The Bible and AI

A few days ago I watched a video about recent, rapid advancements in deep learning, a type of machine learning based on neural network systems, which as the name suggests, is technology loosely inspired by how biological neural networks in the brain work. Artificial intelligence has been around for a couple of decades but what is astounding about deep learning is that as the name indicates, these are machines that can learn to do new things that are not found in their programming. This breakthrough happened only happened in the last six years or so.

As someone in the medical field I was intrigued by artificial intelligence being successfully used as a diagnostic tool with about the same level of accuracy as a human doctor. I must admit that I was a little threatened by it because in the mini-documentary it used the specific example of AI diagnosing a host of ocular diseases which is my field. For the first time, I really understood the deep consternation some people have with this new technology affecting job security. Before my mind went off on a tangent of apocalyptic doom and gloom à la Detroit: Become Human, I reminded myself that human societies have always adapted to technological revolutions, and so far on a historical scale, very successfully. Initially, when the technology becomes popular it creates a lot of problems then society re-educates and retools itself to benefit from the technological advancement. All this got me thinking about how AI, specifically deep learning, might affect another I care about that is, how the Bible is studied. Could AI possibly take on the functions or roles of human biblical scholars?

As it is now a machine cannot replace a bible scholar and I doubt technology will ever make human labour utterly redundant. However, hypothetically speaking, AI definitely has applications in biblical scholarship. To demonstrate this we need to have a broad understanding of what deep learning does. It is becoming more and more proficient at is learning pattern recognition the way humans do at a comparable level. For example, in the video it was real pathologists who taught the AI how to recognize cancerous tissue sections and then it figured out how to do it on its own with new cases. Pattern recognition is fundamental to how we perceive the world. It is for example the reason why you do not see indeterminate splotches of colour but distinct formations.

Bible scholarship obviously relies on pattern recognition from the most basic task of discerning marks on the page as letters and words, that is reading, to more elaborate tasks like exegesis. One possible application of AI in biblical scholarship is in studying comparative literature. Comparative studies obviously also involves high level pattern recognition since we are comparing both the similarities and differences between texts from a particular historical period. Since AI, once it has been taught that is, can identify things on its own and learn new things, if it is applied to the study of comparative literature it could possible identify new things humans have not seen before. The help of machines in this area could have a profound impact because many of the great advancements in biblical scholarship over the last century or so have come through comparative studies. An example is the wealth of insight the Dead Sea Scrolls shed on the Bible which ever since their discovery 70 years ago, has generated a fervent continued stream of research.

This is only one possibility with AI in biblical scholarship but there are other applications I can think off and probably many more that I cannot even imagine. Digital technology has already changed the way the Bible is studied from a lay to a professional level. We have ready access to extensive databases with advanced search and analytical tools to study, and highly accessible technical commentary all in service of studying the Bible. However this is nothing new in the sense that technology has always been a part of the Bible and has always informed how we interact with it. People forget writing and books are technologies themselves and it took a while for what was mostly oral literature to be written down in whole compositions, collected, arranged and finally put together in a single volume book which we today call the Bible. Before this could happen book technology itself had to be developed and the early Christians actually played a very important role in the development of the modern book. Another defining moment in the history of the Bible and technology was Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Gutenberg was in fact famous for his beautiful illuminated Bibles. The invention of the printing press was one of the key reasons why the Protestant Reformation was so impactful. The Protestants were all about the authority of Scripture over Roman Catholic tradition and now the Bible could be mass produced and widely circulated. The other thing the Protestant Reformation gave us was the 66 book biblical canon which has now become standard, whose popularity was undoubtedly helped by the advent of mass print media.

The fact is as a book the Bible is itself a technological artefact and given its history with certain revolutionary technologies it is likely that the unfolding AI revolution will affect how we engage with the Bible in the foreseeable future.

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