Intentional Christian Parenting in an Artificially Intelligent Age
We live in a technologically brave new world. It’s hard to argue otherwise if you’re old enough to remember a time before we could order groceries, stream music, post photos, tweet gifs, or FaceTime our parents all from the same handheld devices.
Change isn’t new (see Ecclesiastes 1:19) and the challenges of this year’s tech innovations aren’t entirely unique. But the pace is disorienting and tech experts are going public with their concerns–especially over the mainstream use of artificial intelligence. I won’t analyze all the ways technology has improved and degraded our lives but I can suggest ways Christian parents can guide their own kids (and other children under their care) to grapple well with the changes. For the sake of this conversation, I’ll focus on our everyday use of communications technology and use the recent explosion of generative AI as my primary example.
What is generative AI?
Unless you’ve been choosing to avoid the news or social media, you’ve probably heard about ChatGPT (or competitors, Bing Chat and Bard). Generative artificial intelligence is, simply defined, “technology that can produce various types of content including text, imagery, audio and synthetic data.” Until a few months ago, the everyday use of generative AI seemed like the stuff of starry-eyed tech developers and sci-fi movies. But it’s been a long time coming (see the fascinating history of this innovation here). And, unless something monumental changes, generative AI isn’t going away.
As I was mulling over this topic, I prompted ChatGPT to help me write a letter to my kids. In seconds, the chatbot had abruptly lifted the burden of finding the right words. It offered me a jumble of trite and formal phrases that one parental human might use to say nice things to other humans. I was awed by the speed. I was wary and weirded out by the disjointed way it guessed at my motives and meaning. I remain confident that this tool can’t replace my role as a communicative parent.
But as people hypothesize and hyperventilate over the explosion of generative AI and its potential to displace human relationships and tasks, what do I want my toddlers to begin to understand about these tools? How can my husband and I guide and prepare their hearts and minds for this next chapter of our technologically brave new world? I offer these six guidelines:
1. Respect the human innovation and brilliance that brought us here.
This is probably the most generous and optimistic point I’ll make, but I think it merits a minute of its own. It’s easy to gloss past the decades (supported by centuries) of study and research of trial and error that led to the slick and potentially hazardous tools at our fingertips. I’m sobered to consider that these tools could one day prove a barrier to the pursuit of truth, meaningful relationships, or gainful employment. But I’m also grateful to live at a period in history when we have easy access to the discoveries and deliberations of so many humans.
Artificial intelligence is, indeed, artificial. But it mimics natural intelligence–the codes, poems, essays, and opinions–of real humans, image-bearers of the living and creating God. Whatever my final posture is towards these new tools, I acknowledge the common grace that’s woven throughout the development and use of this technology. Even as I protect my kids, I avoid the simple luxury of dismissing generative AI (and similar tools) as pure evils to be shunned.
2. Refuse to confuse knowledge with wisdom.
Remember seeing the phrase “Knowledge is Power” stapled to a school bulletin board or taped to a library wall? Generative AI provides near-instant access to a vast collection of data. With a nervous blend of optimism and fear, we’re told that these tools are going to “change the world” and they are “recasting the way we access information online.” That’s probably true. And in a culture obsessed with the use and abuse of “power,” the conversation is especially fraught. The widespread reports of misinformation and bias (from multiple sides of the ideological spectrum) don’t make things any simpler.
But we should zoom out further and grapple with how the internet has–for decades–been shaping our minds and changing the way we think. In his book, The Shallows (published in 2011) Nicholas Carr makes the compelling case that, “The Web’s connections are not our connections—and no matter how many hours we spend searching and surfing, they will never become our connections. When we outsource a memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.” (pg. 195) Carr suggests that the internet indeed, “reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.” (pg. 221) ChatGPT and its AI cousins now add a humanoid layer to the whole project–if we’re not careful–further lulling our minds into complacent fragmentation.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “wisdom” as “the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight.” And the book of Proverbs, obviously, has quite a bit more to say about the topic. With Scripture, prayer, Christian community, and the help of wise thinkers across the ages–my husband and I pray and work for our kids to treasure wisdom–not the mere collection of hot takes and factoids.
3. Engage with the natural world and limit screen time.
We’re cultivating wisdom, in part, by touching (tasting, cultivating, and kicking… etc) the natural world. After spending much of our adult lives in the Washington, DC metro area, my husband and I relocated to a quiet hilltop in Western Maryland. Our children are beginning to learn firsthand that eggs come from feisty hens, tomatoes come from a muddy garden, and splinters from skidding across an old deck. Plenty of other people have identified the benefits of physical activity and immersion in God’s creation for nurturing grounded, curious young humans.
I don’t preach from a high pedestal on this one. The parental fatigue of mothering two toddlers is harsher than I would have predicted. Through experience, I’ve grown more sympathetic towards the parents who prop iPads in front of their offspring in order to buy a peaceful grocery trip or an adult conversation at a restaurant. But we choose to parent differently. We allow our kids to watch some TV but we’re choosing to limit the screen time in favor of the harder–and hopefully more rewarding–path of unstructured play, help with simple chores, and exploration of the unmediated created order. We’re choosing this path based on principle–the reality that we are embodied spirits in an exquisitely complex world. But there’s a hint of pragmatism as well; we’re helping our little people begin to grow the practical skills, creative problem-solving, and muscle memory to compete with the artificial tools that may one day vie for their jobs.
4. Practice sympathy and foster friendship.
When you ask ChatGPT about its shortcomings, it spits out a tidy list of things the humans have noticed about its gaps: “lack of common sense, limited creativity, lack of emotional intelligence, and limited context awareness.” In short, the artificial tool doesn’t do a great job of being human. The mimicry will likely become more sophisticated but the chatbot can never rival or replace interaction with another image-bearer of the living God.
There’s already a weird and tragic underbelly to the whole AI experiment. Chatbots that engage in racy sexting. A chatbot that appears to have encouraged a suicide. It’s the stuff of movies come to life (the slightly futuristic movie Her comes to mind). In the face of loneliness and boredom, many of our neighbors–and maybe some of us–have turned to fill our time with fake friendship.
How can I help my kids avoid these pitfalls? By cultivating–and modeling–sympathy and friendliness. Practically, that means exercising hospitality toward the lonely and very talkative widowed neighbor. Offering a kind smile for the muttering, shuffling homeless man. It means challenging my three-year-old to make eye contact and confidently greet a grownup, even though he’s inherited his mother’s self-consciousness.
5. Cultivate the fruits of the Spirit.
As a Christian mom, I’m keenly aware that I am unable to parent my precious children into the kingdom of heaven. But as I hold their hands and bring them before the good news of the gospel, I also have the privilege and challenge of modeling the fruits of the Spirit. And when I do, I’m inviting them to experience a truly human and un-artificial life.
Love will challenge me to accept the inefficiencies and limitations of this life season. Joy won’t permit me to numb myself with mindless scrolling. Peace will probably lead me to hide my phone for a few hours at a time. Patience will allow me to read that same book again and look askance at an AI bot who produces content without a minute’s reflection. I could go on. But Paul’s challenge to the Galatians still finds relevance even in a season when our AI overlords threaten to tip everything on its side.
6. Grapple with the brevity of this life.
One of the questions that experts raise in their open letter asking for a pause to AI experiments is whether we should “risk loss of control of our civilization?”
I was struck by the assumption. Have we ever really been in control of our civilization? My entire essay is based on the assumption that there are choices we humans can make in order to reflect our God more effectively during a weird and tumultuous season. But we’re rather small characters in a much larger story. Scripture is packed with poetry about the brevity–the vapor-like quality–of our lives here.
Even if our worst fears about AI are realized, we have the opportunity to turn the page on this chapter and see our Lord face-to-face. There’s nothing artificial about that.
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