We have an exciting new development at the Oikonomia Network (ON). We’ve created a new service called Karam Labs. Seed Company, a prominent Bible translation organization, has hired the ON to gather scholars for a collaborative consultation event. Drawing on the wealth of theological wisdom stewarded in our schools, our scholars will work with Seed Company to consider key questions facing the future of Bible translation: the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, and the challenges of cultural contextualization.
This partnership is the first fruit of a multi-year strategy and development process. Karam Labs is an opportunity for us to grow and serve the church more fully, in ways that build financial sustainability for our network.
Karam Labs: Zipping Up Our Knowledge
Karam Labs is a service of the ON for organizations of all kinds (Christian organizations, churches, parachurch ministries, businesses, schools, etc.) seeking to collaborate toward specific goals in a way that draws on the theological knowledge tradition of the Christian faith. For two millennia, Christian leaders have been using collaborative and deliberative processes to apply theological insight to address practical problems, strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats. We are calling this kind of process “karam collaboration,” drawing on the Hebrew word for tending vineyards (as we do for our Karam Forum event) to highlight how these processes nurture the life of institutions, and also those in them.
This is the point at which Samuel Chiang, president and CEO of Seed Company, entered the mix. Seed Company, an innovative accelerator for Bible translation within the Wycliff family of organizations, is faced with an opportunity that it wants to fully grasp the significance of, and steward responsibly. Seed Company acknowledged the value of drawing on the wisdom of the Christian theological knowledge tradition to inform the opportunity it faces.
Chiang uses the metaphor of a zipper, which meshes two separate sets of metal teeth together to form a bond. The theological academy and the work of Bible translation in the field, Chiang observes, have become “unzipped” from each other, to the detriment of both. Karam Labs is an opportunity to zip up the church’s theoretical and practical knowledge base in both contexts.
Seed Company’s Tough Questions: AI and Culture
In the past two years, Seed Company began using AI tools in Bible translation. This is not so-called “machine translation,” where the computer controls the translating. Rather, Seed Company’s human translators are using AI tools to carry out their tasks much more efficiently. Using these tools is allowing Seed Company to dramatically accelerate the process of bringing God’s word to people in their own languages.
For example, the video above shows how an AI tool speeds up the process of creating sign-language translations. There are hundreds of sign languages around the world. For many people, a sign language is their native language. But recording a sign-language translation by hand, in a way that can be transmitted and reproduced, is very labor-intensive. With AI, the computer is able to watch a human interpreter, recognize the signs she’s making, and reproduce them in a digital format for easy transmission.
Seed Company recognizes that it is important to think through questions that arise in the application of AI technology to Bible translation. Cultural contextualization is already a huge concern in how we translate the Bible; how does the use of these new tools raise new questions or problems in that area? Might we inadvertently ingrain our cultural biases into the AI tools as we “train” them? Also, are there concerns for maintaining our commitment to orthodoxy in the use of these tools?
How Karam Labs Contributes
ON and Seed Company will co-host a Karam Labs consultation in February 2020. The purpose is to think clearly about the nexus of missiology/theology and ecclesiology/technology when it comes to the use of AI tools. At the intersection of this nexus is an emerging understanding of contextualized ethical responsibilities, grounded in the Christian theological knowledge tradition. This is of great interest to ON, Seed Company and the global church.
A Karam Labs project may take many forms. This particular Karam Labs project will be a consultation event, held at Seed Company’s headquarters in Arlington, Texas on February 19-20. Oikonomia Network scholars will write diverse research papers that explore various angles of this main question:
How does the use of AI as a translation tool change the way we account for cultural biases in the process of translation, and how does it change the way we maintain our commitment to orthodoxy in translation?
Five scholars from ON schools were selected from a pool of 13 well-qualified candidates who submitted requests to participate. They will compose four concept papers (one paper is being co-written by two scholars) based on their disciplinary expertise and their diverse experience in translation projects as well as in cultural hermeneutics:
- Craig Blomberg, Denver Seminary
- Hélène Dallaire, Denver Seminary
- Abson Joseph and Larisa Levicheva, Wesley Seminary
- Mark Strauss, Bethel Seminary
This team brings together an impressive array of biblical scholarship, translation experience and cross-cultural competency. We’re excited to be able to mobilize them to help Seed Company think about these challenging new questions on the cutting edge of Bible translation work.
The two-day event will center on discussion of the ideas in the research papers, followed by identification of next steps, as well as “next questions” to be explored. The papers will be published by the ON as an eBook and made available for general distribution.
Why Karam Labs?
In our fragmented and rapidly changing culture, keeping our practices truly grounded in the wisdom and knowledge of God is getting harder every day. Pragmatism and the “tyranny of the urgent” push us to keep inventing narrow, short-term solutions in response to each day’s immediate problems. It’s easy to get disconnected from the big picture – the divine story we’re living out as God’s people in God’s world.
Theological knowledge has a unique power to counteract this fragmentation and pragmatism. It reconstructs connections between our daily practices and the big picture, reconnecting the fragments of life into a coherent whole. Only the Bible can answer the really ultimate questions about the meaning and purpose of things – what kind of world we really live in, what kind of life is really the right way to live, what experiences are truly worthy of praise and pursuit. Two thousand years of accumulated wisdom among God’s people in understanding the Bible’s testimony have produced a living body of insight that we can draw on today through karam collaboration.
Christians have used the karam collaboration model to apply theological insight to solve practical problems of life and business. In the eighteenth century, Josiah Wedgwood’s team reinvented the early factory from an oppressive and unproductive model – one that literally treated workers like cattle – into a humane and highly productive model that treated workers as image-bearers with dignity and potential. In the twenty-first century, a team at the Royal Bank of Scotland recovered £500 million in bad consumer debt by reforming systems that treated debtors as the bank’s enemies into systems that treated debtors as potential partners in restoration.
The ON is dedicated to reconnecting the treasures of the theological knowledge tradition with the challenges people are facing today. Our hope is that Karam Labs will prove a viable long-term model for collaboration between the theological academy and other organizations of all kinds. Watch this newsletter for the release of the eBook from this first Karam Labs project, and (we prayerfully hope) more projects in the future!