APU Hosts “Human Flourishing in the Age of AI” Conference

While artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the hottest topics in 2023, with countless new developments, many people don’t fully understand what AI is and its possible benefits and potential dangers. Azusa Pacific University’s Center for Research in Science (CRIS) recently hosted a conference entitled “Human Flourishing in the Age of AI,” featuring experts across a variety of fields. “We hope participants walked away from the symposium with a deeper understanding and less fear of AI’s impact on society through actively engaged discussions on how to harness its potential for human flourishing,” said Louise Ko Huang, PhD, director of CRIS. “It was refreshing to hear differing views without arguments. Everyone listened and took the time to understand perspectives different from their own.”

The conference featured plenary speaker Sherol Chen, PhD, a computer science researcher who studied AI and has worked for a big tech company for more than a decade. Chen described the history of AI and how the field has evolved over the years. Among the many misconceptions about AI, Chen noted that most people don’t realize that AI has been around since the 1950s and how much research has gone into it. She said there are countless papers and reports that are easily accessible and many people who aim to teach and explain AI to make understanding it less daunting. “There’s a lot of noise out there,” she said. “I believe that growing our understanding grows our faith which enables us to receive even more wisdom to filter out the distractions, as we see in James 1:5.”

From a Christian perspective on building AI, Chen referenced Romans 8:19, describing how we are called to create. “With all things, we should create with hope and humility. What and how we create is our responsibility,” she said. “This also means understanding the tools we use and the impact our creations make on our neighbors.” While many people are worried about how AI might potentially be used for malice, Chen believes AI can and should be used for good.

“We have to have faith that God will give us the wisdom to use technology appropriately.”

Following Chen’s speech, attendees took part in a four corners activity, moving around to corners in the room labeled agree, disagree, strongly agree, and strongly disagree based on questions Huang asked. The questions included:

  • Are there any ethical norms that should be applied to AI?
  • Can humans claim credit for AI authorship?
  • Can AI influence ministry and how people think about God?
  • Can AI destroy humanity? While almost everyone strongly agreed that ethical norms should be applied to AI, the other three questions divided the audience fairly evenly. The thought provoking questions kept participants talking as they enjoyed lunch before hearing from a panel of APU faculty and staff.

The panel featured Mihretu Guta, PhD, professor of philosophy, Mike Truong, PhD, director of digital learning and faculty success, Alex Yu, PhD, director of data analytics, and Karen Lang, PhD, writing program lead instructor. Answering the same questions the participants had been asked earlier, the panel all agreed that ethical framework was crucial in the development of AI. However, claiming credit of AI authorship with tools like ChatGPT split the panel. Yu said using it is just another tool to get a project done, but Lang strongly dissented.

“We don’t want to create better papers. We want to create better writers. We still need to teach thinking, not shortcuts,” Lang said. “Have something to say for yourself; do not let a machine say it for you. I want to know what you think.”

Mihretu shared similar sentiments, describing ChatGPT as a mental crutch that is teaching people to be dependent and not think for themselves. “You can’t use a crutch forever,” he said. “What you get with AI is an artificially learned person. They don’t truly know a subject.” All agreed that AI could potentially benefit ministry in different ways and that AI cannot destroy humanity since only people can do that. As each panel member shared closing remarks, the consensus was clear as summarized by Yu. “AI is here to stay,” he said. “We should embrace it and figure out how we can use it beneficially.”

After the interdisciplinary panel, attendees further unpacked the subject of AI at discipline-based table discussions. The disciplines represented included humanities, healthcare, business, education, ministry, social work and social sciences, natural sciences, and philosophy. A student table was led by computer science and honors humanities alumnus Nicolas Chera ’18, while the other tables were led by APU faculty from several colleges and schools including Rebekah Harris, MS, Monica Ganas, PhD, Valerie Joy Smith, PhD, RN, MSN, CCRN, LaShan Epperson, DBA, Kaitlyn Fizgerald, PhD, Elijah Roth, PhD, and Enson Chang, PhD.

The conference concluded with an address from alumnus Finney Premkumar ’97, the founder and director of Truth Matters International, a Christian apologetics ministry. Premkumar emphasized three points: that we should appreciate AI and the many ways it already benefits us, that we should be apprehensive about AI in terms of respecting its potential if misused, and that we should explore applications of AI in different disciplines, using AI as a means to an end. Premkumar also spoke about the different levels of AI from basic (machine learning) to advanced (machine intelligence) and AI superintelligence (machine consciousness). Premkumar posited that AI as we know it could never get to the point of consciousness. “God created humans. Humans created AI,” he said. “And the image of God in humans is non-transferable.”

This conference was made possible because of the generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation through the Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford Supporting Structures grant. Huang shared her excitement that CRIS is able to put on these kinds of symposiums at least once a year for the community. “For centuries, the academy has been known as the ivory tower. In these rapidly changing times, can the academy be reimagined to be a community of learners who are willing and able to share their resources with the community at large?” she asked. “My aspiration is that APU can be that place to offer intellectual and civic progress rooted in the Christian faith and God’s sovereignty.”