Who is Our ‘Neighbor’ in an AI-enabled World?
Artificial intelligence (AI) has promises to enrich our lives and make daily tasks easier, but as with any technology, it also poses new issues and challenges. The more we can outsource to machines, the more we’ll have to face the question of what it means to be human. Theologians and philosophers have their ways of grappling with that question, but we can also learn from stories. Jesus spoke rich truth through parables, after all.
In Luke 10:25-37, a lawyer seeks to test Jesus and asks him, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what is written in the law, and lawyer responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms this, but the lawyer still wants clarification. “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The AI-enabled Good Samaritan
It’s a great example of using story to teach rich truths. We can borrow from it today to tell a different though similar story:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance, a Christian podcaster was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side and posted an episode about the rise of public nudity and the silence of Christian celebrities on the matter. So likewise, a celebrity pastor, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side, yet went on to teach his congregation to pursue their purpose and live life to the fullest. The man lay in the ditch until an AI-enabled drone flew over and saw him. It determined the extent of his injuries and determined that he needed medical care. It captured video and images of his various wounds, then called an automated car to take him to a medical facility where ‘med-bots’ assessed his condition and cared for his wounds. The man’s identity was ascertained, and his insurance was billed for the medical care.
There is No Neighbor
It seems safe to say that in this version of the story, there is no neighbor. In this version we see that (1) the basic orientation of the priests and the Levites is too often mirrored in the church today, and (2) the force of the parable changes drastically when the care is provided by automated systems. AI is not our neighbor. Even if it were, we cannot outsource the task of loving our neighbor. To do so would be to deny the spirit of the greatest commandment (love God) or the second which is like it (love your neighbor as yourself).
The priest and Levite in Jesus’s original parable were the “cheap participators” of Jesus’ day. They talked a good game and did what what it took to develop a respectable social standing, but they are not neighbors. Their participation is “cheap” because they have little to no skin in the game. They’re out for themselves, and they only care for others when it advances their own well-being. Their perspective often appeared to align with God’s Word, but was ultimately shallow and misleading.
Their place in the parable now goes to the Christian podcaster and celebrity pastor whose actions do not align with their teachings and, worse, lead other believers astray. They are not neighbors. To be clear, I’m not referring to all Christian podcasters or celebrity pastors. I’m critiquing the subset of them that are more interested in their own status than in building up Christ’s body.
The AI-enabled drone character highlights a new sort of temptation. Not only can we join the priests and Levites of our day, but we can also neglect our neighbor by construing “pure and undefiled” religion (James 1:27) as the “elimination of human suffering” rather than the often-futile acts of visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction.” Religion is not about solving a problem but about being with others in pain. It is about sharing in suffering whether we can alleviate it or not.
We Must Preserve the Human Element
This retelling the parable is not meant to be anti-technology but pro-human. While the man left half dead still receives care (of a sort), the human elements of Jesus’ original parable are removed. No Samaritan, no human ever has to handle the bloodied body of the man who has been robbed. No one has to bandage or pour oil and wine on his wounds. There is no one walking to the nearest inn (which may not have been very near), or interacting with the innkeeper, or giving care through the night. No person makes a promise to pay for it all, as there’s a system to take care of that.
This AI-enhanced “Good Drone” knows nothing of compassion. The whole story is devoid of neighborliness, the inconvenient, tedious, and costly yet very human activities that so often accompany loving and interacting with others.
We often hear about the worst-case scenarios associated with AI such as The Terminator, iRobot, or the newest Mission Impossible. In these stories, AI takes over and humankind mounts a (futile?) resistance. The real challenge posed to humanity by AI will more likely be to the temptation to use it to distance ourselves from one another in the name of efficiency and innovation.
Inefficiency can indeed be problematic in some situations. We value efficiency in computation, communication, and even, to some extent, the delivery of physical care. God’s people are not called to be efficient, however. We are called to be faithful. We are not called to develop systems to make ourselves increasingly self-sufficient. We are called to love God and neighbor. To be a neighbor does not mean we need to be anti-technology. It does, however, mean that we must preserve the sort of human interactions that are inspired by compassion and result in neighborliness that imitates the sacrifice of Christ and points to the active presence of God in our lives.
Dr. James Spencer currently serves as President of the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel and challenging God’s children to follow Jesus. He also hosts a weekly radio program and podcast titled “Useful to God” on KLTT in Colorado. His book titled Christian Resistance: Learning to Defy the World and Follow Jesus is available on amazon.com. He previously published Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D.L. Moody, Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind, as well as co-authoring Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.