Rev. David Noorman, pastor of Southwest PRC in Wyoming, Michigan

In case you missed it, Rev. Dan Holstege broached the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and ChatGPT for readers of the Standard Bearer in the August 2023 issue.1 He pointed out that some AI experts are concerned about the rapid development of AI and its impact on society, and that those experts have called for a pause on the training of AI systems. He also gave some important cautions for Christians as they evaluate and consider making use of AI in their everyday life.

In this article, I will give some further introduction to AI and ChatGPT, and add to his commentary on it.

Some of us might be happy to let technological developments leave us in the dust, content to remain in the stone age of the basic search engine. In all likelihood, future generations will not have the luxury of that option. AI is here to stay and our children are going to need to learn how to use it wisely. So, it is time to become acquainted with AI and ChatGPT. If not for ourselves, then for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Getting to know ChatGPT

Among the many AI tools available, ChatGPT stands out because it gave free public access to AI technology and because its unprecedented popularity brought AI into the public consciousness like never before. In January 2023, ChatGPT had an estimated 100 million active users only two months after it launched.2

The main webpage for ChatGPT includes this simple introduction: “We’ve trained a model called ChatGPT which interacts in a conversational way. The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer follow- up questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.”3

Sounds interesting, but it still leaves many of us wondering: What is it?

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot, which means it is a computer program that has been trained upon a massive body of information and simulates a human in its interactions. Practically, one uses ChatGPT by “conversing” with it. You ask a question or make a request, and the chatbot answers the question or performs the requested action. Then, you can respond to the chatbot’s answer: asking for clarification, seeking more or less detail, or refining your question. ChatGPT will consider your follow-up requests and respond accordingly.

ChatGPT is capable of far more than a basic Internet search engine. A search engine, like Google, provides users with pertinent websites related to a searched topic. ChatGPT is trained to receive and respond to prompts using human-like language, and thus it is capable of understanding complex requests, producing coherent articles, summarizing vast amounts of information, translating text into different languages, and doing all of this (and more) with astounding speed.

People are using ChatGPT and similar tools to formulate emails and advertising, to make meal plans and vacation itineraries, or to outline, edit, translate and even write articles. Similar AI tools are able to simulate the creative process in other ways by producing photos, videos, art, and music. The possible applications of AI are endless, and that explains both the value and the concern with ChatGPT and similar technology.

AI’s place in education

Some of the most obvious concerns with tools as powerful as ChatGPT have come to light in the realm of education.

For instance, ChatGPT is capable of passing standardized tests and producing essays with a simple prompt. Out of the fear that ChatGPT would commence a plague of cheating and plagiarism, schools from New York City to Los Angeles initially banned ChatGPT. Before long, the consensus had changed and bans were lifted. Now, students not only may use it but in some cases students are assigned and encouraged to use it with the appropriate cautions.

I talked to two Christian educators to learn how they are navigating the place of ChatGPT in our good Christian schools.4 Overall, these educators were cautiously optimistic. They understand the dangers and temptations associated with AI and ChatGPT, but they are intrigued by the potential value of AI tools for both teachers and students. They see AI as a tool that has the potential to help teachers teach and students learn more effectively and efficiently.

Perhaps more than anything else, these educators are taking a realistic approach. They recognize that AI is going to be a part of the students’ lives after graduation, so it is only fitting that the students’ education should prepare them for it. Our children need biblical instruction regarding the potential use and abuse of AI, and they need thoughtful encouragement and caution for the wise and ethical use of these tools.

It was encouraging to me that these teachers in our schools are ahead of the curve, doing the necessary work to apply biblical principles to this new frontier, equipping students to use these tools properly and preparing safeguards to prevent their misuse.

Considering the cost

One popular fear with regard to AI is the sentiment that if we are not careful, AI technology will run away without us. Or, that machine learning and performance will become so advanced that human life and thought will be overtaken by it. Another presentation of this concern focuses more on the effect of AI on the human user’s mind.

AI can produce. AI can compose. AI can write. AI can summarize. AI can design. AI can plan. AI can troubleshoot. If AI can do all these things well, then why should not we embrace AI and use it as much as possible?

For one thing, there is a cost that could be easily overlooked.

The individual who sits at a desk day after day might overlook the toll that takes on his body and physical health. Children and young people who unwittingly spend their days on phones, iPads, and video games might overlook that these habits are a hindrance to the development of their minds. Similarly, there will be a cost for one who immoderately relies on AI to do the work of researching, reasoning, comparing, contrasting, communicating, and clarifying. Such a person may discover that his mind suffers for lack of mental strain. Over time, one might even regress in the skills he once had to read, research, reason, or write.

I highly recommend an article in the April 2023 issue of Christian Renewal by Dave Sikkema, “Artificial Intelligence: Disrupting the Research Process.” Sikkema recounts the process of research and writing in 1859 for 22-year-old graduate student, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper entered an essay contest and his research process was an extensive and impactful experience. Sikkema uses the example of Kuyper’s research process to illustrate the formative effect of the traditional research and writing process. Because AI has the power to transform that process, Sikkema also reflects on what is really gained and lost by the embrace of AI.5

There is no question that ChatGPT can save time, energy, and in certain circumstances might even help us do better work, more efficiently, and with fewer mistakes. But what, and how much, do we forfeit when we forego some of the rigors of work? What formative experiences do we lose? To what degree will this affect developing minds of children, teenagers, and the rest of us?

Conclusion

There is no question that AI has astounding power and potential.

It has potential for evil through the instigation of the devil and in the hands of wicked men. For example, a recent email newsletter from Protect Young Eyes included a brief, “absolutely terrifying” note about the first instances of AI-Generated abuse content. We need to be aware of the dangers and temptations associated with AI. In light of our depravity, we also need to be realistic about our ability to resist these temptations ourselves, using these tools prayerfully with the appropriate safeguards and accountability.

At the same time, AI is not an evil tool in itself. In the hands of Christians it can be used for good. The question is how, and in what way? How does a soberminded believer use this powerful new technology to the glory of God? Can it be used to help us in the promotion of the gospel? Can it be used to help us be better neighbors? Can it be used for the development of young minds (rather than regression)? Can it assist us as we seek to grow in an understanding of God’s Word? Only with an understanding of these tools will we be able to answer these questions, and prepare ourselves and the next generation to use them wisely.

AI will look very different in 10 or 20 years, but one way or another it is going to be a part of our lives. Even if the experts hit the pause on developing new AI technology for a time, we need to catch up and educate ourselves on the potential uses and abuses of this new technological development. “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).


1 Rev. Daniel Holstege, “Hit the pause on artificial intelligence!” (Standard Bearer, Vol. 99, No. 19), 439-440.
2 https://www.reuters.com/technology/chatgpt-sets-record-fastestgrowing- user-base-analyst-note-2023-02-01.
3 https://openai.com/blog/chatgpt.
4 For the purpose of giving these two educators and their schools the time and freedom to continue developing their own evaluation and approach, I have summarized their thoughts anonymously. I am grateful to each of them for their willingness to share their thoughts with me.
5 Dave Sikkema, “Artificial Intelligence: Disrupting the Research Process,” Christian Renewal (April 22, 2023), 16-19.