Finance, Charity, and Fairness

AIs are influencing how resources reach the people who need them most. Christians need ways to design, audit, & remake them.

This post is the eighth in a series of short introductions to artificial intelligence designed for group discussion in non-technical Christian settings, hosted by the Oxford Pastorate.

I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need. 2 Corinthians 8:13–14

When St. Paul appeals for funds to support the Jerusalem church, he describes flows of resources across cultural divides, emphasizing generosity and fairness alike. Early Christians experimented widely with their use of resources, established accountability for discrimination, and developed institutional protections for fairness (Acts 6:1–16).

In our time, AI forecasting systems are speeding up transactions and deciding who is eligible for loans. Logistics AIs are transforming how resources reach the people who need them most. Yet these AIs mostly lack an understanding of fairness and have limited accountability for their mistakes.

In the Kony2012 campaign, a charity worked with church communities to influence Twitter’s algorithms and raise $32M for an ill-advised effort to advocate for military interventions in Uganda. In the high-volume attention, one founder suffered a mental breakdown. The charity re-organized in 2014. Image by Gilad Lotan.

Automated software has already transformed finance, with machine-learning based forecasting and high-frequency trading algorithms replacing the stock exchange floor with competing digital systems. Yet these systems can experience unpredictable failures. News organizations now publish machine-readable feeds that AIs use to make investment decisions. When one news feed was compromised in 2013 to publish false information, stock markets “flash crashed” as humans and machines entered a mutual downward spiral.

Since people donate more to causes that receive more attention, the AIs that rank news on social media already influence the flow of human kindness

Artificial intelligence is already transforming charity, humanitarian relief, and international development. Since people donate more to causes that receive more attention, the AIs that rank news on social media already influence the flow of charitable donations. Forecasting systems may soon inform predictive planning and logistics for humanitarian response. As drones and self-driving vehicles become more common for delivering medical aid, logistics AIs will make aid more efficient by planning which people get support in which order. Soon AI will selectively-expand financial access to many of the world’s poorest people, as banks use telephone surveillance to predict credit scores for people who do not yet have a bank account.

AIs can easily learn to make unjust decisions and reinforce inequalities

As AIs categorize which people receive financial services or aid, we also need to ensure that their decisions are fair. AIs can easily learn to make unjust decisions and reinforce inequalities. Computer scientists have recently begun seeking ways to audit AI decisions and govern their actions. For example, the Christian data scientist Peng Shi has pioneered systems that can be adjusted by city councils with input from people affected by machine decisions. Yet organizations that run AI systems also tend to centralize power. Christians will need wisdom for designing, critiquing, governing, and resisting as our material opportunities become shaped by AI decisions, and as we rely on AIs to guide our service to others.

  • How much of our prayers and generosity are shaped by news and social media trends?
  • What priorities might Christians offer to an AI that decides how to allocate resources?
  • How might AI help churches & charities predict and respond to emerging needs?
  • What ideas of fairness might Christian thought bring to the governance of AI systems?


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