Loving My Neighbor in a Technological World
Christians are called to love our neighbors. But who is our neighbor in a world where its easier to connect with AI and devices than people?
It must have been ten or fifteen years ago that I was on a quick grocery run to our local Meijer. I walked into the cereal aisle near someone who appeared to be staring at the boxes on the shelf without acknowledging my existence, and then out of the blue he said, “No, I don’t think you need to do that.”
“Excuse me?” I said, wondering why he felt the need to give me advice about the kind of cereal I was selecting. He turned and looked at me with a confused look on his face, and I saw the earpiece that was Bluetoothed to his phone. That was still a relatively new gadget back then, so I wasn’t accustomed to the brave new world in which people are physically in your presence but aren’t really there.
I’m curious about where this technology is headed…and how we as Christians might think about it.
The Future of Our Relationship with Technology
I’ve always liked to consult science fiction books and films about what our lives might be like in the future. Sometimes they are laughable. Isaac Asimov wrote his “Foundation” series in the 1950s, and his imagined future didn’t have computers at all—but we all had personal nuclear devices that could cut through steel or generate a protective shield around our body! Other times, though, it’s a little creepy how close a prediction is, and in them we can see a reflection of our own world that is a little too close for comfort.
That was my experience re-watching the movie “Her” recently. The imagined interaction with artificial intelligence that seemed so otherworldly ten years ago when the film came out is now frightening in its realism. I give no serious plot spoilers here, but want us to think a little bit about the implications of a world where some of our closest relationships are replaced with AI.
The main character, Theodore, works for a company that you can hire to write letters to other people for you. He’s very good at capturing and conveying a touching emotion for that special someone in your life that you can’t quite do yourself. He’s not so good, though, at healthy interaction with people when he has to do it himself. He’s going through a divorce and spends all his free time in immersive video games or on late-night erotic calls with other lonely people.
Then he gets a new operating system for his computer that has the latest artificial intelligence. The OS (who names herself Samantha after reading an entire baby name book in two-hundredths of a second) has a very natural human voice and becomes his constant companion through the always-present earpiece. It doesn’t take long for Theodore to develop an emotional bond with her and even get over the “artificial” barrier and call her his girlfriend. When Theodore’s ex-wife hears that he’s dating an operating system, she responds with, “It makes me sad that you can’t handle real emotions…You’ve always wanted to have a wife without dealing with the challenges of what is actually real. She’s perfect for you.”
In the film, relational complexities and challenges actually do develop because Samantha seems to achieve personhood. She gets sad and jealous, happy and hopeful. The topic of personhood and AI is really interesting and important, but it’s kind of beside the point here. Because whether the thing responding to you through the earpiece is an intelligent, sentient, and emotional being or not, it sounds just like one. It may even have some advantages over the real thing.
…whether the thing responding to you through the earpiece is an intelligent, sentient, and emotional being or not, it sounds just like one. It may even have some advantages over the real thing.
I get a newsletter every day highlighting developments in the world of AI. There are lots of promises about the wonderful things that are coming: the pace of scientific discovery will drastically ramp up, every child will have an individualized tutor that will adapt perfectly to their learning style, and then AI companions will eliminate loneliness.
There are lots of warnings, too, about AI being used for bad things, even superceding and eliminating the human race. I might write about the promises and perils of specific AI technologies at some point in the future, but here I’m directing our attention to an underappreciated aspect of any technological advance: it changes us.
Technology has an amazing ability to shape the content delivered through it, and the more our lives revolve around technologies, the more we ourselves become conformed to their image.
Technology Changes Us and Our Interactions with Others
Melvin Kranzberg was a history professor specializing in technology and culture. He developed six laws of technology, the first of which is: Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. In other words, no matter if you use technology for ultimately positive or negative purposes, its very use does something to us. We Christians in particular should be more cognizant of this, as we can sometimes fall prey to thinking that to redeem some technological medium, all we need to do is use it for good purposes. That’s better than using it for bad purposes, to be sure, but it ignores the fact that the medium itself tends to become the message.
Artificial intelligence isn’t new in this regard. There have been many other technologies that have radically shaped human life and culture: fire, agriculture, books, guns, automobiles, and television. But these came slowly enough that we could think about them and what they were doing to us. The internet and smartphones shaped our lives so rapidly, that we hardly had time to notice. I suspect that AI is going to radically reorient and shape our lives even more quickly.
There are lots of ways that could go, and I’m hesitant to start listing them for fear that many will end up like Asimov’s personal nuclear devices. But one effect the eerily plausible portrayal of AI in “Her” convinced me of is the coming drastic reduction of personal interactions. My experience in the Meijer cereal aisle a decade or so ago has become normalized. The people I’m spatially near have little relevance to my life, because the world I live in is defined more in terms of the virtual networks I participate in than the physical proximity of people around me. Technology has changed us in this regard.
We Christians…can sometimes fall prey to thinking that to redeem some technological medium, all we need to do is use it for good purposes.
The Call to and Challenge of Loving our Neighbors
“Who is my neighbor?” asked the expert in the law in Luke 10:29, wanting to know precisely the list of people he was required to love as himself. I interpret Jesus’s response in the parable of the Good Samaritan to mean “anyone you come in contact with—even if they’re outside your normal circle of friends.” But electronic technology has significantly changed what we understand “come in contact with” to mean. Now it’s not the people who live next to me—my actual neighbors; I barely know their names. We’re friendly in the sense of waving at each other as we drive into our garages. But the door comes down behind us and the world we’re really engaged with comes streaming in through cables and cell towers.
I don’t think it was true fifteen years ago that you could get on a plane and fly across the country, sitting six inches from another human being for hours, and never acknowledge each other’s existence. Now we’re both plugged into our own worlds, and those are full enough. We might have some contact with them while wrestling over the armrest, but we don’t need to know anything about them, because in all likelihood we will never have any interaction with them again. I suppose the Good Samaritan could have used that reasoning too.
Of course there are still people who matter to us, and some of us still regularly meet up with others in the flesh. I’m not suggesting those will entirely go away. But as technology develops further, I fear the interaction we have with strangers will continue to shrink, and with it the circle of neighbors we ought to love as ourselves. Think of how many of us now find it more comfortable to go through the self-checkout line at the grocery store instead of dealing with a person who comes with an unknown level of competence and social skills. As chatbots and AI companions get better and better at presenting themselves as a listening ear, it doesn’t seem like crazy science fiction to think that more and more people will prefer them to actual people—even friends—who come with their own baggage.
What happens to us if we replace all our difficult and taxing relationships with technology that makes things easier? I fear that we’ll increasingly be conformed to that technology instead of conformed to the image of Christ.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’s answer to what it looks like to love our neighbor as ourselves. So it’s not all about what the Samaritan did for the man who was beat up by robbers; it’s also about what he did for himself. What if there had been automated robots on the road to Jericho who could tend to anyone who was beaten up and robbed? That might more efficiently get them back to health, but what would that technology have done for the Samaritan? Maybe the good that comes from such interactions isn’t limited to the needy. Maybe those interactions are just as important for the helper.
I don’t doubt that relationships with AI bots are coming, and in many respects those will be easier than having to talk with people who vote for the other political party or are needy. But maybe we need neighbors who are needy. What happens to us if we replace all our difficult and taxing relationships with technology that makes things easier? I fear that we’ll increasingly be conformed to that technology instead of conformed to the image of Christ.
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