Evangelicals, Saudis and cyborgs: A conversation with MbS

MbS is spearheading a massive transformation of Saudi Arabia to move past being an oil-dependent economy, to move toward a moderate Islam and into a peaceful and technologically advanced future.

VISION 2030: In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (photo credit: FAISAL AL NASSER/ REUTERS)
VISION 2030: In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
 The term “cyborg” is not one you might expect to hear spoken in a meeting with the royalty of the world’s most powerful Muslim country, Saudi Arabia. But the leadership of Saudi Arabia is charting a course to a new future, and artificial intelligence is central to it.
The conversation took place while I was on a trip with my father, author Joel C. Rosenberg, who’d been invited by the kingdom to lead a delegation of American Evangelical Christian leaders to meet with top Saudi officials, Muslim clerics and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, commonly referred to as “MbS.”
MbS is spearheading a massive transformation of Saudi Arabia to move past being an oil-dependent economy, to move toward a moderate Islam and into a peaceful and technologically advanced future. He calls his plan “Vision 2030.”
Much of the discussion we had with MbS involved his plans to overcome the challenges that have plagued the country historically – ending radical Islamist terrorism, eradicating the extremist ideology from schoolbooks and mosques, and advancing women’s rights. We also discussed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which he described as “a heinous crime,” and promised to bring to justice all those responsible. Such reforms must be made, and the Saudi leadership is making them.
At the heart of his vision is a project called “Neom,” which we had the opportunity to visit on our recent trip to the Kingdom. Neom, meaning “new-future,” is described on its official website as “the world’s most ambitious project; an entire new land, purpose-built for a new way of living.” It encompasses a massive region in the northwest section of the Arabian Peninsula, currently a desert wilderness, which MbS plans to turn into a futuristic oasis for technological pioneers and innovators. The Saudi king himself issued a royal decree in August, establishing a new government agency titled, “The Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority.”
Having read that Saudi Arabia had become the first country to grant citizenship to a robot (back in 2017), I asked the crown prince if he was concerned that artificial intelligence was a potential future threat.
He answered by briefly painting a picture of the possible outcomes of the development of AI. He talked of the warnings of some that the rise of AI could spell humanity’s demise. He spoke of the plans of others that humans should merge with AI and become, in his words, cyborgs.
The crown prince also told me that despite the “military and ideological challenges” regarding AI, he was excited about its future. However, he added that it is our responsibility as young people (he was 34 when we first spoke, I was 22) to keep AI “on a good path.”
Many Evangelical leaders are deeply concerned about the potential dangers AI could bring. In April, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) released a document titled, “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles.” Signed by 73 prominent Christians, the statement’s goal is “to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI.”
AS AI is increasingly woven into the fabric of the modern world, age-old questions of morality and meaning will increasingly return to the limelight.
In a Guardian article published last year, renowned Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari made this unsettling statement: “Arguing about the Bible was hot stuff in the age of Voltaire... but in 2018 it seems a terrible waste of time. AI and bioengineering are about to change the course of evolution itself, and we have just a few decades to figure out what to do with them. I don’t know where the answers will come from, but they are definitely not coming from a collection of stories written thousands of years ago.”
Is Harari really suggesting we disregard the deeply held beliefs of approximately 2.4 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims, and millions of religious Jews, when it comes to discussing the moral implications of technologies that will profoundly affect all of humanity?
As followers of Jesus who hold fast to the truth of God’s word, Evangelicals have a responsibility to be vocal about what God says in response to these questions. Faith doesn’t disqualify us from the discussion of our technological future. Quite the opposite.
“In light of existential questions posed anew by the emergent technology of artificial intelligence, we affirm that God has given us wisdom to approach these issues in light of Scripture and the gospel message,” the Evangelical statement reads. “Christians must not fear the future or any technological development because we know that God is, above all, sovereign over history... We recognize that AI will allow us to achieve unprecedented possibilities, while acknowledging the potential risks posed by AI if used without wisdom and care.”
With artificial intelligence and brain-computer interfaces being developed around the globe by the likes of Google, Facebook, Elon Musk’s Neuralink and OpenAI, and by the governments of the US, Russia, China and Israel, the cyborg world which the crown prince referenced may not be far off. But before we all go diving head first into this future, we would be wise to take some time to sit down and listen to each other. We should set ourselves and our machines some well-defined boundaries. And the rules of this digital world ought to take into account all of its inhabitants. That includes atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Jews.
While the threat of radical Islamist extremism and the Iranian regime are finally being aggressively confronted by the Saudis and other governmental and religious leaders in the Sunni Arab and Western worlds, new challenges are arising. AI – like the Internet and the smartphone before it – has the potential to affect billions of people worldwide, for good or evil.
As the crown prince made clear when we met, it is our responsibility, as peace-loving men and women in a rapidly changing world, to ensure AI remains on “a good path.”
The writer is an American-Israeli Evangelical living in Jerusalem. He participated in two recent Evangelical delegations to Saudi Arabia with his father, New York Times best-selling author Joel C. Rosenberg.