The Search for First Principles

By Sarah Yang ’21 M.Div.

Everywhere I go, snippets of conversations about AI reach my ears, stirring up mixed emotions of the profound impact that AI is already having on our lives. Every voice is infused with such passion over AI’s potential benefits (and negative repercussions) that the resulting cacophony of animated discourse sounds to me more and more like a self-destructive uproar. 

It is imperative that we come together as people of faith to start to define a set of AI first principles grounded in faith to provide guidance particularly for those who are advancing and adopting AI technologies.

Yet, amidst the noise, I see an opportunity to (re)align and reinforce our core values and beliefs in the way that we innovate, work, and build organizations. 

Having navigated the realms of technology as an entrepreneur and delved into the depths of faith and philosophy at YDS, I find myself at a unique intersection. The more time I spend at the forefront of technology, the more I’ve come to realize how deeply influential our outlooks on life are on the ways we shape the things we build and the social structures that result.

A Momentous Shift

Because of AI, we are now standing on the cusp of a monumental shift in how we connect and collaborate with each other. We see glimpses of what’s to come: engagement with AI assistants, in some cases, has proven to generate genuinely intimate and constructive conversations. As organizations experiment with how much responsibility to allocate between AI and humans, we are forced to confront profound questions about the impact and relevance of our values, beliefs, and purpose in life.

How we define those values and purposes dictates how we build technology, structure organizations for the future, and nurture thriving workforces predominantly drawn from new generations of digital natives. But these tasks become more and more complex as our customary responsibilities as human beings are challenged, redefined, and shared with AI entities and agents. Much depends on how we decide to regard AI entities in our lives and societies—either as our equals, subordinates, superiors, or simply as productivity enhancements. 

Kinship Connection

In my current exploration into AI applications, I often wonder whether the propensity to humanize technology comes from a desire to satisfy a deeper need. For example, ChatGPT is said to “dream” and to “hallucinate” when it generates responses to our queries, even though those responses are essentially driven by mathematical formulas and statistical models that lack human attributes. Perhaps it has been ascribed humanlike qualities because that is the only way we know how to describe this unprecedented new experience of wide-ranging, unscripted, intelligible interaction with a nonhuman entity. To me, the language of human rapport we’re using for AI interactions reveals our search for some form of kinship with AI that raises several pressing concerns.

As a Christian, I firmly believe we are meant to be in relationship with God and with each other. So as we experience a rise in two parallel trends—the desire for intimate relationships with humanized AI and the digitized displacement of fellow human beings—we must ask ourselves: what is it we are looking for in AI that we are unable to find in each other?

Fear of Rejection

While the notion of forming emotional attachments with AI entities may seem ludicrous to some, they currently offer a sense of solace and control to mitigate fears of rejection, hurt, and the consequences of broken trust. A relationship that is predictable and caters specifically to one’s own needs is understandably compelling to anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak and disappointment with the average human relationship. 

At the same time, the temptation to replace human relationships in this manner threatens to create a void in opportunities to experience the unique joys of strengthening those very same relationships by overcoming emotional wounds and allowing the transformations necessary for individual and relational maturity to take place. In a technological age already marked with short attention spans and instant gratification, turning to AI to avoid the complications of human relationships will create a dearth of relational experiences to draw from for handling increasingly complex interactions as more innovations in AI are integrated into other aspects of our lives.

We are entering the throes of a convergence of multiple innovations, a trend that will explicitly blur the lines between our physical and virtual realities and leave us vulnerable to the potential misuse of AI for nefarious ends. Encoding a set of principles and beneficial outcomes into AI models does not guarantee that AI will always adhere to those principles or that its builders will offer them with good intent.

AI Reflects What It Sees

It is imperative that we come together as people of faith to start to define a set of AI first principles grounded in faith to provide guidance particularly for tech-savvy individuals and tech professionals who are advancing and adopting AI technologies. What’s needed is a clear theological understanding of how we define AI as an entity, along with identifying emotional and spiritual boundaries in AI interactions so that healthy human-to-human relationships can flourish, both online and offline. From such principles, we can start the groundwork for structuring healthier digitally enhanced social and professional environments.

Everyone stands to benefit if we create the space and time for people to think through how to handle anticipated sociological and practical challenges that affect every level of society. But until we take the pivotal step to initiate dialogue within our congregations, the confusing clamor over AI will persist and cloud efforts to incorporate values-aligned practices into the foundational development of AI technologies.

Much work remains to articulate what it looks like to create authentic connections through AI without losing our sense of what healthy relationships look like. At stake is the exciting possibility of creating stronger professional communities and organizations, built upon deeper relationships and a clear sense of belonging. In the end, AI is a mirror of the hopes of its builders and will reflect what it sees. If we pursue our relationships with God and each other in earnest, we will see a brighter future with AI than without it.

Sarah Yang ’21 M.Div. is an entrepreneur developing solutions with emerging technologies such as Web3 and AI. She has an M.B.A. from London Business School and a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and math from the University of British Columbia.