The future struck me forcibly in a coffee shop in Pollokshields eighteen months ago. It happened when my very clever university friend was regaling me with his early-retirement PhD project. Artificial intelligence, he said, is accelerating at such a pace that we will soon be using super-human information technologies to transform everything about our lives. His plan was to study what a Christian response might be when (and if!) a computer algorithm became self-aware, sentient, and even spiritual! He’s keeping me posted.
AI, like all new technologies, comes with massive potential for good and fearful possibilities for evil. Mustafa Suleyman describes the rapid development of super-intelligent algorithms and synthetic biological technologies as “The Coming Wave,” a vast tsunami of thinking power which promises to transform health care and address climate change but also has the potential to inflict havoc on humanity at an immense scale. The humble hammer can be both a tool and a weapon!
We humans are incurably optimistic and insatiably curious. That potent blend has created a tendency to believe that “things can only get better” as technology advances. We talk about “progressive” policies and “enlightened” viewpoints and the “arc of history bending towards justice.”
But how do we know?
What evidence is there for this claim?
The idea that history is on an ever-improving trajectory towards a better world is very Western and particularly Christian. Our modern culture has unconsciously ingested the Christian belief that God is orchestrating events towards a positive future whilst at the same time has consciously jettisoned belief in his guiding hand on history. Instead, in our post-Christian culture the invisible hand of progress is attributed to “liberal democracy” or enlightened thinking or even some inbuilt moral tendency in economic markets.
Without God’s hand on the tiller of history what assurance, other than wishful thinking, do we have that the world is heading anywhere at all?
We may have exponentially improved our healthcare, communication systems, transportation networks and human rights laws (which we should be immensely grateful for) but our natural human propensity to mess things up remains as potent as ever. The problem of humanity is still the problem of the human heart.
Now, back to the future, and Revelation.
Revelation offers a vision of a future, not of our own making, but of God’s. As we come to the end of John’s vision, we are presented not with an apocalyptic nightmare of a world so wrecked by evil that all God can do is to extract his loyal followers from it. Nor of a vision of a world incrementally fashioned into a utopian dream by human resourcefulness. Rather, we are shown a world made new as the presence of God fills all things, heaven floods the earth with glory, evil is extinguished and wrong is replaced with right.
“Look, I am making everything new!” is God’s promise.
God is the great upcycler, re-creating a glorious future out of the broken pieces of our tarnished world and beginning a whole new story out of the old.
Hope or fear? What fills your heart as you think ahead?
Christian hope is as sure as the resurrection of Jesus. It allows us to take an honest moral inventory of humanity without despair and to put unfailing trust in the sovereign power of God to bring this world to its new beginning in him.
C S Lewis, who died 60 years ago this week, put it like this:
All their life in this world had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
“There are far, far better things ahead, than any we leave behind.”
C.S. Lewis – The Last Battle