My smartwatch just scolded me: Navigating AI ethics in faith communities

Presbyterians sometimes describe themselves as "people of the middle way." What does this look like in a world of AI, Eliza Jaremko asks?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The other day I came home to find my front lawn strewn with bikes, scooters, balls, bats, and all manner of childhood things. But there were no children in sight. I walked into the house to find those children making a similar mess inside the house. With my stress levels rising, I called out: “Excuse me! No way you are making a mess inside when you’ve left a mess outside. Get outside RIGHT NOW and clean up the junk in the yard.”

That’s when a soft voice emerged from my Apple Watch. Siri commented: “That wasn’t very nice.”

Yes, that’s correct: my Apple Watch scolded me for a poor attitude. Siri made a moral judgment on my parenting and my character.

Siri made a moral judgment on my parenting and my character.

As I ushered my children outside to clean up their mess, I thought about the messiness of artificial intelligence in our flesh-and-blood world. I’m used to humans – scholars, ethicists, theologians, religious believers, etc – pronouncing moral judgments on new technologies. Technology pronouncing moral judgments on us? That’s a whole new ball game.

Yet, this is the world we live in. AI technologies surround us in the devices that we are already using – phones, watches, tablets, smart speakers, etc. In the four years I’ve owned this smartwatch, it has never spoken to me unprompted. Yet, new AI technologies mean our everyday devices can and will be listening, speaking, and changing us in ways we have not imagined.

How do Christians reconcile the wide world of technological innovation with our belief in a God who “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20)? Is God at work in these technologies? Or does God work despite them? Do we speak out against AI technologies that can think like humans? Do speak in favor of the ways AI technologies could serve the church? There are many questions and few clear answers.

As a Presbyterian pastor, I believe that we are “people of the middle way.” For the ethics of AI, I interpret this to mean that I don’t condemn new AI technology, neither do I accept its full use. I ask: what is helpful and what has the potential to harm?

Churches should be aware of what new technologies are available and how our congregants might be using them. We should look for tech that might serve the church and guard against tech that might harm members, like AI bots that may scam our congregation members with text messages purporting to be from their pastor. We can utilize programs like ChatGBT to help compose an earth care newsletter, but we should notice how the AI lacks a pastoral voice. We can give thanks for the ways God uses technology to connect us in real and powerful ways via Zoom, livestreams and hybrid meetings.

We use technology for the needs we have.

I serve a small-ish suburban congregation where we dabble in technology. We still do not have screens in our sanctuary. We have a livestream because COVID made it necessary. Our current audio technology involves an “on” switch, because we don’t have the gifts for running a soundboard. Yet, we do have a decent website. We post regularly on Facebook and Instagram, but we haven’t yet navigated TikTok. We use technology for the needs we have.

Whether we fully understand it or not, God is indeed at work in our world in ways bigger than we can ask or imagine be it through digital wavelengths or the waves crashing on the sea. It may be wise to limit our use of technology we do not fully understand, but we know for certain that God has limitless power. AI might be monitoring our lives in new ways, but God exists over and beyond technology — and cares for us. We can take comfort in that.

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