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Creator vs. created: Ethics in AI course applies faith to rising concerns of new tech tool

Dr. Alexander Mason, who teaches Liberty’s Ethics of Artificial Intelligence course, created this poster for the course using AI technology.

As artificial intelligence makes waves across the culture, changing the workplace, a Liberty University professor is tackling the responsibility that comes with using the tool.

Dr. Alexander Mason, chair of Liberty University’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, teaches Ethics of Artificial Intelligence (PHIL 497), a pilot course this semester, where he is presenting students from various degree programs with a core question: how should believers view artificial intelligence through the lens of a biblical worldview?

“I told my students on the first day of class, ‘You guys are on the cutting edge here. This is not something that’s going anywhere anytime soon,’” Mason said. “There’s no industry that will not be significantly impacted — psychology, business, education, any art, and so on. I think they recognize that, and to their credit, they’ve recognized it before a lot of others.”

While other schools have AI ethics courses, Mason said Liberty’s course could be the first at the university level to teach the topic strictly from an evangelical Christian perspective, filtering every concept through Scripture.

“Something that sets this class apart is that no matter what disciplinary insights we’re pulling together, we’re always tempering that with a Christian understanding of ethics, which has always been at the core of who we are as a university.”

A core principle discussed is that humanity is made in God’s own image, or “Imago Dei,” and has qualities and characteristics that reflect God. Mason cited the creation of Adam, when God took dust from the ground, formed man, and gave him the breath of life, making him into a living soul. Unlike Adam, whatever humans create on their own — artificial intelligence included — does not possess a soul and will never match God’s masterpiece in mankind.

“When we reflect God’s character and his nature by being sub-creators … we do that in the physical senses, such as creating and advancing technology to help us. But can those things that we create ever truly approximate the sophistication and the beauty of God’s creation of mankind, the pinnacle of His creation? When we create physicality ourselves, we don’t imbue these things with souls.”

Mason added that even the term “artificial intelligence” can be misleading, as intelligence is a metaphysical endowment which can only come from God and cannot be produced physically.

“To talk about that computer chip or AI software as being intelligent, that is a misnomer from the start,” he said. “When you dissect the cranium and you look at the brain, where’s the intelligence? You’re not going to find it. You’ll find folds of gray matter and neurons, but you’re not going to find intelligence. That’s an immaterial concept.”

Photo by Jessie Jordan

Mason has spent the first few weeks of class introducing AI and ethical frameworks and now leads discussions on the different areas AI has entered, including art and creativity, human interactions and relationships, economic labor, education, healthcare, and warfare.

“The whole section on AI in healthcare has been informative for my future as a doctor,” said Caleb Smith, a senior pursuing bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry & molecular biology and interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in Spanish and natural science. “There are a whole lot of moral questions about its use in healthcare, the humanity of your provider having an impact on your treatment. While AI is powerful and can help with the diagnosing aspect, there’s something to be said for human providers and having that one-on-one connection you have with your patients.”

Recently, the students have been discussing art and whether or not AI can be truly as creative as humans.

“When you go on ChatGPT and ask it to create an image for you, you can tell it to create in the style of Monet or Picasso or someone else, and it’ll do that,” Mason said. “But the real question is, is that AI system truly being creative or is it simply what we know put into terms of millions and millions of lines of algorithm and code, which is able to approximate what has already been forged by humans?”

For this topic, each student presented an example of creativity that they made or found — a painting, song, poem, photo, short film script, and football play — and compared it to the same subject that they prompted AI to create. In most cases, if not all, the artificial creation was impressive but did not feel authentic or turned the prompt into an unrealistic product, illustrating the fallibility of the technology.

“An AI system can look creative when it spits something out in three seconds, but it doesn’t feel,” Mason said. “When humans create something, when we witness the creation of something, when we experience a piece of art, we have a metaphysical connection on another level. We recognize value in creation and creativity, unlike AI.”

A student in the course presenting how he used AI to create portraits of himself.

As an interdisciplinary studies student, junior Mary Katherine Flage said both of her focus areas — fine arts and behavioral sciences — have connections to AI.

“I don’t have a lot of philosophy background, but I feel like this class in particular is so applicable to pretty much any field,” she said. “On the behavioral sciences side, understanding the human mind and how that can be mimicked or mirrored by artificial intelligence is fascinating, and then my fine arts specialization is also informed by how AI and creativity interact. I really wanted to explore these themes more and have these enriching conversations, so I enrolled in this class.”

Sophomore Ben Milkie, who is pursuing a biblical studies degree and an interdisciplinary degree with one focus being philosophy, said the class has prepared him for the conversations he’s likely to have with those in his future ministry.

“My goal is to be a pastor, and I think looking toward the future this is going to be an area that a lot of people will have questions about,” he said. “I figured this would be something helpful to take before I get to that point because AI is pervasive now and it’s going to be even more so in the near future.”

Helping students engage with the topics through more than writing research papers, Mason has developed opportunities to put their ideas into action, such as organizing “speed debates” in which students are assigned a position on an AI-related ethical issue and have a few minutes to argue. An upcoming project is a vocational impact presentation, in which they will explain how AI is going to impact their chosen career field. In place of the final exam, Mason has planned a simulated “rogue AI” scenario in which each student roleplays a representative of a country, international organization, tech company, or other area and must work together to prevent a potential nuclear catastrophe caused by AI.

With AI being rapidly adopted by the general public, Mason acknowledged that the technology is written by people with their own beliefs and biases, meaning the answers given by AI cannot always be taken as impartial fact.

““Philosophy abhors a vacuum. As such, we need to recognize that someone’s ethical system, or worldview, is being coded in the algorithmic architectures of these AI systems,” he said. “For any prompt regarding a moral issue or question, the system will provide an answer that is inextricably and intentionally connected with the ethical worldview of its programmers.”

He stressed the importance of Christians being aware of AI and even getting involved in the development of it.

“As Christians, we’d be unwise to put our heads in the sand and pretend that AI is something that we can’t impact or that we shouldn’t even bother with. If Christians aren’t undergoing technical and ethical training in this field and then getting jobs at these companies in order to have an impact on how AI systems are engineered and coded from the beginning, then we may find ourselves the target of the most powerful technology in human history.”

Mason said higher education is a great place to start studying the subject of AI, and he feels a responsibility as a professor to teach it at a Christian university.

“Higher education is about preparation, and Christian higher education has an added dimension of being preparatory for all aspects of life,” he said. “When we (professors) see things that are coming down the pike, like major developments and shifts in culture and technology, we need to be helping students prepare in light of that. We have hundreds of majors that are possible here, and I can’t think of one of them that will not have some significant impact from artificial intelligence. “No matter their chosen vocation, our students will encounter the ethical dimensions of AI, and I want them to be fully prepared to apply Christian truth at every point with intelligence and courage.”

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