How does AI affect web programmers? Our team discusses their experiences and thoughts on the tool.

In order to assess how artificial intelligence is affecting those in the church communications world, we decided to ask our team how it's going in their space. 

In this series on AI, we're asking our team some of the practical as well as bigger picture questions for how technological developments are affecting their work and the churches we partner with. 

This Q&A asks Fishhook's Website Developers, Shawn and Julie their thoughts.

Part 1: The Bigger Picture

Do you think AI will make programming more accessible to churches?

We think AI has the potential to make programming more accessible to churches, but not on its own. There are currently AI programs that can be plugged into your code editor to read what you are writing and give you predictions on the next few lines of code, just like how Gmail and other email programs will suggest the next couple of words in your sentence as you are drafting an email. These AI programs gradually learn your code-writing style and also pull resources from public code online. They provide comments within the code to describe the desired functionality, too. The most popular AI-powered programming tools are GitHub CoPilot, OpenAI Codex, Tabnine, and Visual Studio IntelliCode.

A strong benefit to these programs is that they provide the correct syntax for basic functions that are easy to forget for beginners and developers who regularly switch between several different programming languages alike. AI takes the not-so-fun work out of programming, which leaves the creative, stimulating parts of programming for the human to work on. According to Julia Liuson, president of the developer division at Microsoft, “A lot of software has common frameworks and pieces of scaffolding. CoPilot does such an awesome job of doing all that for you so you can focus your energy and your creativity on the things that you’re trying to solve uniquely.

Additionally, chatbots such as ChatGPT can write whole snippets of code based on a given prompt. They are essentially converting natural human language into code. Before AI, traditionally, programmers came up with new applications/solutions and then had to translate their ideas from a human language to a computer language, so this is a big step forward. Other AI programs can test your code to check for errors or bugs, and provide alternative solutions. It’s always helpful to have another “pair of eyes” look at your code when it won’t seem to work and you just can’t figure out why.

In our opinion, you will still need a base level of programming skills to know how to apply the AI’s suggestions and ensure they fit into your code's structure for all of these examples. These AI programs are mostly built to help boost productivity for people who are already developers. They can speed up the project process, which allows a developer to get from the design phase to the development phase faster. 

What potential pitfalls of using AI should web/digital pros plan to address with their teams?

Most of these AI-powered programming tools are still in early development so they won’t always provide the best code. They cannot build the code for a full custom website on their own yet. It’s important to remember that AI is not the creative genius - it just provides the smaller building blocks of code that developers can put to use to solve larger problems. Most of these programs also require a monthly paid subscription to unlock all the features.

Additionally, there are AI-powered website builders out there that advertise their ability to build a full website in just a few minutes. To do so, the AI basically chooses one of a few pre-made website templates based on the prompt you input. It even writes the copy for different sections on the website and selects colors and photography. These services include Wix ADI, Hostinger AI Website Builder, and Divi AI. While it is incredible to have a full website built out in a couple of minutes, the resulting website usually lacks customization, accessibility and has limited functionality. It is difficult for AI to capture a church’s spirit and creativity in a website from just a few prompts.

Part 2: AI In Your Role

In what, if any, ways are you currently using artificial intelligence?

We're not currently using artificial intelligence in our work. This is all very new to me. But plan on continuing the research on best uses and see where it might make sense to bring efficiency into the web building process. 

Practically, what are ways you see AI in web development being helpful in a church’s context?

There are several ways that a church could take advantage of AI tools to boost its website’s reach.

  • SEO Optimization: AI can summarize articles or blog posts, write meta descriptions for each page, suggest keywords, identify data trends, etc.
  • Photography: AI can generate photographs and artwork based on specific prompts to help decorate your site and make it more inviting.
  • Code snippets: AI can write out code snippets and code suggestions for simple tasks to increase efficiency and speed up the programming phase.
  • Messaging: AI can be a good starting point for writing copy for a webpage. It definitely helps get the ball rolling with ideas, but I still think that a human should have the final review because words matter, especially in the church world. Humans can boost the context, accuracy, and empathy of the messaging AI suggests by entering their church’s voice.
  • Chatbots: AI chatbots can help answer common questions such as service times and locations with personalized responses right on the website.
  • Translation: AI can be built into a website to offer automatic language translation for church members who may be more comfortable with another language than English.

If AI could help you with one thing, what would it be?

We're not really sure how to answer this question. The only way we could see it being useful right now is to provide a starting point for some coding tasks. For instance, you could have it generate the code for a grid with certain specifications, but there is always going to be some human intervention to make it usable. Other examples may be to run tasks on code repositories or things like that.

Do you think your web developer role is enhanced or threatened by the current state of AI?

Our roles as web developers building custom websites for churches is so niche, We don’t feel threatened by the current state of AI. It is unlikely that AI will fully take over  the jobs of developers in the near future. Some predict simple apps/websites will be built by AI alone, but it might not be able to make complex sites on its own. Instead, we believe there will be a collaboration of work between developers and AI.

Julia Liuson, president of the developer division at Microsoft, says that she envisions, "AI-powered models and tools that will help developers of all ability levels clean data, check code for errors, debug programs and explain what blocks of code mean in natural language.

AI will be used to automate the tedious and repetitive tasks, which creates space for the developers to focus on more complex tasks. For a website to be fully custom, we believe a human must be involved to really understand the clients’ or users’ desires for the website. AI will never be able to truly grasp a church’s mission/vision/values and translate that into a real website that portrays those characteristics well.

What do you think about artificial intelligence in web programming?

Our team would be happy to chat more about how to use AI in your web role and how to set AI guidelines for your programming team.