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A functional faith: Artificial Intelligence and faith research group looking to the future

Universities are sometimes criticized for constructing ivory towers where academics engage in esoteric discourses with one another, but Seattle Pacific’s community is dedicated to looking for new ways to integrate their theology and faith into their academic fields, their worship practices, and even in the ways in which they engage with and consider the role of technology in society. Faith isn’t compartmentalized for religion class or brought out for special occasions or religious holidays. It’s a daily, durable, functional faith.

Artificial intelligence is no longer a scientist’s fantasy or the futuristic imagination of an early 2000s feature film. AI is here and already changing the computer science realm with voice recognition systems, product recommendation platforms, navigation tools, and more.

A recent article published by The Verge sums up some of the fears associated with this area. The article titled, The State of AI in 2019, details how artificial intelligence is being used to make decisions about our lives whether we like it or not.

AI is shifting the way researchers and scientists are studying the world, and it’s compelling people to ask more provocative questions about the way AI might affect humans. A research team at Seattle Pacific University is all-in, finding new ways to build upon SPU faculty research and opportunities, as well as leveraging recent AI developments to ask thought-provoking questions about AI as it relates to the future.

SPU’s AI and Faith Research Group — composed of a theologian, ethicist, philosopher, neuroscientist educator, and a computer scientist — is thinking about how Christian faith informs the way that we interact with the rapidly changing world of AI.

According to the group’s facilitator, Michael Paulus, there is a larger need for more theological reflection on technology.

“Everyone is thinking about recent AI developments,” he said. “AI raises so many hopes and fears about the future. Christian hope can offer a lot more than these tech hopes and fears. What we’re really hoping for in all of this is to create a better future.”

“Artificial intelligence raises so many hopes and fears about the future. Christian hope can offer a lot more than these tech hopes and fears. What we’re really hoping for in all of this is to create a better future.”
—Michael Paulus

The group’s goal is to build on things group members have already been doing on their own over the last few years. As a research group, together they aim to stimulate multidisciplinary and theological reflections about AI; increase knowledge about AI; and cultivate community, collaboration, and scholarship related to AI and the future.

While Paulus’ inquisitiveness revolves around the state and effects of AI as it relates to the future of human beings and the future of work, Rebekah Rice, the group’s philosopher, employs a different interest and set of questions: What kinds of things could you possibly be making? Could you get to a point where you couldn’t ethically turn it off? What do world faiths have to offer? What kind of world do we want? How might my faith shape my engagement with these technologies?

“We’re in this for the well-being of others, including [people] who might be most vulnerable, most likely to be harmed,” said Rice. “Usually these things affect people who are already socially vulnerable. Lots of folks are concerned about this. This is not only a Christian motivation.For us, Christ’s model serves as the specific narrative that motivates this concern.”

Rice continued, “It puts a little pressure on our go-to answers and hopefully inspires us to think in a careful, sophisticated way about who we are.”

Carlos Arias, the computer scientist of SPU’s AI and Faith Research Group believes it is inevitable that people will use AI for good … and bad. People have a responsibility to use it for good, Arias believes.

Arias said that SPU is equipped to step into this space first and foremost because of its faith pillar. “Everyone in our group is a committed Christian,” Arias said. “We believe we are here with a purpose. We want to make a contribution to society. At SPU, we can do this. SPU is a Christian institution. Our shared hope is to produce something that helps people.”

Arias, along with all of the other group members, believes that SPU has a Seattle advantage.

“We are right in the heart of all this stuff — Amazon, Microsoft, Google. It’s easier to talk to people eye to eye, and events are happening here that we can participate in,” Arias said.

While the group was recently formed, a variety of to-do items already have been checked. The group will begin to develop a theological framework for the work, and their final group duty will be the publication of a series of essays in which all members will contribute a section.

SPU’s Artificial Intelligence and Faith Research Group

Michael Paulus
AIFRG Facilitator
University Librarian; Assistant Provost for Educational Technology; Associate Professor of Information Studies

Rebekah Rice
AIFRG Philosophy
Associate Professor of Philosophy; Chair of Philosophy Department

Phil Baker
AIFRG Psychology
Assistant Professor of Psychology

Carlos Arias
AIFRG Computer Science
Assistant Professor; Chair of Computer Science

Bruce Baker
AIFRG Business
Associate Professor of Business Ethics

Mike Langford
AIFRG Theology
Associate Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry

David Wicks
AIFRG Education
Associate Professor of Curriculum & Instruction; Chair of the Digital Education Leadership Program

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