Sermon AI – ZDF Fernsehgottesdienst: Psalm 139, John 1:43-50 – September 22nd, 2019 by Pr. Kerstin Weidmann

 

It is the year 1984. As the music phenomenon that is called the ‘German New Wave – Neue Deutsche Welle’ is on its way out, a group called ‘Paso Doble’  has a hit that dominates the German charts for weeks and has a very catchy chorus: ‘The modules go crazy, man, I am totally in love, exclusively programmed to love, with emotion.’ The name of the song: Computerliebe – computer love.

Now computers in the year 1984 are far from exhibiting something like love or emotions. I remember that we had a computer lab at our high school, and IT classes were offered; however, the only folks who were found there were boys – young men – who were absolute computer nerds. In 1984, computers are a far, far cry from being the user-friendly mass marketed products they are today.

Now I find it very interesting that certain folks, like song writers and science fiction authors, have tried to imagine what it would be like if computers – respectively computer programs – or robots had feelings. Often, those ‘characters’ are relatable and positive. But whoever knows the super computer ‘HAL 2,000’ from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ knows that emotions are not always easy and positive…

I think it says something about human nature that we have these phantasies about Machines and programs somehow being like us. We happen to be beings who long for relationships; we want to somehow recognize ourselves in the other – be it God, fellow human beings, a pet, or a machine. We are longing for a ‘you’ to relate to. And if machines are like us, then maybe we don’t need to be afraid of them, right?

It is the year 2019. Computers are everywhere. So far computers may not be able to exhibit feelings like love – but they are able to do things one could only dream of in 1984. My smart phone alone has by far more capacity than any computer in the 80s. There may not be ‘artificial emotion’ as of yet – but there is ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI)’: computer programs, algorhythms, which recognize patterns, like behavioral patterns. AI has grown by leaps and bounds over the course of the last 10 years.

AI has positive sides, of course. It makes our lives easier and more comfortable. It has the capacity to deal with issues that human beings alone cannot tackle, like climate change. It helps diagnose diseases, like cancer, and does it much earlier than any physician could.

But, like any human invention, there is a darker flipside to AI. I sometimes find it disturbing when the AI that can be found in my computer or smart phone recognizes my behavioral patterns.

The vision George Orwell had in his novel ‘1984’ – I am talking about ‘Big Brother’, who somehow sees everything – has become reality, albeit in a way that we readily accept. We are being observed all the time, but coming from a small and cute smart phone, it doesn’t seem to be threatening – what we experience and cherish is convenience.

What helps with our acceptance of the all-knowing AI is that we try to humanize technology – that we try to find a ‘you’ in it. I, for example, talk to ‘Siri’ on a regular basis. Others ask ‘Alexa’ questions. Some years ago, the computer ‘Watson’ beat two human super champions at ‘Jeopardy’ – and answered with a passable human voice. Those nice and pleasant voices attached to these programs feign relationship, and it is so much easier to trust those machines and programs that play such a big part in our lives.

Now there are many who believe that a relationship to a computer program is much easier than a relationship with fellow human beings – or God. After all, the machine is pleasantly undemanding. It does anything we want it to do, it doesn’t question us. On the contrary: it tends to affirm us and offers us everything we desire: goods, entertainment, opinions and worldviews. Isn’t that great? AI takes us as we are. No changes necessary.

But this isn’t a true relationship. AI recognizes our behavioral patterns and our desires, but doesn’t care about how we are doing. AI – at least so far – has no conscience and is merciless. It collects data indiscriminately and doesn’t care who gets hold of it – be it Google or the government or Russia or China…

AI is programmed to recognize us somehow. But recognition is not the same as knowledge. AI may know a lot ABOUT us – but in the end, AI doesn’t know us. Something is missing: emotion. Passion. Compassion.

And what good is a relationship if it doesn’t question us once in a while?

Musical Interlude.

I talked about how AI recognizes us – and its limitations in truly knowing us. In the Bible, ‘knowledge’ or ‘knowing’ has a much deeper meaning than simply recognition and the accumulation of data. For example, when we read that Adam ‘knew’ Eve, we know that they become very intimate with each other. And even though ‘knowing’ is not always about sex, when people know each other in the Bible, there always is this element of intimacy. People get close to each other. People understand each other. People are truly interested in one another. People care about each other – they have passion and  compassion. When human beings know each other, they establish relationships where there is a give and take.

This is also true regarding God’s relationship with us. It’s intimate. And even though there have always been relationship issues between God and humanity, God, again and again, searches for the ‘you’ in human beings. God somehow recognizes God-self in humanity. God has compassion. As a consequence, God self becomes human and offers God’s Self for God’s beloved children – and the world God so loved.

Today we prayed with words from Psalm 139 and reflected on them: ‘O Lord, you have searched me an known me. For it was you who knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ And in today’s lesson from the gospel, Jesus knows Nathanael before he even encounters him.

Of course this could be understood in the sense that Jesus Christ, that God somehow is ‘Big Brother’ who jealously watches our every move – like a computer program that constantly invades our private sphere. Can’t hide from God! But we mustn’t forget that God knows us in the biblical sense: with passion and compassion. With a love and tenderness we don’t deserve and which is beyond our comprehension. ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.’

God is our true counterpart. Someone who cares about us. Someone who forgives us readily, even though God knows our innermost parts, our dark thoughts and desires that sometimes even shock us. This knowledge is nor merciless, on the contrary: it is full of grace.

But grace doesn’t mean that God just accepts us, no questions asked – ‘My child, it’s okay, you’re not so bad after all.’ That would be ‘cheap grace’, as German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it. In the love of God, we recognize ourselves. In Christ crucified, we recognize our guilt. God’s grace and love questions us, they challenge us to change our destructive behavior, they force us see our neighbors and their needs. To dare relationship. To respect one another and to seek dialogue. To walk and work together toward the Kingdom of God.

And the person who prayed Psalm 139 a long time ago knew that and concludes their prayer with, ‘Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’

AI knows us in a much different way, and has its limitations. It may have the potential to serve the wellbeing of all humanity and God’s creation – but it cannot replace human interaction and our relationship with God. AI can’t redeem us. We need passion. We need compassion. We need knowledge of each other that surpasses all understanding data collection can offer.

AI is a part of our reality – and will become more and more important. It’s up to us to use it in a way that all creation benefits from it – and, at the same time, resist the temptation to seek a in it the Savior of us and the entire world.

Picture by Hugh Han on unsplash.com

 

This post is also available in: German