A Roadmap for Theological Engagement with Artificial Intelligence

A Roadmap for Theological Engagement with Artificial Intelligence April 16, 2020

In my previous post, “COVID-19, AI Ethics, and Vocation,” I suggested that the concept of vocation can help one move from lists of AI ethical principles to a principled way of living with AI, turning ethical concerns about artificial intelligence into theological questions. In this post, I want to outline a broader roadmap for exploring the intersection of AI and theology.

Last August, the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) published “A 20-Year Community Roadmap for Artificial Intelligence Research in the US.”

At the AAAS Annual Meeting last February, Bart Selman, one of the Roadmap’s co-authors, explained the need for a national research infrastructure for AI. Within the last seven years, AI has quickly moved from academic research projects to consumer products that affect our daily lives. Decades of research and development preceded recent breakthroughs in AI, which were enabled by big datasets, deep learning algorithms, and increases in computing power. But the companies that are now developing AI systems are after near-term advances, perhaps five to ten years out. More challenging advancements in AI will depend on longer-term research agendas and a more robust research infrastructure.

The Roadmap begins, “Achieving the full potential of AI technologies poses research challenges that require a radical transformation of the AI research enterprise.” To realize that transformation, the report offers three major recommendations:

  1. Create a national AI infrastructure that includes open platforms and resources, community-driven challenges, technical research centers, and societal mission-driven laboratories.
  2. Train an all-encompassing AI workforce through curricula at all levels, recruitment and retention programs, engaging underrepresented and underprivileged groups, incentivizing emerging interdisciplinary areas, highlighting AI ethics and policy, addressing AI and the future of work, and training highly skilled AI engineers and technicians.
  3. Support existing core programs for basic AI research.

The Roadmap identifies a number of technical and social challenges. Technical priorities include: integrating sources of information; enabling meaningful interactions between sources of information; and improving autonomous learning. Social concerns include: value-driven design; privacy and security; algorithmic fairness, accountability, and trust; equitable access; responsible and safe use.

Screenshot from the Oregon Trail video game.
Screenshot from the Oregon Trail video game.

Theologians and theological institutions could engage this Roadmap and the challenges it identifies in a number of ways, by participating in the proposed research infrastructure, workforce development strategies, and existing core program. A more focused roadmap for theological engagement, however, could be developed focusing on the advancement of AI Theology.

What is AI Theology? The beginning of a definition could follow the helpful definitions of Digital Theology proposed by Peter Phillips, Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero, and Jonas Kurlberg:

DT1: The use of digital technology to communicate or teach theology as a traditional academic subject.

DT2: Theological research enabled by digitality or digital culture.

DT3: Intentional, sustained and reflexive theologically-resourced engagement with digitality/digital culture.

DT4: A prophetic re-appraisal of digitality in the light of theological ethics.

Adapting these to focus on AI Theology (AIT), suggests these areas of interest:

AIT1: The use of AI for theological communication, education, or research.

AIT2: Reflexive theological engagement with AI.

AIT3: Theological critiques of AI.

Relating these to the CCC Roadmap, the outline of a roadmap for theological engagement with AI begins to emerge:

  1. Develop research infrastructure for AIT1-3:
    1. open resources and platforms;
    2. community-driven challenges;
    3. technical and social agendas for centers and laboratories.
  2. Contribute to workforce development through AIT1-3:
    1. curricula for schools and faith communities;
    2. networks and scholarships for underrepresented and underprivileged groups;
    3. emerging interdisciplinary areas;
    4. AI ethics and policy recommendations;
    5. addressing issues related to the future of work.
  3. Participate in existing core programs related to AIT1-3.

The CCC Roadmap was the result of many conversations within the AI research community. There isn’t, at this time, much of an AI Theology community. But work on an AIT roadmap might help create one. If anyone is interested in exploring that possibly, let me know!

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