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'A Sputnik moment'

by Jim Killam, Wycliffe Global Alliance


The artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT was released to the public in November 2022. Andrew Lang, senior professor of mathematics at Oral Roberts University, called it “a Sputnik moment” for AI, because it has launched the equivalent of an arms race among big tech companies and open-source communities of developers. (ChatGPT and now GPT-4 were released by OpenAI, which states its mission as “to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” GPT stands for “generative pretrained transformer”—a term still foreign to most non-tech people.)


Andrew Lang

Whereas a search engine like Google is good at finding things, a GPT can actually create original content based on the information it finds. GPTs work with giant databases of information and can generate words, images, code and more in response to prompts entered by the user. They learn to predict the probability of given words or sequences, and thus keep improving the more they are used.


While big tech’s primary agenda with AI is profit, governments may have other purposes. For instance, Lang said, China’s government has told developers there that any Chinese AI system must be built with a bias toward socialism. Whatever the motivation, AI systems all have biases based on the data fed into them.


Christians cannot afford to stay out of these conversations, Lang told the audience.


“The church has missed opportunities to speak and lead in various subjects. There’s a danger here that we may do the same thing with AI. … Tech companies will not produce something that will be unbiased and favourable to a Christian worldview. ... If there are going to be thought leaders on morality and ethics in AI, I think it should be us.”


No language left behind?

Only 33 of the world’s languages are “thriving” today in terms of data support, said SIL’s Whitenack. That means any translation help from AI is still limited to those most commonly spoken languages (think: ChatGPT, Google translate or Amazon Alexa). And, currently it is far more difficult and expensive to develop or use AI tools for languages that do not use English or Latin script.


Then he showed the current ProgressBible statistic of 1,544 remaining languages with no Scripture and needing Bible translation to start.


“There’s a real sense that these remaining languages are being further and further marginalised because their languages are not represented in modern AI systems,” Whitenack told the audience. “All of you are stepping into that challenge and saying, languages shouldn’t be further marginalised by AI and NLP (natural language processing) systems. We should be able to innovate with AI and NLP for Bible translation. We should be able to help people engage with Scripture online, regardless of what language they speak. Past what academia and big tech is doing, you are the ones who are innovating in this space.”


Radical generosity

Several of the week’s speakers mentioned the need for wider access to already-published resources.


“A lot of innovation used to take place within individual organisations or companies,” Wycliffe USA President John Chesnut told the group in his opening welcome. “I think God is busting down those walls. ... Your primary identity is not the logo that you walk under. It’s the fact that you are children of God ... and he has invited you to work together.”


Mark Finzel of Biblica wondered whether new possibilities could be opened if already-translated Scriptures and resources were released under open, Creative Commons licensing.


“I could challenge anyone in this room,” he said. “If you have licensed materials, copyrighted materials, just ask the Lord, see what doors the Lord would open if you did that. ... God’s Word was freely given to us, and we want to freely release it as he did to us.”


Reproduced with permission from Wycliffe Global Alliance

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