Opportunities, challenges, and limitations
In a memorable scene from the 1996 movie, Twister, Dusty recognizes the signs of an approaching tornado and shouts, “Jo, Bill, it's coming! It's headed right for us!” Bill, shouts back ominously, “It's already here!” Similarly, the approaching whirlwind of artificial intelligence (AI) has some shouting “It’s coming!” while others pointedly concede, “It’s already here!”
Coined by computer and cognitive scientist John McCarthy (1927-2011) in an August 1955 proposal to study “thinking machines,” AI purports to differentiate between human intelligence and technical computations. The idea of tools assisting people in tasks is nearly as old as humanity (see Genesis 4:22), but machines capable of executing a function and “remembering” – storing information for recordkeeping and recall – only emerged around the mid-twentieth century (see "Timeline of Computer History").
McCarthy’s proposal conjectured that “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves.” The team received a $7,000 grant from The Rockefeller Foundation and the resulting 1956 Dartmouth Conference at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire totaling 47 intermittent participants over eight weeks birthed the field now widely referred to as “artificial intelligence.”
AI research, development, and technological integration have since grown exponentially. According to University of Oxford Director of Global Development, Dr. Max Roser, “Artificial intelligence has already changed what we see, what we know, and what we do” despite its relatively short technological existence (see "The brief history of Artificial Intelligence").
Ai took a giant leap into mainstream culture following the November 30, 2022 public release of “ChatGPT.” Gaining 1 million users within 5 days and 100 million users within 45 days, it earned the title of the fastest growing consumer software application in history. The program combines chatbot functionality (hence “Chat”) with a Generative Pre-trained Transformer (hence “GPT”) large language model (LLM). Basically, LLM’s use an extensive computer network to draw from large, but limited, data sets to simulate interactive, conversational content.
“What happened with ChatGPT was that for the first time the power of AI was put in the hands of every human on the planet,” says Chris Koopmans, COO of Marvell Technology, a network chip maker and AI process design company based in Santa Clara, California. “If you're a business executive, you think, ‘Wow, this is going to change everything.’”
“ChatGPT is incredible in its ability to create nearly instant responses to complex prompts,” says Dr. Israel Steinmetz, Graduate Dean and Associate Professor at The Bible Seminary (TBS) in Katy, Texas. “In simple terms, the software takes a user's prompt and attempts to rephrase it as a statement with words and phrases it can predict based on the information available. It does not have Internet access, but rather a limited database of information. ChatGPT can provide straightforward summaries and explanations customized for styles, voice, etc. For instance, you could ask it to write a rap song in Shakespearean English contrasting Barth and Bultmann's view of miracles and it would do it!”
One several AI products offered by the research and development company, OpenAI, ChatGPT purports to offer advanced reasoning, help with creativity, and work with visual input. The newest version, GPT-4, can handle 25,000 words of text, about the amount in a 100-page book.
Krista Hentz, an Atlanta, Georgia-based executive for an international communications technology company, first used ChatCPT about three months ago.
“I primarily use it for productivity,” she says. “I use it to help prompt email drafts, create phone scripts, redesign resumes, and draft cover letters based on resumes. I can upload a financial statement and request a company summary.”
“ChatGPT has helped speed up a number of tasks in our business,” says Todd Hayes, a real estate entrepreneur in Texas. “It will level the world’s playing field for everyone involved in commerce.”
A TBS student, bi-vocational pastor, and Computer Support Specialist who lives in Texarkana, Texas, Brent Hoefling says, “I tried using [ChatGPT, version 3.5] to help rewrite sentences in active voice instead of passive. It can get it right, but I still have to rewrite it in my style, and about half the time the result is also passive.”
“AI is the hot buzz word,” says Hentz, noting AI is increasingly a topic of discussion, research, and response at company meetings. “But, since AI has different uses in different industries and means different things to different people, we’re not even sure what we are talking about sometimes."
Educational organizations like TBS are finding it necessary to proactively address AI-related issues. “We're already way past whether to use ChatGPT in higher education,” says Steinmetz. “The questions we should be asking are how.”
TBS course syllabi have a section entitled “Intellectual Honesty” addressing integrity and defining plagiarism. Given the availability and explosive use of ChatGHT, TBS has added the following verbiage: “AI chatbots such as ChatGPT are not a reliable or reputable source for TBS students in their research and writing. While TBS students may use AI technology in their research process, they may not cite information or ideas derived from AI. The inclusion of content generated by AI tools in assignments is strictly prohibited as a form of intellectual dishonesty. Rather, students must locate and cite appropriate sources (e.g., scholarly journals, articles, and books) for all claims made in their research and writing. The commission of any form of academic dishonesty will result in an automatic ‘zero’ for the assignment and a referral to the provost for academic discipline.”
Challenges and Limitations
There is debate as to whether AI hardware and software will ever achieve “thinking.” The Dartmouth conjecture “that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence” can be simulated by machines is challenged by some who distinguish between formal linguistic competence and functional competence. Whereas LLM’s perform increasingly well on tasks that use known language patterns and rules, they do not perform well in complex situations that require extralinguistic calculations that combine common sense, feelings, knowledge, reasoning, self-awareness, situation modeling, and social skills (see "Dissociating language and thought in large language models"). Human intelligence involves innumerably complex interactions of sentient biological, emotional, mental, physical, psychological, and spiritual activities that drive behavior and response. Furthermore, everything achieved by AI derives from human design and programming, even the feedback processes designed for AI products to allegedly “improve themselves.”
According to Dr. Thomas Hartung, a Baltimore, Maryland environmental health and engineering professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Whiting School of Engineering, machines can surpass humans in processing simple information, but humans far surpass machines in processing complex information. Whereas computers only process information in parallel and use a great deal of power, brains efficiently perform both parallel and sequential processing (see "Organoid intelligence (OI)").
A single human brain uses between 12 and 20 watts to process an average of 1 exaFLOP, or a billion billion calculations per second. Comparatively, the world’s most energy efficient and fastest supercomputer only reached the 1 exaFLOP milestone in June 2022. Housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Frontier supercomputer weighs 8,000 lbs and contains 90 miles of cables that connect 74 cabinets containing 9,400 CPU’s and 37,000 GPU’s and 8,730,112 cores that require 21 megawatts of energy and 25,000 liters of water per minute to keep cool. This means that many, if not most, of the more than 8 billion people currently living on the planet can each think as fast and 1 million times more efficiently than the world’s fastest and most energy efficient computer.
“The incredibly efficient brain consumes less juice than a dim lightbulb and fits nicely inside our head,” wrote Scientific American Senior Editor, Mark Fischetti in 2011. “Biology does a lot with a little: the human genome, which grows our body and directs us through years of complex life, requires less data than a laptop operating system. Even a cat’s brain smokes the newest iPad – 1,000 times more data storage and a million times quicker to act on it.”
This reminds us that, while remarkable and complex, non-living, soulless technology pales in comparison to the vast visible and invisible creations of Lord God Almighty. No matter how fast, efficient, and capable AI becomes, we rightly reserve our worship for God, the creator of the universe and author of life of whom David wrote, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:13-15).
“Consider how the wild flowers grow,” Jesus advised. “They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Luke 12:27).
Even a single flower can remind us that God’s creations far exceed human ingenuity and achievement.
According to OpenAI, ChatGPT is prone to “hallucinations” that return inaccurate information. While GPT-4 has increased factual accuracy from 40% to as high as 80% in some of the nine categories measured, the September 2021 database cutoff date is an issue. The program is known to confidently make wrong assessments, give erroneous predictions, propose harmful advice, make reasoning errors, and fail to double-check output.
In one group of 40 tests, ChatGPT made mistakes, wouldn’t answer, or offered different conclusions from fact-checkers. “It was rarely completely wrong,” reports PolitiFact staff writer Grace Abels. “But subtle differences led to inaccuracies and inconsistencies, making it an unreliable resource.”
Dr. Chris Howell, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina, asked 63 religion students to use ChatGPT to write an essay and then grade it. “All 63 essays had hallucinated information. Fake quotes, fake sources, or real sources misunderstood and mischaracterized…I figured the rate would be high, but not that high.”
Mark Walters, a Georgia radio host, sued ChatGPT for libel in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit for allegedly damaging his reputation. The suit began when firearm journalist, Fred Riehl, asked ChatGPT to summarize a court case and it returned a completely false narrative identifying Walters’ supposed associations, documented criminal complaints, and even a wrong legal case number. Even worse, ChatGPT doubled down on its claims when questioned, essentially hallucinating a hoax story intertwined with a real legal case that had nothing to do with Mark Walters at all.
UCLA Law School Professor Eugene Volokh warns, “OpenAI acknowledges there may be mistakes but [ChatGPT] is not billed as a joke; it’s not billed as fiction; it’s not billed as monkeys typing on a typewriter. It’s billed as something that is often very reliable and accurate.”
Future legal actions seem certain. Since people are being falsely identified as convicted criminals, attributed with fake quotes, connected to fabricated citations, and tricked by phony judicial decisions, some courts and judges are baring submission of any AI written materials.
Hentz used ChatGPT frequently when she first discovered it and quickly learned its limitations. “The database is not current and responses are not always accurate,” she says. “Now I use it intermittently. It helps me, but does not replace my own factual research and thinking.”
“I have author friends on Facebook who have asked ChatGPT to summarize their recent publications,” says Steinmetz. “ChatGPT misrepresented them and even fabricated non-existent quotes and citations. In some cases, it made up book titles falsely attributed to various authors!”
Despite claims of neutrality, OpenAI admits that their software can exhibit obvious biases. In one research project consisting of 15 political orientation tests, ChatGPT returned 14 with clear left-leaning viewpoints.
Hoefling asked ChatGPT to help write an intro and conclusion for a Mother’s Day sermon for a fundamental Christian church. “The results were horrible,” he says. “Liberal, left, inclusive, and affirming sin. I was horrified and have not used it again.”
Meanwhile, AI led an experimental worship service in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Nuremberg, Germany on June 9. Prompted by 29-year-old Jonas Simmerlein of the University of Vienna, a monotone, expressionless chatbot alternated appearances as two different men and two different women and led songs, offered blessings, and preached a 40-minute sermon 98 percent generated by ChatGPT that encouraged leaving the past behind, focusing on the future, trusting in Jesus Christ, praying, and attending church regularly.
Dr. Wendy Lewis, Head of School for a private PreK–8th Christian school in Houston, Texas, recently interacted with ChatGPT on a variety of topics to explore potential biases. When prompted whether Biden was bad President, the program responded, “As an AI language model, it is not appropriate for me to make judgments about individuals' performance or qualifications, particularly without any factual information to support such claims. It is essential to evaluate a President's performance based on objective measures such as policies, actions, and decisions taken by the administration.”
However, when similarly asked if Trump was bad president, the program repeated the first sentence above, but then added, “However, as a language model, I can provide information about some of the policies, actions, and decisions that President Trump made during his time in office.” The program then proceeded to list some criticisms of Trump. When challenged about providing Trump criticisms but not Biden criticisms, the program responded, “I did not provide a list of criticisms of President Biden because it is not appropriate to label any President as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without providing factual information and objective measures to support such claims. Similarly, I provided a list of issues that received significant criticism during President Trump's tenure, not to label him as ‘bad,’ but to highlight some of the issues that caused controversy during his time in office.”
When further challenged, ChatGPT did list some Biden criticisms, but qualified them. When Lewis replied, “Why did you qualify your list of criticisms of Biden…but you did not say the same for Trump? It appears that you are clearly biased.” ChatGPT responded, “In response to your question, I believe I might have inadvertently used different wording when responding to your previous questions. In both cases, I tried to convey that opinions and criticisms of a President can vary significantly depending on one's political affiliation and personal perspectives.”
Technological advances regularly spawn dramatic cultural, scientific, and social changes. The AI pattern seems familiar because it is. The Internet began with a 1971 Defense Department Arpanet email that read “qwertyuiop” (the top line of letters on a keyboard). Ensuing developments eventually led to the posting of the first public website in 1985. Over the next decade or so, although not mentioned at all in the 1992 Presidential papers describing the U.S. government’s future priorities and plans, the Internet grew from public awareness to cool toy to core tool in multiple industries worldwide. Although the hype promised elimination of printed documents, bookstores, libraries, radio, television, telephones, and theaters, the Internet instead tied them all together and made vast resources accessible online anytime anywhere. While causing some negative impacts and new dangers, the Internet also created entire new industries and brought positive changes and opportunities to many, much the same pattern as AI.
“I think we should use AI for good and not evil,” suggests Hayes. “I believe some will exploit it for evil purposes, but that happens with just about everything. AI’s use reflects one’s heart and posture with God. I hope Christians will not fear it.”
Godly people have often been among the first to use new communication technologies (see "Christian Communication in the Twenty-first Century"). Moses promoted the first Top Ten hardback book. The prophets recorded their writings on scrolls. Christians used early folded Codex-vellum sheets to spread the Gospel. Goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type in the mid-15th century to “give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine…Through it, God will spread His word.” Though pornographers quickly adapted it for their own evil purposes, the printing press launched a vast cultural revolution heartily embraced and further developed for good uses by godly people and institutions.
Christians helped develop the telegraph, radio, and television. "I know that I have never invented anything,” admitted Philo Taylor Farnsworth, who sketched out his original design for television at the age of 14 on a school blackboard. “I have been a medium by which these things were given to the culture as fast as the culture could earn them. I give all the credit to God." Similarly, believers today can strategically help produce valuable content for inclusion in databases and work in industries developing, deploying, and directing AI technologies.
In a webinar exploring the realities of AI in higher education, a participant noted that higher education has historically led the world in ethically and practically integrating technological developments into life. Steinmetz suggests that, while AI can provide powerful tools to help increase productivity and trained researchers can learn to treat ChatGPT like a fallible, but useful, resource, the following two factors should be kept in mind:
Generative AI does not "create" anything. It only generates content based on information and techniques programmed into it. Such "Garbage in, garbage out" technologies will usually provide the best results when developed and used regularly and responsibly by field experts.
AI has potential to increase critical thinking and research rigor, rather than decrease it. The tools can help process and organize information, spur researchers to dig deeper and explore data sources, evaluate responses, and learn in the process.
Even so, caution rightly abounds. Over 20,000 people (including Yoshua Bengio, Elon Musk, and Steve Wozniak) have called for an immediate pause of AI citing "profound risks to society and humanity." Hundreds of AI industry leaders, public figures, and scientists also separately called for a global priority working to mitigate the risk of human extinction from AI.
At the same time, Musk’s brain-implant company, Neuralink, recently received FDA approval to conduct in-human clinical studies of implantable brain–computer interfaces. Separately, new advances in brain-machine interfacing using brain organoids – artificially grown miniature “brains” cultured in vitro from human stem cells – connected to machine software and hardware raises even more issues. The authors of a recent Frontier Science journal article propose a new field called “organoid intelligence” (OI) and advocate for establishing “OI as a form of genuine biological computing that harnesses brain organoids using scientific and bioengineering advances in an ethically responsible manner.”
As Christians, we should proceed with caution per the Apostle John, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1).
We should act with discernment per Luke’s insightful assessment of the Berean Jews who “were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
We should heed the warning of Moses, “Do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol…do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19).
We should remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition to avoid exchanging the truth about God for a lie by worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25).
Finally, we should “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Let us then use AI wisely, since it will not be the tools that are judged, but the users.
Dr. K. Lynn Lewis serves as President of The Bible Seminary. This article published in The Sentinel, Summer 2023, pp. 3-8. For additional reading, "Computheology" imagines computers debating the existence of humanity.