?

Dr. John Lennox: I'm very skeptical here. The main reason is, we still have no idea what consciousness is. And if you read some of the real experts on these things, like David Chalmers and so on, they will just tell you, "We don't know what consciousness is." Now, having said that, we can wire up your brain and we can see what things fire electrically in your brain in response to certain stimuli, lights, vices, and so on. But it is pretty clear, at least to me, that the brain's story and the mind's story are two different things, and we just do not know how the brain connects to the mind, or what the mind is and what consciousness is.

So, when you ask, will we ever reach consciousness? Well I think we need to know what it was before we ever think we've got to it. I would be very skeptical. But we may be able to model many things, but not get the full way. But there's always a danger, especially if you're trained in the natural sciences of pushing a negative in front of people. We'll never get there because so many people have said that in the past, we'll never get there. We'll never get to the moon, et cetera. But it seems here that every push comes up against this huge question mark. What exactly is consciousness, and how is it that a human being made of various molecules of different physical materials, how is it I'm not substrate in some way? There's connected something that is not material, and it seems to me that this is a very important thing. The humans are made of material, they have a physical base, but their thoughts are not material. And that of course, for me, demolishes materialism as a philosophy straight away.

And as a mathematician, the idea of information, which information is carried off non-material, but it itself is not material? So, whatever our philosophy is, we need to get a grip on the non-material. And the very interesting thing is, it's not that the non-material is derivative, it's primary. Because if the biblical record is true, it's God first. God is not made of matter, God is spirit. So, it's spirits is primary, and matter is derivative. Now, in much of this scenario, and in the academy today, the dominant philosophy says the exact opposite. The basic stuff is material, and mind, if there is such a thing, and the idea of God because there isn't a god, is derivative. So we're dealing with two diametrically opposite things.

Michael Davis: So, you mentioned Harari before, but Harari says that human death is merely a technical problem that can be overcome through silicon-based bodies and cloud computing. How much do you think that this, the AI and the advancements in AI have got more to do with people hoping and desiring some way of extending life? There's so much science-fiction about transferring our consciousness onto computers. I think every other science-fiction novel talks about this. So, how do you see that?

Dr. John Lennox: I think it is coming to us from the ancient world in fact, that the search for an elixir of life is very widespread in the mythologies of various people. As a Christian, I see it going back, not to the mythology, but the factual statements of what happened around the beginning of humanity where humans used their real free will to disobey God's command. Now, God had made them as moral beings and that's an infinitely dignified thing to be. By the way, artificial intelligence machines, not only are unconscious, they have no conscience, they're not moral beings. Self-driving cars will not appear in court if they knock you down. There are programmers of the conscious beings who have a conscience and have to build that into them.

So, looking back through history, the flight from Eden and all it's stood for has put a huge imprint on history that we're all trying to get back to the tree of life. The original tree of life idea was, it appeared to be a food or a tree celibate, or something that was always required even for un-fallen humanity to keep us alive. So, we can see this search, this drive that Harari talks about pushing towards Homo Deus, man becoming God, but on the way, you need to solve what he regards as a purely technical problem. Because of course, although he's Jewish, he has no faith in the Jewish scriptures that tell him, "Just a moment, God has stopped that way back." And death is not simply a purely technical problem, but the context of it you see is very interesting, because this is only a path to an end.

Harari says, "This is the big scientific and medical problem." It's not necessarily as you suggest, anything to do with AI. We're going to solve it, but then we're going to concentrate, this 21st century, on increasing human pleasure by bioengineering, by enhancing humans, and then all these other things come into play. So, that is the way I see that going on. And the sad thing about it is of course, that it's a parody of the Christian message. It's telling us that by engineering and everything else, we're going to solve the problem of death, we'll go to enhanced humans, where we go to become super intelligent, when the Christian message is, "Wait a minute, you've got to start not with man trying to become God, but God becoming man." And God became man in Jesus Christ, so we have a Homo Deus, a man who is God.

And his message to the world is, it's not that you're going to get your consciousness uploaded onto a silicon or anything like that, but saying, "If you trust me, I can give you a new kind of life that is going to exist eternally." So, there's the first problem solved, so to speak, and then promising that we'd be physically uploaded to use that phrase in the resurrection of the body when Christ returns. This is spectacular stuff because it feeds right into what these people are trying to do, and at the moment seem not to have a ghost of a chance of doing it. It's already here. Super-intelligence God has always existed. There is a super-intelligent man who is God, is he?

Jo Vitale: Yeah. It's a fascinating offer isn't it? I mean, you can see the temptation of it. It's very much out of Genesis 3, "Eat the fruit, and you will live forever, and you will be like God." And you can see why it appeals because essentially, it offers you this, and you don't have to trust in someone else. You don't have to trust in God to provide for your future hope, you can do it yourself. We can take control over this. But then you think about what sort of false hope is that. Even if it were possible to overcome technical death, what sort of life would that look like?

The more I think about it, the more I think what mercy it is when God says, "And the man will not endure forever, he'll live for 120 years." Because when you look at the world we're in, and the pain, and the suffering, and the idea of just living on in the world the way that it is, is actually not a very desirable or captivating vision. It doesn't surprise me. So often you meet people who really struggle with the concept of heaven because they're imagining heaven to be like this earth, but just going on forever and they think, "Won't that be terrible?" And I think that would be terrible.

Dr. John Lennox: But not only that, all attempts to produce utopia have collapsed because they try to bypass the moral problem of human guilt and sin. And Christianity in that sense is unique because it offers a solution to that question, not in some future world, but now. And that is what separates it from any other philosophy of religion. So that I can quite openly say that Christ doesn't compete with any other religion because in this sense, he offers us something that none of the others offer us. Therefore, to get this into our heads, that instead of grasping for something which we're not even beginning to realize, we don't know what consciousness is, we have God who is a conscious, omnipotent being offering us an upload to his family.

Michael Davis: That's right.

Dr. John Lennox: And an upload and to having eternal friendship and fellowship in a world where there is no Facebook unfriending.

Jo Vitale: So good. I feel like we're just scratching the surface of such an enormous topic. And if you want to begin to dive a little deeper with this then, just to let you know that John spoke last night at the Zacharias Institute on Should We Fear Artificial Intelligence, and you can find the link to that in the description for this podcast. Is up online, so please do go and watch the lecture, watch the Q&A that John did with Vince, and then continue to keep on asking your questions. And the good news is, John is currently in the process of writing a book on this subject, so there'll be more for us to get our hands on in a few months time I do hope.

Michael Davis: So, I think the best way to end this show with is the question, there's so much fear surrounding this technology and these advancements, where's the hope for the Christian?

Dr. John Lennox: In the darkest hour for the disciples, just before the crucifixion, Jesus talked to them, and he said, "Don't let your hearts be troubled. Don't be afraid." And he could say that because, he later pointed out to them that yes, they would have difficulty in the world, but do not fear, I have overcome the world. And that is where my hope lies because Jesus himself has conquered death, we look at death in a different way, not as a technical problem to be overcome as Harari, but as something that, well, for most of us inevitably happen, but it is a gateway into a far bigger experience of God. And therefore, we can lift up our heads for our redemption is drawing near as the good book says. I believe that the evidence shows that Jesus is who he claimed to be. He rose from the dead, he ascended, and all of the events right through biblical history, focusing on his death, resurrection, and ascension, guarantee that he will return. And that was and remains the central hope of Christians.

Michael Davis: John, thank you so much for joining us. Jo, thank you, and thank you all for listening, and we will catch you next week.

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