Start Thinking About AI

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Start Thinking About AI

I’m often asked what cutting-edge issues are on the horizon that need serious consideration; the coming trends that will challenge the Christian faith and the church.

These days, my answer is immediate: artificial intelligence, followed closely by breakthroughs in what we are able to do to genetically modify the human stock.

Let’s bracket genetics off for a moment for a future post. For now, let’s talk AI. And specifically, what we need to start thinking about. There are two principle areas to think about.

First, we need to think about our definition of life itself. Yes, as Christians, we feel like we have a good bead on this. What we don’t have is the ability to talk about our definition of life with how AI calls all definitions into question. 

In his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, M.I.T. professor Max Tegmark classifies life forms into three levels of sophistication: Life 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. Using the terms “hardware” to refer to matter and “software” to refer to information, he deems that Life 1.0 is “life where both the hardware and software are evolved rather than designed.” Human beings are Life 2.0, “life whose hardware is evolved, but whose software is largely designed.”

Life 3.0 is life that “can design not only its software but also its hardware. In other words, Life 3.0 is the master of its own destiny, finally free from its evolutionary shackles.” So if something like bacteria is Life 1.0 and humans are Life 2.0, what is Life 3.0? 

Artificial intelligence. Or, more specifically, “artificial general intelligence” (AGI). Rudimentary forms of AI are already with us in everything from the facial recognition software in Apple’s iPhone X to our digital assistants Siri, Alexa and Cortana. The holy grail is AGI, which is AI reaching human-level intelligence and beyond, being able to accomplish virtually any goal including learning. 

So in short, Life 1.0 is biological, Life 2.0 is cultural and Life 3.0 is technological. How does the view of man being made in the image of God interact with this? How will we define life in view of AGI? These will be the questions technology will force us to grapple with.

The second major area for reflection is the goal of AI. Almost all agree that the goal should not be undirected intelligence, but beneficial intelligence. The main concern isn’t with robots, but with intelligence itself—intelligence whose goals are destructive. As Tegmark notes, “we might build technology powerful enough to permanently end [social] scourges – or to end humanity itself. We might create societies that flourish like never before, on Earth and perhaps beyond, or a Kafkaesque global surveillance state so powerful that it could never be toppled.”

Inherent within this is outsourced morality. Here’s a simple example: a self-driving car faces a life-and-death situation. Swerve away from hitting a pedestrian, or save the life of the occupants of the car. It can and will decide, but on what basis? As we grow in our dependence on AI, we will increasingly allow it to make our decisions for us, and that includes ethical ones. And the more AI is able to think independently, the more we will have to face where we limit its autonomy.

If we are even able to.

The progression is frightening:

Step 1: Build human-level AGI.
Step 2: Use this AGI to create superintelligence.
Step 3: Use or unleash this superintelligence to take over the world.

Again, Tegmark: “Since we humans have managed to dominate Earth’s other life forms by outsmarting them, it’s plausible that we could be similarly outsmarted and dominated by superintelligence.” 

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told the National Governors Association last fall that his exposure to AI technology suggests it poses “a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” Cosmologist Stephen Hawking agreed, saying that AI could prove “the worst event in the history of civilization.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, however, calls such talk “irresponsible.”

No wonder it has been called the most important conversation of our time. Whether it proves to be or not, it is certainly a conversation that needs Christian minds that are informed and engaged.

And thinking.

James Emery White


Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (Knopf, 2017)

Marco della Cava, “Elon Musk Says AI Could Doom Human Civilization. Zuckerberg disagrees. Who’s right?”, USA Today, January 2, 2018, read online

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Start Thinking About AI