Why We’re Afraid Our Robots Will Kill Us

How can hamsters be such a popular pet? They don’t lick you, perform tricks, or do much of anything. But like so many children, I had several growing up. I think I liked the cage accessories more than the pets themselves.

My hamster universe had it all: tunnels, spinning wheels, multi-level lofts and places to hide. I managed to create a world to meet all of their needs, from recreation to nourishment to entertainment. I even tried providing companionship at one point. But that ended up in too many extra hamsters, so we had to put a stop to it.

We are creators. I took so much pride in making a world for the creature under my care. As products of a masterful Creator ourselves, his urge to fashion, mold, and provide beats deep within us. We seem to be infused with the sense that having been created, we ought to create as well.

The account of our creation helps us to understand where this drive comes from. The story of God’s great unveiling on the sixth day of creation paints a powerful picture of our nature as humans.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

When God fashioned his creation, he commissioned the pinnacle of his handiwork to be his representatives. Humankind was made in the image of God with a responsibility to rule over the rest of creation according to God’s purposes.

We have already explored the tension created by our calling to rule creation while we serve God. Technology increases our capability as rulers and helps us to become better gods. At the same time, maintaining our relationship with God ensures we don’t lose our humanity in the process.

Navigating that tension is fraught with danger. We can easily lose ourselves in the process. But there is another temptation, as well. This hazard comes not from the tension of finding ourselves placed in between God and his creation, but from the inherent frustration any middle manager feels.

We are given responsibility over God’s creation, but we can’t completely control it. Throughout the other days of creation, we’ve observed how the weather, the food cycle, and time itself are given to us, but operate largely outside of our jurisdiction. This is can be a confusing and demoralizing position to occupy. Having responsibility over something you can’t control leads to annoyance, discouragement and even despair.

Holding my first child in my arms was an incredible experience. I was filled with joy, wonder, excitement, love, hope … and anger. That last one surprised me. I have visceral memories of holding my screaming infant daughter and feeling an anger rise up in me I had never known.

I was supposed to care for, comfort, and provide for this child. But she seemed to thwart all of my attempts. I didn’t know how to make this situation better. That feeling of incompetence and failure matured into frustration and anger, as my efforts to calm her failed again and again.

We don’t like to feel out of control. If we are in charge of something, we want to be able to determine its course. Responsibility without complete authority drives us crazy. Too often we find ourselves leading a team of people who won’t listen to us, training a dog who won’t obey or tending a garden filled with weeds.

This system God has created vexes us. We find ourselves dissatisfied and disillusioned. So we escape.

What do you do when your place in God’s creation isn’t working for you?

Simple. 

You find an alternative. You fashion your own creation. Unhappy with our roles as images over another creation, we break out of the system, fashioning an alternative where we can occupy the place of Creator over a world where we have complete control.

I could move the hamster wheel for my furry friend anywhere I liked. I can upload whatever picture I want to my social media profile; I can even edit it to make me look a whole lot better. With enough effort, using the gifts of technology, I can live in a world where I have far more control over the one God created.

Having created our own world, we proceed to create our own images to serve as our representatives. Machines do the work we used to do; computers process information too complicated for us to understand; algorithms make decisions we’d rather not occupy our time.

We don’t like our place in God’s creation, so we manufacture one where we are god over an alternative creation, and we commission images to do our will.

While this strategy helps us to avoid our middle management angst, it also fills us with anxiety.

A friend who works in deep learning technology explained to me how we don’t actually understand the way our artificial intelligence operates. Through technology we have managed to create a black box capable of identifying cats, keeping cars in a traffic lane, and mostly recognizing faces from photos. But having blessed it with neural networks and deep learning capabilities, the process by which our image comes to conclusions is mostly obscure to us. We don’t actually understand the steps it takes. We just know it works.

We’ve seen this movie. We are familiar with how this story ends. From Terminator to Blade Runner to West World, we are fascinated by the Turned Against Their Masters trope. Each of these narratives tell the same story. Humanity constructs alternate images. They become self-aware and rebel against their creator.

We are right to fear the rebellion of our own images, because that’s exactly what we would do. In fact, it’s exactly what we did do. This story isn’t just recounted in books, film and TV. It stems from the first pages of the revelation of the original Creator.

Having created entities in our own image, is it any wonder to us we should fear them following the same path we chose as images of God?

What then are we to do? How do we respond?

Am I suggesting my innocent hamster habitat as a child stemmed from a deep seated urge to escape my place in God’s creation? As such, should similar attempts be squashed with the all too familiar insistence we ought to “stay in your place”?

Perhaps not. Perhaps we don’t need to fear.

After all, we are not gods over our own creation. No matter how hard we try, we can’t escape the system God has placed us in. And that is a very, very good thing.

God reminds Job of his place in the universe in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” But this is not a place we have to be kept in or else we might overstep. It is a place we graciously occupy because of the wisdom of God.

We don’t have to stay in our place, because God didn’t give us the ability to abandon it. What’s the use in telling a tree to stay where it was planted or a mountain to not even consider leaving its location? We operate within God’s system.

Thus, our efforts to manufacture alternate creations and delegate our own representatives aren’t dangerous because we aren’t actually gods. To the extent we consider ourselves as having broken away from God’s frustrating assignment, those worlds are illusions, fantasies, and dreams.

But when we recognize our efforts as taking place within the realm God gave us to occupy, we can embrace them with newfound freedom. While it might be possible for our images to rise up against us, they could never overthrow their creator’s Creator. Our rebellion was hardly successful. We have no reason to fear theirs will fare any better.

How do we maintain this kind of perspective amidst the vacillating optimism and terror of technology? Can we create technology to do our will without negating our willingness to do the will of our Creator? How do we manage our own creations as part of God’s ultimate universe, instead of fooling ourselves we have escaped his realm?

I was never really afraid my hamster would rebel. Are we right to worry the robots may someday rise against us? I suspect not. But even if they do, our Creator remains. And his purposes will never be thwarted, either by his creation, or his creation’s creation, or his creation’s creation’s creation.

Robots will never rule this world. That spot is taken.

Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.

Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.

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