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Culture Friday: Whatever happened to tech ethics?


WORLD Radio - Culture Friday: Whatever happened to tech ethics?

The Senate holds a closed-door hearing on AI regulation

Elon Musk, left, and Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir Technologies, at a closed-door gathering of leading tech CEOs in Washington to discuss the priorities and risks surrounding artificial intelligence. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s the 15th day of September 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Culture Friday.

Joining us now is John Stonestreet, the president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint Podcast. John, good morning.


EICHER: So there was an unusual hearing in Washington this week, John. A closed-door, no-press hearing, all 100 senators invited, to listen to tech executives give advice on possible regulation of artificial intelligence.

Of course, different people will have different fears about unregulated AI: some worry about job losses, others worry about deep fakes and misinformation.

But it’s interesting the briefing was with tech executives and not ethicists, for example …

Do you have concerns of your own about AI from a Christian worldview perspective, and if there’s to be regulation, what would you hope is regulated and what is left alone?

STONESTREET: Well, yeah, there's a lot of concerns about artificial intelligence. You know, from a Christian worldview, you got two things actually at work. And they seem somewhat opposed, but they're not. I mean, the one is human exceptionalism. And yet, what we also know is this remarkable and scary thing that God says about humans, and specifically those at Babel, where he looked at this project from the descendants of Noah, and, you know, he says, Look, we need to divide these guys up. Because otherwise, if as one people speaking, one language, anything they think of will be possible. So when we talk about people not being able to play God, we gotta remember, God has a kind of a judgment call on human capacity, that is pretty amazing. He thinks we'll be able to do an awful lot. And by the way, implicit in that same comment that God makes in there is that we ought not do everything that comes into our mind, which we all know to be true about ourselves. But apparently that's true about us, collectively. And so yeah, we do need regulation.

Now, you know, the problem with science is that we do things and then ask if we should later. And so it's impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. We have that with bioethics, we have that with CRISPR, the gene editing technology. So yeah, you need to have a whole lot of people in conversations, but you also need to have ethicists in this conversation. Just take us back to George W. Bush, in his presidency. The one thing that he absolutely got, right, I mean, we can debate on all kinds of other things. But I'll tell you what, the thing that he nailed was embryonic stem cell research, where everyone else was saying embryonic stem cell research has infinite promise, it will help Christopher Reeves walk again, if you remember that, that John Kerry said in the debate. And you know what, Bush had put together a bioethics panel, featuring thought leaders, technicians, practitioners, and theologians and ethicists. And it was a robust gathering of minds from multiple different vantage points and perspectives, and was able to conclude that even if it did hold that promise, it wasn't ethically worth it. And by the way, the promise is oversold based on faulty understandings of what it means to be human. There was this massive volume that that panel, the President's Council on Bioethics, and it's a remarkable collection of the best writing from poetry and science, and theology and history and so on, about the value of human the universe and use that question, what is a human? To drive the question, What should we do with humans? And he nailed that; he absolutely got it right. His restrictions ended up being directly on target. Non embryonic stem cell research is what actually delivered the goods embryonic stem cell research has given us nothing, even after all these years. And even after George W. Bush's successor freed up all the funding. We need that sort of stuff again - that sort of broad-based look at the ethics of artificial intelligence. And I know that's the idea that that would ever happen. Sounds as crazy as me explaining it.

EICHER: This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of JRR Tolkien, and that a half-century has passed, I think the fact that he’s such a vibrant part of the cultural conversation testifies to the power of his creative works. I’d just invite you to reflect on his legacy.

STONESTREET: I mean, what a remarkable towering intellect. It's one thing to create a fantasy world, it's another thing to create a fantasy world with its own history and with its own language. I mean, what Tolkien was able to pull off off, and why and how is just really, absolutely remarkable. And for him to do that, and it to stay coherent. I mean, let's all remember, the W brothers couldn't even make a second Matrix movie that made sense, right. And that was a kind of a separate world sort of thing without all the history and the language. And by the third one, no one knew where we were.

Now, I think it's right to note the difference between you know, for example, the world he created in Narnia, Narnia was much more allegory, it was much more direct one to one, and what Lewis was trying to communicate. And at the same time, that Middle Earth is not that way, Middle Earth holds a remarkable amount of insight into what it means to be human, and what it means to live in the world. And I think that's why it has staying power.

I want to quote here, a wonderful person, a longtime friend, who I haven't talked to in a really long time. But Dr. Rosie de Rosa, who had a wonderful teaching career at Moody Bible Institute, and I remember at a lecture once on literature, she said that the difference between a good book and a bad book is that a good book takes you deeper into reality and the bad book distracts you from reality. And it's interesting because Middle Earth was a different reality. But the more you were in Middle Earth, the more you understood the world, the more you understood the human condition. And of course, it was Tolkien's brain intellect and his deep faith that not only allowed him to create such an amazing place, but also to create such an amazing place that had so much to offer both his day and our day. And of course, Tolkien said that the reason he wrote it was that Britain had lost its story, and that it needed another myth, kind of like the great civilizations had the great pagan myths. He thought the Western world and Great Britain in particular needed a solid story in which to find themselves. And how prescient was that.

And of course, we here we've just talked about Middle Earth, Tokien’s contributions go way beyond the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But there is something to the fact that he offered the world a story and how prescient that is, today, when we seem like you know, to quote some friends of mine, our feet are firmly planted in mid-air, you know, we don't know what world we’re a part of. We don't know what's true and what's real, what's up and what's down. And so Tolkien kind of taking that task on several decades ago was quite prescient as well.

BROWN: John, 60 years ago today, speaking of anniversaries, four young girls, and I’d like to say their names, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, were killed in a racially motivated attack by the Ku Klux Klan. On September 15, 1963, the hate group bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where the girls were waiting to attend 11:00 o’clock service. It was Youth Day.

Growing up in Alabama, of course, I knew that story. But, I’ve never thought about it in terms described by WORLD Opinions writer, Adam Carrington.

Let me quote a part of his article. He writes,

“We rightly remember this as an attack against a community based on the color of its members’ skin. We also commemorate it as an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement in America….galvanizing support that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Yet, he writes, we should consider it, too, as a moment of violence against the Body of Christ, targeting the people of God as they gathered to worship Him.

Again, I’ve never thought about it from that perspective. I’m curious, have you?

STONESTREET: No, and shamefully so. But there's something so important there. Hopefully, we feel that sort of unity that Carrington is calling us all to in this piece when we hear of our brothers and sisters in Nigeria or our brothers and sisters in Myanmar, other parts of the world, where the churches are under direct persecution for being Christian. And it is something notable that we, when we're talking about our own context, identify ourselves less in terms of our common belief, our common Savior, our common worship, and more along some other category. It tells us an awful lot about what we think about ourselves. It tells us a lot about whether we're being shaped more by some cultural narratives or political narratives than we are from the biblical story. And ultimately, the most important thing about the identity of these four girls is that they were made in the image and likeness of God and that they had found a savior in Christ Jesus and a restored identity as a Christ follower, and that should be first and foremost what we see. And unfortunately, let me say that differently, not unfortunately in their day, the loyalties were based on something completely different. And that's not just unfortunate - that led to tragedy and bloodshed and death. And not only should that act of violence against anyone be condemned, but anyone who is in Christ first and foremost should be identified with other Christ followers first and foremost. So it was an important observation from Adam Carrington. And yeah, I was challenged by it, as well.

BROWN: Alright, John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast. Thanks John!

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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