Living in Tomorrow’s World Today

In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought was famously made to determine the answer to life, the universe and everything. The answer took seven and a half million years to work out, but when it got there, the answer both astounded and perplexed. The answer was, of course, 42. When quizzed about this seemingly nonsensical answer, Deep Thought confirmed that the answer was indeed correct, but that it had taken so long to arrive at because it didn’t actually know the question… Consequently, another computer was commissioned to discover what the ultimate question was. This computer was the Earth (and if you don’t believe me, ask the mice).

When Douglas Adams wrote his famous books (first published in 1979), computers as we know them didn’t exist, nor did the internet. Clive Sinclair’s famous invention, the first ‘affordable’ computer wasn’t manufactured until 1981. It’s computing power and capacity was miniscule compared to current standards, with computer specs increasing exponentially since then. What was pure sci-fi then is becoming sci-fi reality with driverless cars, Google’s AI (artificial intelligence) beating the world champion at the game Go this week (said to be more complex than chess), and local news reports during the week about people having microchips inserted under their skin (as with pets) and using these chips to interact with their environment in a whole host of arrays.

The virtual world has also dramatically changed our lives. It’s hard to remember how we used to handle and look up information back in the 80s, as it is so easy to access it for all topics at the touch of a button. Social media has transformed the way many interact with friends and family and share and discover news. As we know, this has both its benefits, it is easier to get in touch and find others who share similar interests, especially those that are niche interests, and its downsides, the darknet where illegal activity is carried out and promoted, trolling, and the ability to carry out cybercrime as the NHS recently found out.

So where does this burst in IT and computing take us? Some talk of the singularity, the moment in time when computers become more intelligent than we, their creators, are. Will a time come when they become self-determining, and in greater control than we are? Will a time come when androids are indistinguishable from human beings? Will they at that point be in some sense alive? There will be many ethical and moral discussions ahead I’m sure, if not for us, then certainly for the next generation.

What does our faith have to say about this new world ahead? In the Bible, explicitly very little. I’m not aware of Jesus or the prophets ever talking about texting, or VR (virtual reality) or AIs. But this doesn’t mean that our faith has nothing to say on the matter. To me, the technology explosion points to God as much as the wonder of the natural world does; just look to the order and beauty of maths, the creativity in its application, the God-given intelligence of those who design and create these devices and the software vital to them. Like anything else, however, we will have to ask how we use them. Can IT and the internet be a modern-day idol, a false god? Does how we use it liberate or enslave? Does it build community or erode it? The conversation will require careful thought and nuance, but it is a vital one for us to grapple with alongside many other contemporary issues. They may not be the wild figures of the Old Testament, but the voice of God’s prophets are as important now as they were then.

Church Newsletter 28.05.17