Physicist Stephen Hawking has sounded the alarm: if humanity isn’t careful, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will destroy us. That’s just what we all need, yet another thing to be concerned about! Hawking believes that at some point someone will create a computer that is self-generating and able to out maneuver human ingenuity, resulting in either enslavement or annihilation.

Not to be outdone, Elon Musk has also been forthright in his concern about AI. And Musk doesn’t mince words, likening AI to “summoning the demon.”

But let’s take a deep breath. Sure, Musk is clearly aware of technology as is Hawking, but I’ll save my panicking until someone fully inundated in the field is concerned.

Well, wait no longer! Bill Gates has said that he doesn’t understand how some people aren’t “troubled” by AI advancement. And while he’s recently pulled back a little bit from the doom-and-gloom position, assumedly in order to curb social concern, I still don’t feel very confident in his new take:

“The so-called control problem that Elon is worried about isn’t something that people should feel is imminent.”

That’s right, we can all sit back and relax because while AI’s dominion is inevitable, it isn’t likely to occur today. Take that computers!

Are we too late?

When I read these articles, it got me thinking about our current relationship with technology. The tacit assertion in these warnings is that AI is currently not in control. But is that true?

The other day our family went to the zoo. The DC zoo is free and quite lovely so we try to go often. What we particularly like is the combination of open space and amazing animals. My children, like most, adore animals. They read about, dream about, and even act like animals on a daily basis.

So as we approached what is arguably the pinnacle of zoo interest and excitement––the big cats!––I noticed a group of pre-teens sitting along the wall. With African lions a mere stone’s throw away, these pre-teens were fully engulfed in whatever their phones had to offer.

This is, of course, not a “pre-teen” issue. Unlike the rest of the world’s problems, we can’t put this on the kids. No, we adults are just as guilty. When Heather and I went out to eat not long ago, I got fixated on this couple and their probably 8-year old son eating in a nearby booth. Both parents were staring at their phones while their son jumped on the booth seat. Their only interaction with him was an occasional harsh comment to stop jumping. What made it so captivating to watch was how these parents experienced emotions while on their phones. The mom would mumble something to no one in particular and the dad regularly chuckled.

So I just stared at them, unable to look away; that is, until the dad finally looked up and noticed that I was staring at them. I couldn’t figure out a way to make it seem like I just happened to see them as I scanned the room. Instead, we locked eyes for an uncomfortable amount of time.

When I survey the way in which we live, I’m not convinced that we haven’t already lost to AI. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a conversation, which now needs to be qualified as “in-person,” when the other person receives a text, completely ending our interaction. The “bing” or “buzz” beckons us, and we are obliged to respond, because it is our leader.

So what?

Alright, let’s concede the fact that we are at the mercy of our technology, whether phones or otherwise (computers, alexa, Amazon, etc.). What’s the big deal? We aren’t living in an apocalyptic dystopia after all.

Perhaps not, but what kind of world is this really?

Base on mental health statistics, as our lives have become more engrossed in our technology, the more depressed we have become; and perhaps relatedly, we’ve become more dependent on opioids for relief. Indeed, social media consumption, research shows, is addictive, leads to feelings of loneliness, reduces well-being, and produces envy and jealousy. And here’s one tragic consequence:

Instead of some overt and forced subjugation, it appears that technology has gone in another, more subversive, direction. And it makes sense since technology surrounds us––it is integrated into the most mundane parts of our lives. So, “naturally,” it would overtake us through the mundane.

Problem: Source and Solution

Austrian philosopher Martin Buber famously said that humans experience two kinds of relationships: I-It (Ich-Es) and I-Thou (Ich-Du). The I-It relationships are mundane. It’s that interchange you have with the cashier at the grocery store. It’s not bad, necessarily; nevertheless, it is disconnection. The objective “other” exists in a certain world (“cashier-land”) that is flat. These relationships don’t invest in the other person; these relationships are transactional.

Then there’s I-Thou. These relationships are inescapably participatory and dynamic. They require two to enter a space in dialogue, whereas I-It is a monologue. I-Thou is that embrace and hours-long conversation with a friend or significant other. The two individuals are fully present to the richness and texture of the other’s humanity. It requires contact––physical, mental, spiritual, emotional.

Buber argues that people become whole through our I-Thou relationships. The “I” is formed only when the subjective other-ness of the other is seen and known through an active and passive relationship of mutuality.

What is key is that Buber says God is the eternal Thou who sustains all relationships eternally. When we interact in intimate, personal relationships, we understand God better, and in the process, experience personal wholeness.

Our technological overlords, however, present the world only as I-It. Yes, we are technically talking to an actual other person on social media; however, the medium––an impersonal screen devoid of life and compassion––objectifies the other, placing the other in a predetermined category, removing the other’s humanity. Based on one FB comment, we “know” every other. “That” person is liberal or conservative. “They” don’t even care about _______. “They” are the problem.

“I” (good) vs. “Object-other” (bad)

As we’ve accepted technology’s reign, we’ve lost our humanity. We’ve become objects. The result: we have lost contact with God, those around us, and ourselves, which perpetuates the problem.

But we aren’t objects. We are human.

And while technology has its place (this is a blog after all!), it isn’t the center––truly embracing others, in their beauty and mess, is. As one important person once said, wholeness of life is known by loving God and neighbor as oneself.

Personal. Dynamic. Rich. Present. Vulnerable. Shared. Life.

Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.

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Joel Daniels

Author: Joel Daniels

Joel is currently a Chaplain-in-Residence and Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. He studies religion from a global perspective through world Christianity, particularly Pentecostalism, Chinese religious philosophy, interreligious dialogue, spiritual formation, and comparative theology, philosophy, and ethics. More importantly, he is the husband of a superstar and father of three world-changers. He's ordained through the American Baptist Churches, USA, closely affiliating with the charismatic branch of the denomination.

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