An AI church service: Whom will you serve?

Every couple of years, the Evangelical Church in Germany, one of the world's largest national Protestant church federations, holds a convention in a different location. This year, it was in Fuerth, outside of Nuremberg in Bavaria, and the event that attracted more media attention than anything else was a church service produced almost entirely by the AI chatbot ChatGPT

The service was the brainchild of 29-year-old Jonas Simmerlein, who is identified as a "theologian and philosopher," not a computer expert. This may explain some of the complaints heard from the congregation about the rather wooden delivery style of the four avatars — two women and two men — who delivered the prayers and the sermon and selected the music.  

Some of the younger attendees among the 300 or so present said on the other hand that the service was surprisingly good, even though "a bit bumpy at times." The service was not interactive in any real sense, so when the congregation found some of the avatar's words inadvertently humorous, as when it said with a deadpan expression, "to keep our faith, we must pray and go to church regularly," it kept right on going despite the laughter.

To be fair, some of the problems people noted could be fixed by more resources. Hollywood studios have access to animation techniques that reliably pull emotions from millions, so the expressionless delivery style is not a fundamental issue, but simply reflects Simmerlein's inexperience with the process. But suppose the avatars had been much more emotionally engaging, and the whole service felt like real people were up there talking to you? Would that have been better? It all depends on what you think a church service is for. 

Crux of the matter

If you view attending church as just one of a number of ways to spend your time searching for happiness, and if you judge a service by how happy it makes you, then the emotional buzz it produces is all-important. By this criterion, going to your favourite band's rock concert is probably going to do you more good than any number of church services.  

But if you view church attendance as intentionally placing yourself in the presence of a supernatural God, the picture changes. If a human being is not running the service, some branches of Christianity regard it as worthless, because only a human priest can do certain things that have to be done for a Mass to be a Mass, for example. In the Catholic Mass, a duly ordained priest must consecrate the bread and wine to change it into Christ's body and blood. No AI system can do that. And when the members of the congregation take the elements, as they are called, the priest is acting as Christ for them, which is why he has to be male. 


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This odd little AI experiment highlights an issue that we are going to face more and more as time goes on, and as so-called generative AI develops more abilities that mimic human ones. There are all kinds of work for human beings in the world, and none of them, perhaps, is entirely without some negative aspect. Even Michelangelo got a tired back while working on the Sistine Chapel. But if he had been able to call upon some wizard to do the work for him, would he have done so? I seriously doubt it.

An artist uses tools, but the quality of the art depends not primarily on the tools, but on how well the artist uses them and transmits the vision in his or her mind to canvas, paper, or sound. Art, or a church service, produced almost entirely by a machine is going to be missing the essential ingredient that makes it a human achievement.  

But not everybody will miss that ingredient. In the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, if my memory serves, one of the characters made a living by operating a "pornography machine" which cranked out dirty books for consumption by the masses. The work was entirely physical, like running a printing press, and involved no mental effort at all. Despite the completely mechanical source of the books, they proved to be very popular, as pornography usually does. 

Wrong way

The vast traffic in pornography on the Internet, except for the fact that it is digital instead of mechanical, fulfils George Orwell's prophecy of 1949, and shows what can happen when modern technology is twisted to deliver what some people consider happiness. The connection between Internet pornography and church services is not obvious, but if you place them both on a spectrum of things designed solely to make the user happy, the question is simply how effective each one is in achieving the goal of happiness. Some people may like church services run by AI-generated avatars, and others may like AI-produced Internet porn — it just becomes a matter of taste. 

We have Jonas Simmerlein to thank for creating an extreme example of the wrong kind of church service. The right kind is truly a service, but not primarily to the individuals involved. If God truly is the Creator of the universe and everything good in it, we owe Him everything, in principle, and an hour or so of devotion and worship every week seems like only a pittance. If there is some way (right now I can't imagine how, but maybe there is some way) to incorporate AI into a worship service that is truly and obviously devoted to God, maybe that can happen. But turning the whole thing over to a machine is no different than showing a video of a recorded service — in fact, it's a good deal worse, because a video of a live service at least shows real people doing and saying things that have a chance of pleasing God. 

The Fuerth ChatGPT church service is a first, all right, but it may turn out to be one of those things that we have to try in order to find out that this is not really the direction we want to go.  Of course, there will always be an audience for such things. In fact, one of the fears of AI developers is that AI will come up with false religions to deceive the masses into doing things like Jim Jones did with his Peoples Temple cult, from which we get the grim phrase "drink the Kool-Aid." Let's hope that most of us, anyway, have more sense than that, and that AI developers put safeguards in place to make such things impossible. 


Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Image Credit: Pexels

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