By Arkansas Baptist News

[Perspective] A Christian education robots can’t replace

By Arkansas Baptist News

By Dr. Rhyne Putman, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Williams Baptist University

A few years ago, my friend Jason Thacker published The Age of AI, a book about how Christians might respond to artificial intelligence. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp why this was such an important topic to take up. I naively presumed that the threat posed by AI was the stuff of science fiction. But three years later, we are witnessing the first stages of an AI revolution that could reshape our workforce, economy, and world. 

Right now, anyone with a computer or a smartphone can access several AI apps. Google recently incorporated this technology into its popular search engine. AI art generators can create digital paintings or photorealistic images of anything you can describe in a text prompt. One app can solve any complex math problem you can photograph. The AI software known as ChatGPT can write a business proposal, a full-length research paper, or a song if you just give it the topic and some parameters.  

Because of applications like these, the faculty at Williams Baptist University recently added a new policy prohibiting the unauthorized use of AI services on assignments and tests. In response to the phenomenon of AI cheating, some of our teachers are trading online assignments for in-person essays and blue book exams.  

While AI can be used to cheat in college courses, I’m not convinced that all AI is unhelpful or immoral. As a tool, AI presents endless possibilities. In the near future, AI will assist doctors and healthcare professionals in diagnosing and treating patients. Arkansas farmers will use AI to manage their crops and maximize their yields. Many of the manhours used in accounting and human resources will probably be eliminated with a few clicks of a button.  

Like any other scientific discovery, technology can be a gift from God that we can steward for his glory. Yet I grow concerned that this technology can also be misused to reject two important aspects of God’s creation.  

First, any technology created to replace human interaction seems to be an affront to the image of God in which human beings were created. For example, an AI-driven, almost completely automated McDonalds restaurant recently opened in Fort Worth, Texas. Customers can order their food, pay for it, and receive it without seeing or talking to another human being. However, human beings were created to relate to one another, not to hide behind screens. 

Second, while man has always used technology to help him in his work, he should never use technology to avoid work altogether. The creation account in Genesis 1–3 makes it clear that human beings were created to work before the fall. After all, we were made in the image of a working God. 

If the Lord does not return first, AI will eventually change the job market as we know it. Low-skill jobs are already being eliminated. Even in the community around WBU, many cashiers have been replaced by touch screens. Waiters at the local Mexican restaurant are being traded out with robots that deliver chips and salsa! But even higher-skill jobs that formerly required years of education will be affected. AI is already changing the job market for graphic designers, data analysts, and programmers. It won’t be long before we look to AI to file our taxes, make our employee schedules, and handle our customer complaints. 

Another potential casualty of AI is the future of university education—at least a particular way of educating students. Many public universities and colleges have shifted their emphasis toward training students for specific jobs presently needed across various industries. This makes sense: providing an education that helps students land paying jobs when they graduate is one of the most important functions of a university. But universities should do even more than this, especially in a world where many jobs that formerly belonged to college graduates can now be performed by robots and AI. 

In a world of ever-changing technological advances, what universities really need is a retrieval of their historical foundations. Because they believed that all truth ultimately belonged to God, the earliest universities integrated a Christian theological vision into their treatment of every discipline. These universities did more than help prepare students for a certain profession. They aimed to shape the student as a whole person: mentally, physically, and spiritually.  

God created us to do things that can never be replaced by robots. More than ever, Christian universities need to train fully formed followers of Christ who embrace what it means to be human, made in the image of God, and created for Christ-centered purpose.  

Robots can’t think critically. In the age of AI, it is more important than ever before that universities train students to think critically in ways that cannot be imitated by a computer program. If you ask ChatGPT to write a “critical research paper,” the AI can compile a sequence of words gleaned from human writing on the subject. However, the software is incapable of independent thought. It does not know how to ask pressing questions. It cannot see the relevance of an idea or its practical application. It certainly cannot assess the morality of an idea. 

Unlike robots, human beings have particular ways of seeing the world. This is why education through the lens of a Christian worldview is so important. At WBU, we train our students to find their place in God’s story, to understand their identity in light of God’s truth, to live out their faith in bold and tenacious ways, and to value Christ and His kingdom above all else.  

Robots can’t change the world for Christ. WBU teaches more than a skill or a trade. We aim to create “transformative leaders” who can make a “Gospel difference” in the vocation where God has placed them. Whether they pursue careers as doctors, educators, business owners, or pastors, we want our graduates to see their work as a mission. We train them to live out their lives in obedience to the Great Commission, no matter where they choose to work. 

Robots can’t be good citizens. One key facet of a Christian liberal arts education is the formation of citizens who love their neighbors and serve their communities for the sake of the kingdom of God. At WBU, we emphasize “selfless sacrifice,” a commitment that expresses our desire to “forsake self-interest and self-concern for the good of others.” We envision communities led by men and women who prioritize this kind of selfless sacrifice over self-interest. 

Baptist colleges and universities like WBU work hard to carry out this vision for higher education. We will never become a diploma mill that exists simply to train students for jobs that are here today and gone tomorrow. We will model and instill in our students courageous faith that cannot be imitated or replaced by a computer program. 

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