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 A.I. Age | This 12-month series of stories explores the social and economic questions arising from the fast-spreading uses of artificial intelligence. The series is funded with the help of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over the coverage.

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.

The Rev. Dr. Ted Peters  talks about transhumanism to parishioners at Queen Anne Lutheran Church. Followers of the movement believe 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. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
The Rev. Dr. Ted Peters talks about transhumanism to parishioners at Queen Anne Lutheran Church. Followers of the movement believe 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. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

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.

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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

When Dr. Daniel Peterson became the pastor of the Queen Anne Lutheran Church three years ago, he hoped to explore issues meaningful both to his congregants and to secular people.

Peterson’s fascination with AI, as a lifelong science-fiction fan, belies a skepticism in the ubiquity of technology: He’s opted out of Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa in his house and said he gets nervous about cameras on cellphones and computers.

He became interested in looking at AI from a “spiritual dimension” after writing an article last year about the depiction of technologies such as droids in “Star Wars” films. In Peterson’s eyes, artificially intelligent machines in the films are equipped with a sense of mission that enables them to think and act like humans without needing to be preprogrammed.

Dan Peterson, pastor of Queen Anne Lutheran Church, listens to a panel discussion about the intersection between artificial intelligence and faith. A lifelong science-fiction fan, he became interested in looking at AI from a “spiritual dimension” after writing an article about the depiction of technologies such as droids in “Star Wars” films. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Dan Peterson, pastor of Queen Anne Lutheran Church, listens to a panel discussion about the intersection between artificial intelligence and faith. A lifelong science-fiction fan, he became interested in looking at AI from a “spiritual dimension” after writing an article about the depiction of technologies such as droids in “Star Wars” films. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

His examination of AI yielded more questions than answers: “What kind of bias or brokenness are we importing in the artificial intelligence we’re designing?” Peterson pondered. If AI developed consciousness, “what sort of philosophical and theological concerns does that raise?”

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Peterson invited his church and surrounding community to explore these questions and more in the three-part forum called “Will AI Destroy Us?,” which kicked off with a conversation held by Carissa Schoenick from the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, followed by Peters’ discussion on transhumanism, and concluded with Peterson’s talk on his own research around AI in science-fiction films.

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Held from late September to early October, the series sought to fill what Peterson called a silence among faith leaders about the rise of AI. Peterson and other religious observers are now eager to take part in a new creation story of sorts: Local initiatives held in places of worship and educational institutions are positioning Seattle as a testing ground for the intersection of AI and religion.

The discussion on transhumanism drew members of the community unaffiliated with the church, including David Brenner, the board chair of Seattle-based organization AI and Faith. The consortium membership spans across belief systems and academic institutions in an effort to bring major religions into the discussion around the ethics of AI, and how to create machines that evoke “human flourishing and avoids unnecessary, destructive problems,” Brenner said in an interview at the church. As Brenner spoke, a few congregants remained in the basement to fervently chat about the symposium.

“The questions that are being presented by AI are fundamental life questions that have now become business [ones],” said Brenner, a retired lawyer. Values including human dignity, privacy, free will, equality and freedom are called into question through the development of machines.

“Should robots ever have rights, or is it like giving your refrigerator rights even if they can function just like us?” Brenner said.

AI, religion and the world

Religious leaders around the world are starting to weigh in. Last April, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — the public-policy section of the Southern Baptist Convention — published a set of guidelines on AI adoption that affirms the dominion of humans and encourages the minimization of human biases in technology. It discourages the creation of machines that take over jobs, relegating humans to “a life of leisure” devoid of work, wrote the authors.

In a speech to a Vatican conference in September, Pope Francis echoed the guidelines’ sentiment by urging tech companies and diplomats to deploy AI in an ethical manner that ensures machines don’t replace human workers. “If mankind’s so-called technological progress were to become an enemy of the common good, this would lead to … a form of barbarism dictated by the law of the strongest,” he said, according to The Associated Press.

On the other hand, some faith perspectives have cropped up in recent years that hold AI at the center of their value systems. Former Google and Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski formed Way of the Future church in 2017 with the aim of creating a peaceful transition into an imminent world where machines surpass human capabilities. The church’s website argues that human rights should be extended to machines, and that we should clear the path for technology to “take charge” as it grows in intelligence.

“We believe it may be important for machines to see who is friendly to their cause and who is not,” the website warns.

But Yasmin Ali, a practicing Muslim and AI and Faith member, has seen AI used as a tool for good and bad. While Ali believes technology can make people’s lives easier, she has also seen news reports and heard stories from her community about such tools being used to profile members of marginalized communities. China, for instance, has used facial-recognition technology to surveil Uighur Muslim minorities in the western region, according to a recent New York Times investigation.

“I think we need to get more diversity with the developers who provide AI, so they can get diverse thoughts and ideas into the software,” Ali said. The Bellevue-based company she founded called Skillspire strives to do just that by training diverse workers in tech courses such as coding and cybersecurity.

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“We have to make sure that those values of being human goes into what we’re building,” Ali said. “It’s like teaching kids — you have to be polite, disciplined.”

Parishioners at Queen Anne Lutheran Church listen to the Rev. Dr. Ted Peters. The topic: Can technology enhance the image of God? (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Parishioners at Queen Anne Lutheran Church listen to the Rev. Dr. Ted Peters. The topic: Can technology enhance the image of God? (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Back at Queen Anne Lutheran, congregants expressed hope that the conversation would get the group closer to understanding and making peace with changes in society, just as churches have done for hundreds of years.

Bainbridge Island resident Monika Aring believes the rise of AI calls for an ongoing inquiry at faith-based places of worship on the role of such technologies. She shared the dismay she felt when her friend, a pastor of another congregation, said the church has largely become irrelevant.

“It mustn’t be. This is the time for us to have these conversations,” she said. “I think we need some kind of moral compass,” one that ensures humans and the Earth continue to thrive amid the advancement of AI.

James Abundis / The Seattle Times
James Abundis / The Seattle Times