Will AI Do My Job Better Than Me?

There are a pair of American folklore heroes renown for their immense size and strength: John Henry and Paul Bunyan. John Henry’s story had him working for the railroad, cutting tunnels through solid rock. He swung two huge hammers with handles made from whale bone. Paul Bunyan was the towering giant lumberjack who could clear whole forests with a single ax swing. Both men found themselves facing off in challenges against the relentless forward march of technological innovation in the form of the steam engine. The endings to each character’s individual battles are different, but we’ll hold off on that for a moment.

       Today those in a number of fields are finding themselves at a similar juncture. The rise of AI both in terms of capability and availability is causing an existential crisis from artists to writers. AI image generators such as Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and DALL·E 2 are capable of “creating” “new” images based on a prompt from a user that are good enough to win art competitions. Chat-GPT and now it’s successor GPT-4 respond to users with shocking competency, writing such varied things as computer code and sermons.

       When our folk heroes clashed with the cast iron beast of the steam engine, the challenges were both set up in the same way: this steam engine can do more of the same work, in less time, with fewer people. Paul Bunyan and John Henry responded with a one-on-one tools-at-dawn duel to see if steam could match their super-human skills. John Henry faced off against a steam drill to make through a mountain first. Paul Bunyan sought to cut and stack more timbers than a logging machine in a single day of work. Here’s where the stories take a distinct turn. Paul Bunyan is defeated when his stack of lumber sits ¼ inch shorter than the logging machine’s. John Henry defeats the stream drill, but as he steps out of his newly created tunnel and raises his hammers in victory, his heart gives out and he falls down dead.

       Such hopeful endings, aren’t they? Do these stories serve as fables to tell us we can either reject new technology only to be left defeated by it, or die trying to be better than it? I think not, and here’s why. Paul Bunyan’s story has a denouement. He and Babe, his big blue ox, go west to explore and work where no railways have brought the steam engine, and in their rough housing accidently create the Rocky Mountains.

       I write this article as someone who can feel the Matrix-like threat of AI in a number of places. As a 3d artist, I could be replaced by someone just typing what they want into an image generator. As a tech worker, I could have significant parts of job replaced by an AI who can write code and answer support emails. And as a theologian, I know AI will be able to reference more works than I could ever survey in 10 lifetimes to answer questions and write explanations. So where does this leave us?

True Creativity

       The first place to think about this are the two words I placed in quotations when describing AI image generators: “creating” and “new.” These quotes are intentional as current systems are not really creating new things; rather, they’re new collages of things, which was seen when some image generator began reproducing not only the relevant parts of pictures it saw on a stock image website, but also the company’s watermark like the “Getty Images” logo in these “new images.” So, to bring it to the author of Ecclesiastes, nothing is new under the sun, and especially when we’re dealing with AI. Let’s first deal with image generators and then with text generators.

       True creation is more complicated than what AI does. While a collage or images or even an image made from a synthesis of existing images may not be called “new,” it might still be viewed as a creative act. There isn’t time here to delve deeply into what precisely constitutes creativity in a full sense, but we can say that creativity is a part of our status as image bearers of the creative, Creator God. This facet of our image bearer status means that when we create, we are essentially expressing an appreciation for what is around us and what we feel or want to feel. This need to create something is arguably something natural to man as an image bearer, and arises out of that reality. The computer “creates” when it is told to, using the means it was given by its programmers, and only is capable of certain parameters. The computer cannot create its own prompts. This is not creation, but amalgamation and cannot create out of an innate need to do so out of appreciation for what is around it. It cannot do this precisely because it is not a person.

       Consider as a further contrast: when God created the heavens, the earth, and all that is in them, he did so without any such external prompting. All of the beautiful things we see are not created by God as an expression of appreciation for what he saw prior to creating the cosmos, but are unique creations of himself, to display his beauty, majesty, and power. He created these things so that we, his image bearers, could see them, appreciate them, and worship him by doing so.

       What about text generators such as Chat-GPT? These have their own limits as well. While they may be able to survey and gather more than any single human, Chat-GPT uses a knowledge base that stopped in 2021, and again serves primarily as a summary of a search feature for its knowledge base. Its code appears to have been written carefully to respond neutrally and matter-of-factly to avoid offense, only imitating a tone or opinion when you ask it to do so. What it cannot do, however, is hold a conviction. The ability to speak with conviction, that what you are saying is correct when the popular views oppose you, is not something a machine trying to run the averages, standard distributions, and all its logical AND, NOT, OR, and XOR arguments can do. 

“All of the beautiful things we see are not created by God as an expression of appreciation for what he saw prior to creating the cosmos, but are unique creations of himself, to display his beauty, majesty, and power.”

       There is a moral component to knowledge that only image bearers can utilize, and often it is not used well, and we reject what is true for what is false, as Romans 1 and Genesis 3 so clearly explain to us. What the computer will always lack is wisdom—not the acquiring of knowledge but the use of it according to a conviction.

       So then, what do we make of such AI programs and their products? I think it is not an extreme view to say that adopting them is good when done with wisdom. The artist part of my life looks forward to using AI to make work faster, taking over things that are tedious, difficult, and ultimately not really a part of the artistic process (retopology comes to mind for those who know). I already use programming to animate pieces of a video using math, so to let a computer write the equations I already know by heart is not a great loss. As a tech worker, I actively use Chat-GPT to write short snippets of codes for HTML, .css, and excel formulas.

      One place I cannot justify its use is in the ministerial and research realm (with a qualification). Ministry is too person-specific and the impacts are eternal. The church elders are entrusted with the care of souls, and that is not something that can be delegated to anyone else, and especially not to a non-image bearer. For research it might provide a good overview (from a certain point of view), but the final product is not what makes academic writers. It is the process of doing so, including everything they learned that is ultimately excluded from the 9 or so pages they finally manage to get into a publication such as the Westminster Theological Journal.

       Now, back to the question in the title. What if AI does your job better than you? It very well might, and it might not ever be able to. If we reflect on the folk tales of Paul Bunyan and John Henry, we can see two options: reject it and work yourself to death in what may be an impressive show of fortitude, or accept what the technology can do better or faster than you and use it as tool to do greater things. If we are to be wise, we should learn to number our days (Ps. 90:12), and if we realize that time-saving tools like AI are able, if used correctly, to let us do more and greater things for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God, then let us do so, and do so well. Always keeping in mind the distinction between ourselves as the creation of the Creator, and AI as the creation of the created – image bearing creativity and wisdom versus soulless repetition and amalgamation.

Paul Quiram (M.Div '19, WTS) is the Senior Manager of Education Technology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and is working towards a Th.M in Old Testament. Paul is married to Eva and has two children.

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