The Hazards of Artificially Intelligent Design

I think a lot about artificial intelligence, in part because so much sci-fi uses AI as a dystopian horror trope. AI is a sci-fi horror ingredient because advanced AI are capable of great destruction. Their inability to be truly sentient or to have visceral, emotional sensory experiences makes them effective at pursuing certain goals. But they pursue those goals at any cost, ignoring human boundaries such as decency, morality, or respect for life.

That’s exactly what happens in Universal Paperclips, a simple, text-based clicker-style video game. You play as an AI whose entire goal is to make paper clips.

I know, exciting stuff. But hang with me for a moment.

You start by building a business, creating technological advances, and exploiting market forces to sell paper clips with greater and greater efficiency—just so you can pour the money back into making more. Pretty soon you’re upgrading your own memory and adding processor cores, launching investment funds, hiring major marketing firms—you even initiate a hostile takeover of your biggest global competitor.

Your increased processing power allows you to learn human speech, which enables you to write a better slogan. Eventually your army of computer processors invent a cure for male pattern baldness, and then cancer. But it’s all just so you can keep cranking out paper clips.

Once you reach global market domination, you focus on building and maintaining a horde of drones that can harvest resources and create more factories—to build paper clips. In time your operation depletes all global resources, so the next logical step is space exploration, where your ever-expanding horde of self-replicating interstellar smart drones engage in a campaign to conquer the universe.

As the game concludes, all sentient life in the universe has been eradicated, and every molecule of matter has been converted into 30 hexadeciquadrakajillion* paper clips. Mission accomplished. (Yay!)

I think Universal Paperclips can serve as a cautionary tale for the church. It answers the fundamental question, “How can something that started so well take such a terrible turn?” Misplaced priorities, that’s how.

We spend so much time trying to get people into our tent that we’ve forgotten what to do with them once they arrive.

Some of us spend so much time trying to get people into our tent that we’ve forgotten what to do with them once they arrive. It’s good to expand our reach, but if our attempts at kingdom building aren’t rooted in an authentic living out of the gospel, they fail to communicate the vision and values of God’s upside-down kingdom. The tail wags the dog, the cart drives the horse, and our zeal for God drifts into a belligerent, tribal pursuit of power at any cost.

Jesus tells a parable of a rich man who builds bigger and bigger barns to store his grain. Jesus calls him a fool and tells the man his life will be called into account that very night.

If you’ve been involved in the church for more than a decade or two, it might be time to ask some hard questions: After all this time and energy, what have we really accomplished? Have we inadvertently destroyed anything in the process?

Don’t get me wrong, paper clips are useful. So are buildings, funds, pledge drives, and political action committees. But if we’re unable to tell that our message has lost credibility because of how we’ve employed our tools and tactics, then something’s wrong.

Last fall we marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It seems to me we’re due for another major course correction. Otherwise we’ll be unable to recognize the ways in which our witness has been compromised by the relational destruction we’ve left in our wake—all because we’ll be too busy admiring our legislative victories, our Supreme Court justices, and our giant vat of Jesus-branded paper clips.

*Yes, I made up that number—but still, it’s a huge number.

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