If the tool becomes the master, the greatest commandment remains

"We do not have to solve the world’s problems, but we do have to love our neighbor," writes Jay Blossom.

I recently started experimenting with using artificial intelligence (AI) to generate images, using primarily the free Microsoft Bing Image Creator. I first directed the program to fabricate pictures of favorite places like the coast of Maine. Then I started generating images of “typical families” in places around the world. I tried generating images of biblical figures like Elijah
and saints like Francis of Assisi.

The most interesting variations come from manipulating the image style rather than the subject matter. For example, I can ask Bing to generate a portrait of Noah in the manner of the artist Raphael — or a Disney cartoon. I can ask it to paint a landscape in the style of either Monet or Japanese anime. I can direct Bing to create an image that looks like stained glass or a daguerreotype.

There is indeed a kind of creativity to this — the creativity of writing written prompts to render an image over and over, with slight variations, hoping finally to see in pixels what one sees in one’s mind.

That’s another way of saying that AI is a tool. Like many tools, it rewards skill and practice, and it can be used for good or nefarious purposes.

Like many tools, [AI] rewards skill and practice, and it can be used for good or nefarious purposes.

In light of my experimentation, however, I have many reservations about AI image generation. I fret that it will degrade art into something flat and bland. I suspect that bad actors will generate realistic-looking images to deceive or bully children and adults. I worry that AI exploits real artists by creating mashups of their work without paying or even informing them.

These concerns extend to ChatGPT and similar text-generating AI services, which are also tools requiring mastery of new skills. If I command AI to help me write a grant report, a policy or (heaven forbid) a sermon, I need to know how to construct the AI query to ask for these things. Of course, consultants are already lining up to teach me the skills.

What of the future? As AI learns from itself, will it evolve from tool to master? Will we be subject to its whims? Will remote peoples with no access to technology be left behind? Or will they be the lucky ones, retaining their human agency and their connection to nature while the rest of us are destroyed by our new overlords?

I have no answers to these questions. But I do have a few convictions.

As a historian, I know that human history is always confusing and messy. Do you want examples of inventions that took over the world and changed almost every human life? I can think of a few: vulcanized rubber, artificial fertilizers, steam engines, the telegraph. Like all technological advances, they resulted in both great harm and great benefit. AI may be revolutionary, but so were those.

Perhaps this is one reason I keep finding my way back to church. As I hear familiar prayers spoken in unhurried tones by respected elders, I remember that God is from everlasting to everlasting. As I read Scripture, I find that the human heart may be fickle, but the loving-kindness of God is sure. And when my own path seems confused, I return to the first and greatest commandment: Love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And to the second, which is like it: Love my neighbor as myself.

I don’t mean to be trite or to dismiss real concerns about AI or about our divided world. Loving God and loving neighbor are not easy tasks. But Jesus’ words are a constant reminder, offering a ray of clarity in this confusing world. We do not have to solve the world’s problems, but we do have to love our neighbor.

So let us join hands and walk forward together, shoulder to shoulder, with our eyes fixed on the Author and Finisher of our faith.