The technologies that have collectively become known as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” combine hardware, software and biology - such as advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and advanced biotechnology - intermediated by advances in communication and connectivity (especially 5G wireless technologies and the almost universal dissemination of mobile devices).
At the same time, digital communication platforms have become an even more prevalent and pervasive feature of our daily lives in many parts of the world. And while such communications technologies can be powerful tools for living in relation with others, for inclusion, education, encounter, imagination, creativity and understanding – and especially in the context of the isolation and social disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic – they also pose challenges through their conception, design and especially through the uses to which they are put.
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the digital transformation as organizations and individuals moved online to maintain livelihoods, education, worship, and connections when physical interaction was necessarily limited. At the same time, we lamented the loss of physical connections that deepen our relationships.
It is also concerning that the laws of many countries are failing to be updated at a sufficient speed to take account of technological change and development. Poorly drafted or inadequate legislation may result in further miscarriages of justice, as courts are not able to provide adequate legal remedies for victims. This is a major and urgent challenge to legislators throughout the world.
At the 11th WCC Assembly in Karlsruhe, an Ecumenical Conversation addressed ‘Trends and emerging issues in a rapidly changing world’ which discussed and reflected on technological developments that will affect the life and work of churches now and into the future.
While acknowledging the many positive aspects of these technological advances, participants in the 11th Assembly looked back on the period since the previous Assembly, sought to read the signs of our current times, and observed a number of grave ethical challenges that emerge from the accelerating development of these technologies, the corporate commercial logic that drives them, and the massive concentration of power in the hands of a very few individuals with disproportionate impact on the lives of all.
Advanced robotics and increased automation, together with the industrial application of artificial intelligence, are provoking a new wave of technologically-driven unemployment while further concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a technological elite, and rapidly widening and deepening the gulf of income inequality. Assurances of new jobs to replace those that have been eliminated in this revolution generally lack sufficient substance to give them any degree of credibility.
Artificial intelligence and location detection technologies have also massively enhanced the surveillance capabilities of authoritarian governments and other bad actors, as well as increased the impact of propaganda and misinformation (including ‘deep fake’ images). Weaponized applications of artificial intelligence, such as cyber-warfare and the development of autonomous weapons systems (so-called ‘killer robots’), risk destabilizing the global security environment and provoking a new arms race in these technologies, and raise pressing new disarmament and ethical challenges. In particular ‘killer robots’ has become a new area of concern for the WCC since Busan. In November 2019, the WCC executive committee adopted a Minute on this subject which expressed grave concern about this new militaristic threat to human life, dignity and rights, and the ethical implications of efforts by a number of countries to develop automated weapons systems that would operate without meaningful human control. In recent months, efforts in the Group of Government Experts in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons to make progress for the regulation of such weapons has been repeatedly blocked.
Algorithmic bias, whether deliberately or inadvertently introduced in artificial intelligence systems, raises another set of ethical concerns with wide-ranging implications for the rights and even the lives of human beings. Racist assumptions, for example, may be acquired by machine learning from unregulated sources of flawed internet data, and/or by prejudicial correlations based on existing experience. In the case of ‘killer robots’, such algorithmic bias risks deadly consequences. Racial profiling and bias might be built unintentionally or even deliberately into such weapons, leading to situations where people with certain features common to those of particular ethnicities, such as skin colour, would be more at risk of being targeted.
Nanotechnology, or the use of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale for industrial or other purposes, has been the subject of calls for tighter regulation in light of emerging evidence regarding the health and environmental risks associated with nanotech materials.
Likewise, developments in advanced biotechnology and bioengineering have outpaced the capacities of regulatory oversight, let alone ethical reflection. In particular, CRISPR in-vivo gene editing techniques, while offering the means to address important and longstanding challenges in the fields of medicine and agriculture, also raise the spectre of human germline editing for unethical eugenic or cosmetic purposes. Faced with practical examples of uncontrolled use of these techniques, many responsible scientists have called for a global moratorium on genetically editing human embryos.
Social media and other digital communications platforms - as well as becoming ever more pervasive means of communication and human interaction - have also become increasingly recognized as a source of social harm. These digital communication technologies, with all their positive advantages, have been used to spread disinformation, promote hatred of ‘the other’, encourage distrust and social fragmentation, undermine democracy, increase surveillance, exploit individuals and communities, and contribute to growing gaps in access, power and wealth - including between private companies and national governments. Social media platforms have undermined the right to privacy and monetized the personal information of their users. For young people especially, social media and violent computer and online games have been a key vector of worsening mental health and social dislocation.
In February 2022, the WCC central committee received the “New Communications Paper for the 21st Century: A Vision of Digital Justice”. This paper warned that the digital transformation of society raises profound issues that the ecumenical fellowship has wrestled with for many decades: power, justice, equity, participation, sustainable communities, care for creation, how voices from the margins are heard, human dignity, and what it means to be human, made in the image of God.
The “Vision of Digital Justice” paper draws attention to some of the issues with which communities of faith, political, cultural, and civil society actors are all struggling to respond, including ‘digital divides’ (which often reflect entrenched forms of discrimination), accessibility (including for people with disabilities), inequity, education, freedom and safety of the public space, privacy and security, and gender justice.
It underlines that we are called to participate in God’s mission to ensure that all may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), also in the digital sphere. We are called to a journey of justice and peace and to ensure the integrity of creation. Digital technology itself is a product of human creativity and should be celebrated when it is used to enhance human dignity. At the same time, the biblical preferential option for the poor and vulnerable (Matt 5) directs our attention to information poverty and the digital divides in the global face of digitalization.
The executive committee of the WCC, meeting in Bossey, Switzerland, on 7-12 November 2022, affirms that while technologies developed through the God-given intelligence of human beings can bring great benefits to humanity, they can also be the source of great harm, especially when they become the tools for acquiring excessive wealth and power over others or over life and creation. In pursuit of technological progress, human beings cannot claim the position of God.
It is clear that technologies developed during the period since the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan are driving deep and fundamental shifts, and are already shaping the future of human society and the environment. We are called, in this context as in all others, to answer God’s call to love our neighbour as ourselves and to emulate the love that Christ has shown us. Love is at the centre of our faith, love should be at the heart of all decision-making for those who have put their faith in God, and as such we must resist all attempts to give responsibility for these decisions over to a technological elite or to a machine.
The executive committee therefore:
Affirms that each person is created with their own dignity and in God’s image. To be created in God’s image means to be creative. We have a creative healing mandate, and technology can contribute to healing and to our calling to do good for the whole creation.
Calls upon all WCC member churches and ecumenical partners to equip themselves with knowledge concerning these technologies that are shaping our common future, so as to be able to inform our communities and to engage in the public discourse on these critical issues.
Urges the application of the ‘precautionary principle’ by all relevant authorities with regard to innovations with potential for causing significant harm when sufficient scientific knowledge and experience on the impact of such innovations is lacking, acknowledging that there is a social and governmental responsibility to protect the public from such harm whenever there is a plausible risk, and until scientific evidence has clearly established that significant harm will not result.
Calls upon national governments and all responsible authorities to guarantee minimum social protection floors for all those whose livelihoods are negatively affected by accelerating automation and industrial applications of artificial intelligence, and to consider the introduction of a universal basic income where circumstances permit, while at the same time supporting and promoting the right of all to dignified work and equitable participation in society.
Appeals for the urgent adoption of an international pre-emptive ban on the development of fully autonomous weapons systems.
Strongly supports calls for a worldwide moratorium on applying CRISPR gene editing technology to the human genome.
Urges WCC member churches and ecumenical partners to respond actively to counter the misuse of social media and other digital communications platforms for spreading misinformation, promoting hatred, and encouraging distrust and social fragmentation, and to promote an informed, grassroots, faith-inspired resistance to the forces challenging human dignity and flourishing in digital spaces.
Encourages all member churches to include in their educational and other programmes focusing on children and youth components addressing the negative impact of social media and violent computer/online games on the development and psychological wellbeing of children and young people.
Asks theological institutions to strengthen ethical reflection on new ethical challenges in their theological education curricula and actively engage in interdisciplinary research and dialogue with scholars in relevant fields, and to encourage theological and ethical critiques of digital transformation, including the powers that operate unregulated, commercially-driven digital spaces.
Affirms the “New Communications Paper for the 21st Century: A Vision of Digital Justice” and urges member churches and ecumenical partners in their local contexts and as a global ecumenical fellowship to address the challenges posed by digital justice in their work and advocacy on gender equality, environmental sustainability, human rights, democratic participation, and economic justice.
Underlines the need for spaces and channels that are inclusive, accessible, interactive, and participatory, that promote racial justice, gender justice, digital justice, and expand public spaces, while also creating visions for the future.
Urges churches to be open for engagement with the state and society, and for dialogue with regard to scientific knowledge, technological developments and the power of Big Data.
Exhorts member churches to be examples of listening to those on the margins, of joining with young people and of including all generations in decision-making processes to ensure that the decisions and actions of political and economic decision-makers do not harm future generations.
Calls on member churches and ecumenical partners to support a transformative movement, with the broad support and joint commitment of civil society, including churches and faith communities, political actors, science, and business, to guarantee and protect civil rights in the digital age and make the digital space usable for the common good, where technologies are placed at the service of people rather than governments or corporations.