Talking about Faith, Science and Artificial Intelligence – Bishop Steven Croft

Bishop Steven Croft is the Co-Chair of the Anglican Communion Science Commission. In July, he will speak at a webinar about science and faith, hosted by the ACO’s Lambeth Conference team. This article features some of his perspectives on the opportunities and implications of AI and how faith and science can work together in navigating ethical questions and using AI constructively. 

For Bishop Steven Croft, his interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) started a little over seven years ago. His eldest son Paul, a computer games designer and entrepreneur, would share articles and information with him, including about AI.  

Artificial Intelligence is a fast-developing area of science and technology that’s having a massive impact on our world. An online definition describes Artificial Intelligence (AI) as ‘the science of making machines that can think like humans. It can do things that are considered “smart.” AI technology can process large amounts of data in ways unlike humans. The goal for AI is to be able to do things such as recognize patterns, make decisions, and judge like humans.’  

Over the last few years, Bishiop Steven has participated in some important discussions about the role of AI, its opportunities and challenges, and represented a faith perspective in public debate. He is the Church of England’s lead bishop of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and Technology in the House of Lords, in the UK Parliament. He has also served on Select Committees about AI, the environment and climate change. He is a founding board member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. 

Narrow AI and the importance of regulation

In a film made before the Lambeth Conference, Bishop Steven spoke of his interest in the implications of AI. “What began to keep me awake at night in ways I hadn’t anticipated was the real and present possibilities and dangers of what is called “Narrow Artificial Intelligence” – machines functioning across quite a narrow range of human skill but with a speed or depth and intensity that human intelligence can’t match,” he said.  

He continued, “That has huge potential for good but there are also real dangers in terms of delegating decision-making algorithms and what that does to our humanity. Narrow AI is being deployed in medicine, scanning, policing through facial recognition technology and some predictive policing work. It is also being employed by some social services.” 

Since the film, Bishop Steven has developed his thoughts further. He believes that regulation of Narrow AI is largely retrospective because the tech has been developed and then marketed extremely rapidly with mixed and often unforeseen consequences. He said, “We are learning how to regulate in arrears and that has been the case with the Online Safety Act.  Platforms, absolved of legal responsibility for content, have also absolved themselves of all moral responsibility for the toxic environment in many spheres of life where young people have been damaged in all kinds of ways. The Online Safety Act is beginning to set regulations in place, but the designated UK regulator is still working on draft codes and defining best practices and that is proving challenging and time consuming.”  

The world over, governments are engaging with the challenge of regulating the internet, social media and the big technology companies. By what principals do we do that and what does the Christian Church have to say about those issues? I think those things will determine much of human life across our world over the next generation.’ 

The Government must involve Civil Society and Faith Groups

Bishop Steven is a regular contributor to ethical debate on matters of AI and believes faith groups have a vital role to play as societies appraise and respond to fast-paced technological change. This came through in November 2023, as he spoke to the King’s Speech in the House of Lords and the government’s work on an AI summit.  

In it he said: ‘I want to congratulate the Prime Minister and the government on the recent AI Summit and all that has emerged from the discussions there. The Summit served to raise profile of the questions raised by AI and the ways in which the benefits of new technology can be realised and the mitigation of its potential harms. I welcome the promise of new legal frameworks for self-driving vehicles, new competition rules for digital markets and the encouragement of innovation in machine learning. 

‘However, I do want to encourage the government to invest more deeply in dialogue with civil society about the impact of these new technologies. The recent summit claimed to involve civil society, but I have seen no evidence of this key third voice in the room. The government has entered into a rich dialogue between government and tech companies, which is welcome, but this dialogue must be informed by trade unions, academia, community groups and faith communities to build trust and confidence moving forward about the kind of society we are building. 

So may I ask the minister in her response to indicate the ways in which the government will strengthen this third arm of the conversation in the coming months and years. 

I strongly believe that the role of the Church and civil society in all of this is very much to raise the public conversation. Let us do so with boldness and courage, challenging the way that technology is being delivered when we need to so that it genuinely serves the needs of humanity.’ 

 

Announcing: 'Science and Faith'.
Next in Phase 3 of the Lambeth Conference

On July 3 and 4, the Anglican Communion Office team are running webinars on the Lambeth Call on Science and Faith.

open to all:
the Phase 3 webinars