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Seattle faith groups reckon with AI … and what it means to be 'truly human'

Melissa Hellmann, The Seattle Times on

Published in Religious News

On a recent Sunday at the Queen Anne Lutheran Church basement, parishioners sat transfixed as the Rev. Dr. Ted Peters discussed an unusual topic for an afternoon assembly: "Can technology enhance the image of God?"

Peters' discussion focused on a relatively new philosophical movement. Its followers believe humans will transcend their physical and mental limitations with wearable and implantable devices.

The movement, called transhumanism, claims that in the future, humans will be smarter and stronger and may even overcome aging and death through developments in fields such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI).

"What does it mean to be truly human?" Peters asked in a voice that boomed throughout the church basement, in a city that boasts one of the world's largest tech hubs. The visiting reverend urged the 30 congregants in attendance to consider the question during a time when "being human sounds optional to some people."

"It's sad; it makes me feel a lot of grief," a congregant said, shaking her head in disappointment.

Organized religions have long served as an outlet for humans to explore existential questions about their place in the universe, the nature of consciousness and free will. But as AI blurs the lines between the digital and physical worlds, fundamental beliefs about the essence of humanity are now called into question.

 

While public discourse around advanced technologies has mostly focused on changes in the workforce and surveillance, religious followers say the deeper implications of AI could be soul-shifting.

It doesn't surprise James Wellman, a University of Washington professor and chair of the Comparative Religion Program, that people of faith are interested in AI. Religious observers place their faith in an invisible agent known as God, whom they perceive as benevolent and helpful in their lives. The use of technology evokes a similar phenomenon, such as Apple's voice assistant Siri, who listens and responds to them.

"That sounds an awful lot like what people do when they think about religion," Wellman said.

CONFRONTING AI AND FAITH

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