Part two of a two-part series on Incremental Change vs. Transformational Change by Rev. Bill Johnson.
AI Won’t Replace the Church
As more and more jobs are economically viable to be automated, we’re going to see a transition of humans to the jobs where we excel over machines (at least for the moment): caring and service professions. Remember, the artificial agents don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be better at a given task than an average human.
Some things, of course, belong firmly in the hands of humans. Caregiving, pastoral and diaconal ministry, counseling and other emotive skills are hard to program. Even if we could program the “correct” responses into an AI agent, it remains unclear whether people will accept the “care” of a machine as legitimate, knowing that it’s not.
For the church, this means we are going to have a window of opportunity during this transition phase. As industry rushes to economize with AI agents and humans struggle to find their place in the new economic realities that result, the importance of presence and community will be emphasized more than ever.
By continuing to do many of the core things we’ve always done—such as caring for the sick, reaching out to those in need, and connecting with our communities and neighborhoods—we can provide a safe place to be a human in the context of a wider body of significance. And in doing so, we can take advantage of the opportunities that arise to share the Gospel with them.
With the release of multiple flagship virtual-reality projects this year, it’s safe to say that 2016 is the year that VR began to emerge in the home-entertainment scene. The costs are still prohibitive for mainstream acceptance, but in the coming years we’ll see resolutions go up and costs go down in ways that enable more and more homes to consume VR content.
The other half of the equation, of course, is the creation of that content. Early VR games are little more than tech demos at present, but there are several large entertainment titles (most notably Resident Evil VII) that are adding in VR support to core gameplay. As the install base increases, expect the content to become more profitable. (In a move that, unfortunately, often foretells the future of entertainment, we’re already seeing the production of virtual reality pornography. While I don’t support that industry in any way, it has been prescient more often that I’d like about predicting future trends.)
The rise of immersive entertainment is going to bring with it a variety of educational opportunities (what would I pay to have the ability to walk a group of seminary students around the temple in Jerusalem?), as well as some very serious concerns.
First, we should teach God’s people now the importance that Christ’s explanation of the Torah was more than a mere letter-of-the-law act; it was a change of attitude and action: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21–22 ESV). Because VR isn’t “real,” we need to be exceptionally clear that sin doesn’t always involve actual actions (see the prior reference to the porn industry). VR actions seem real, though, so we should be aware that the psychological and spiritual effects of those experiences may be no less real for being virtual.
Biotechnology and Nanotechnology
In addition to the growth in the digital world, there are some revolutionary areas of research that reach beyond my own limited expertise. As we continue to understand more about genetics and the manipulation of organisms, we will be able to engineer more advanced organisms to fit customized environments.
The possibilities for agriculture and healthcare are mind boggling, and I’m not sure we’ve begun to dream the realities that lie down that path. At the same time, we need to continue to affirm the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death, and teach God’s people to do the same.
Nanotechnology is still for the most part the stuff of science fiction. We’ve constructed simple devices on a nano scale, but functional real-world nanotech is still beyond our reach. As we see some of these other transformations taking place, however, there’s a very real possibility that this field will see a massive boost, resulting in some of its potential being realized in the nonfiction world.
Fear Not, for I Am with You
Transformational change can be frightening. When everything’s up in the air, it’s hard to know where to land. As we approach some of these tipping points, with less and less solid ground every day (or so it seems), we would do well to remember God’s promise to be with us. As Dr. Nagel, emeritus professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, is fond of reminding his students, “Do not despair. The Lord of the Church does not abandon His Bride.”
We’ll face these changes and the resulting societal upheaval the way we’ve faced social, political, technological, and other revolutions throughout the ages: by continuing to faithfully care for God’s people and clearly proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.