A new app that lets you chat with as many as 20,000 notable people from the past is the latest AI offering to come out of the tech sphere. From legendary American baseball player Babe Ruth to US President Abraham Lincoln, Historical Figures uses advanced AI technology to help you learn about the lives and works of significant people from history. All you have to do is select the historical figure you want to chat with and start a conversation- all from the comfort of your mobile phone.
The app’s creator, Sidhant Chadda – a 25-year-old software engineer from Amazon, hopes it will turn teaching on its head by offering a more engaging and interactive way for children to learn. Imagine the day when we can take a virtual stroll in the park being taught philosophy by Aristotle himself. Or have a virtual coffee with Gandhi and put the world to rights? But what about AI presenting itself as Adolf Hitler? Or even Jesus?
Historical Figures is built on top of the latest AI sensation ChatGPT-3, an app capable of generating human-like text based on questions it’s asked, with the ability to answer simple queries, or even write essays and code. This technology has taken the world by storm, amassing more than 1 million downloads in just 5 days (whereas it took the likes of tech giants Facebook and Netflix 10 months and 3.5 years respectively to reach the same number). While the possibilities are mind-boggling of how ChatGPT can make our lives easier or how it might disrupt Google’s search business, Elon Musk recently tweeted we are “not far from dangerously strong AI.” Now keep that in mind as ChatGPT-4, rumoured to be released as early as the first half of this year, is said to be 100x more powerful than ChatGPT-3. Perhaps the World Economic Forum’s prediction makes sense then, when it recently estimated that 85 million jobs would be replaced by AI as early as 2025.
Personally, I was always of the belief that creativity was reserved for human capabilities and not something that AI could perform. However, I’ve recently been pleasantly surprised to see ChatGPT write heartfelt stories and a funny ad for Ryan Reynolds, while the capabilities of AI art generator Midjourney have blown my mind. So, while Sidhant Chadda’s “Historical Figures” app can currently only respond in text- simulating the perspectives of notable figures from history- who knows what it will be able to do next? We can only imagine that as technology gets more powerful, our relationship with it and its impact on our social constructs will equally transform.
Among the many famous faces in history Historical Figures allows you to encounter, it also enables you to have a 1-1 with Jesus. If someone can now talk to “Jesus” directly, and in a much more appealing visual format in the not-too-distant future, what does this mean for the church? On the one hand, we could dismiss it as a simple means of entertainment or education. However, when we see how COVID-19 has impacted church-going behaviour (a recent study in the US found that 78% of evangelicals watched an online service as a substitute for in-person worship), it might not seem so far-fetched to believe that interacting with, and learning from, an AI Jesus would be much more engaging than attending a worship service. So do we really need churches and pastors?
On the other hand, it’s important for us to recognize that AI in its current state is a programmed creation, carrying the same biases of its own engineers. Recently, users expressed concerns that ChatGPT refused to write a poem in admiration of Donald Trump, yet failed to hesitate when asked to do the same for Biden. In a similar vein, Elon Musk warned of the dangers of training AI to lie, recently noting its refusal to talk about arguments for fossil fuels. Who would know then, whether the AI Jesus we are speaking to is representative of his true historical nature, or if it is tainted by the views of the creators behind it? It might bring to question potential dangers of misinformation when we become reliant on apps like these to learn about Jesus instead of the Bible, which archaeologists and historians have confirmed to be historically accurate.
Whether or not we think AI will disrupt entire industries, including potentially that of the church, it’s interesting to consider what role the church serves for individuals and society. Previous studies have shown that those who attend church are less likely to commit minor crimes, while others believe that churches help to build relationship and enrich local communities and neighbourhoods. According to C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity, “the sole role of the church is to draw people to Christ.” Where AI could potentially fill gaps in knowledge, will it ever be able to cultivate relationship? After all, the Christian God is more than a concept, but rather a person with whom we develop a relationship through the different seasons of life. As we can see with technology, especially over the last generation, perhaps it’s worthwhile considering whether it will better serve to connect us digitally- or end up as a disservice- disconnecting us from our communities, ourselves, and maybe even God.