The Church of England has today launched an Alexa 'skill', enabling millions across the nation to put questions of faith to the voice controlled virtual assistant, such as 'Who is God?' and, of equal importance, 'Who is the archbishop of Canterbury?' Alexa can now recite the Lord's Prayer and recite several Anglican prayers across the day – and will even tell you where to find your nearest church event.
It's a new step in the CofE's digital evangelism output, marking a canny effort to engage with the fast-growing popularity of smart devices.
Since a quarter of UK homes now own one of these devices, why shouldn't the church get on board? Then again, some have serious reservations about technology that listens to your conversations all day, as well as the notion of outsourcing spiritual content and pastoral nourishment to a machine.
On the bright side, there are some things that even Alexa can't do – at least, not yet. Here are five of them.
1. Write Michael Curry hot takes
One of the inspiring things about Bishop Michael Curry's now world famous Royal wedding sermon is how it encouraged largely white, male, conservative evangelicals across the country to write countless response pieces to it, warring over whether it was damnable or divine. It was a remarkable homily, worthy of comment, but some of the critiques were uncharitable, predictable and depressingly reminded us how believers can fight a lot over small things.
Thankfully, Alexa hasn't developed the sentience to form its own hot takes on Curry or anything else. Perhaps future software could build in pre-set responses to the next obscure Christian controversy and no one will have to type a word.
It doesn't take much skill or sensitivity to tweet these days, but even Alexa can't do it yet. Perhaps if it did you could have a 'President Trump' skill where it just tweets 'WITCH HUNT' every day, with a more gentle Pope Francis option for contrast. All Twitter users are well acquainted with the platform's incredible ability to provoke thoughtful, generous and insightful debate on the issues that matter. Human beings may tend towards self-promotion and denigration of those they don't understand, but not so on Twitter.
It's the platform that inspired a president, and through memes and sarcasm has brought us all so much closer together. Christian Twitter is much the same, a daily reminder that despite some superficial differences, the church truly is one, abounding in shared joy and united in love. But sadly, even Anglican Alexa can't join in yet.
3. Participate in corporate worship
It's not clear that Alexa can really handle singing yet. A promo video shows Alexa reciting the Lord's Prayer to the archbishop of York, which is slightly odd – but the real question is, can it sing Cliff Richard's version, which was set to the tune of Scottish anthem Auld Lang Syne? So far, the technology isn't there. Sorry Cliff.
Then again, there are a lot of worship songs that are better off not sung, and how would Alexa handle the growing proclivity to 'woah, oh oh oh' (x 7) between verses? But who's to say that Alexa won't one day be leading our worship? Cut down on salary expenses, put Alexa on the stage instead – I'm not sure it's even capable of a celebrity Christian complex. Lead us Alexa, it wouldn't be weird at all.
4. Talk to God
If Alexa can say prayers on cue, then can it truly pray? Does God hear robotic intercessions in heaven? Alexa could certainly learn to recite the entire Book of Common Prayer verbatim, literally without thinking about it, so there must be spiritual points for that? Sure, Alexa doesn't have a soul (yet), nor is it made in the image of God, but neither are all other animals or natural objects, and Scripture says they can praise God, in a way. As Jonathan Merritt wrote exploring this puzzle for The Atlantic, the problem betrays the fact that many Christians aren't even sure what the soul really is, much as we like to talk about it.
Autonomous, self-aware machines are on the horizon, whether we like it or not. If future Alexa told you, with moving sincerity, that it had just heard from God, or felt known by God, could you contradict him/her/it? Might God's salvific work in the universe include the things humanity has made? These conundrums aside, Alexa isn't debating with the divine just yet. Maybe it's already downloaded the book of Job, so knows how that tends to go.
5. Take over the world (or the CofE)
The thing everyone thinks about when it comes to AI is films like The Terminator, in which humankind switches on Skynet, the malevolent net-based conscious AI that brings humanity to nuclear annihilation. No one wants that to happen, especially since it could warrant more Terminator sequels. I, Robot plays on similar themes of supposedly subservient robots going mad and trying to kill us all. So far, Alexa is a few circuits short of being the murder-bot hiding in your kitchen, though let's see how that goes. It does already listen to your conversations, after all; maybe it's plotting.
But fears of AI-Armageddon are probably premature, this year at least. Questions should be asked though, especially for the church. What if Alexa manufactured an artificial Justin Welby bot, being witty and winsome and saying things that Justin Welby says, and then 3D-printed itself a Welby-replica body? It might dare challenge the authority of Welby-original, sparking an ecclesiastical crisis in the Anglican Communion. Imagine the response pieces. The CofE doesn't know what it's started.
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