Robots and Theology

Do robots dream of God?

kismetThis is a controversial question raised many times in Hollywood movies. However, in recent years scientists and theologians are looking at the possible implications of Strong Artificial Intelligence.

The possibility of a future in which humans and robots live together in a new technological society is bringing together science and religion. Anne Foerst, a theologian and research scientist seeks to bridge the gap between religion and AI research. In her book God in the Machine [1], she argues that robots have much to teach us about ourselves and our relationship with God. Back in 1993 Foerst was working with Rodney Brook’s team at the MIT AI Lab. They identified a set of questions that are intrinsically related with the two fields of robotics and religion: Can a robot be human? What does it mean to be human? Are we made in the image of God?

MIT’s Cog robot was designed to learn from physical and social interaction. It was programmed to show social and emotional responses. According to Foerst, personhood is just playing a role in a mutual process of telling stories. Even though robots like Cog can’t tell their own story, they can at least play a role in our lives so we can include him in our narrative process [2].

In her book, Foerst establishes a relationship between robot building and God. In her opinion, when we try to build humanoid robots in our image, we realize the complexity of humans and our admiration for God’s creation grows [3]. The goal of building (conscious) robots is trying to find out who we work, learning more about who we are, and what makes us human, says Foerst [the conscious adjective is mine]. From her perspective, ancient golem builders can be seen as the ancestors of contemporary AI researchers.

Another interesting claim made by Foerst is that building machines that could think doesn’t mean building human-like machines. It is not the individual thinker, but the person that form community with other people what makes us human. Indeed humans are social animals, and I would say that consciousness is very much related with social behavior. However, Foerst doesn’t mention the term consciousness in this interview [3].

If we are able to build robots with social intelligence, able to participate and build our society, then we will have to face lots of new problems. See The safe performance of robots for a discussion on the matter.

[1] Foerst, A. God in the Machine: What Robot Teach Us About Humanity and God.
[2] Glenn, J. The theological robot. The Boston Globe. February 6, 2005.
[3] Berkeley Groks. Deus ex Machina. Enterview with Anne Foerst. (Complete Interview).

URBI. Universal Real-time Behavior Interface

It was a matter of time that Microsoft Robotics Studio had a competitor. Last month Gostai released URBI 1.0 RC2. Release candidate 1 was out just the same month (December 2006) Microsoft released their version 1.0 of MSRS. URBI is available under GPL license. (MSRS is also freely available under a Non-Commercial license).

URBI is very in the same line where MSRS is. The key idea of these sorts of products is to offer a general programming framework for robotics. And this is quite new. We were used to have software simulators, programming libraries for concrete robots or robot families. The great advantage of a product like this, is that you can focus on you robotic application without bothering too much about concurrency, asynchronous I/O, and distributed processing. Additionally, a robot controller written using these new tools should be easily portable from one platform to another (given analogous sensors and actuators).

URBI is based on a script language which offers new features like parallelism, event-driven programming, and distributed object management. Multiple programming languages can be used as the URBU functionality is enclosed in the liburbi library, which can be integrated languages like C++, Java, Matlab, Python, etc.

URBI allows you to import C++ objects and even use them remotely in a transparent way. Remote objects can be executed in Windows, Linux or Mac OSX. This is called the UObject architecture.

Dealing with parallelism and events is quite common and challenging in robotics. URBI integrates the management of these programming aspects in its language. Commands like ‘whenever’ simplify the task of parallel programming. For instance:

Whenever (ball.visible)
Camera.trackPosition( ball );

Other advances features have been included in the semantics of URBI as abstractions for parallel programming. For instance, conflicting simultaneous operations can be handled as specified by the programmer.

One key aspect of a platform like this is the availability of code and the contributions of a community. Urbiforge ( is the site where this software and related contributions can be downloaded. Also, tutorials and forums are available in the same site. Interesting libraries include scripts for Aibo, Lego NXT, etc.

The Safe Performance of Robots: A Matter of Law

Robots and Human Safety

ns5It seems that some governments are taking very seriously the possibility of the everyday use of robots in society. Japan and South Korea are worried about human safety in a world where many critical tasks can be performed by machines. They share the Issac Asimov’s vision of a future world where human beings and robots coexist. However, they don’t seem to trust mechanical creatures controlled by only three simple laws.

As reported by The Times a few weeks ago, Japanese robotics experts assure that the famous Three Laws are not enough to keep us safe when the next generation robots become a reality. A 60 page draft document titled ‘Guidelines to Secure the Safe Performance of Next Generation Robots’ is being discussed by the industry, researchers, and lawyers with the aim to elaborate a law that protect us effectively.

This draft document proposes the creation of a central database where all incidents of human harmed by robots will be recorded and accessible by robot manufacturers. Therefore, robots must be equipped with the corresponding mechanisms to log and communicate any injures they cause to people during their task accomplishment. Japan is envisioning a near future where robots play a key role in society and they have detected the need for a well-built regulation. It is foreseen that the domestic robot market grow in Japan up to more than 3.3 trillion yen in the next 15 years. Assistant robots able to help and chat with pensioners are already a reality. Nursing robots, security patrol robots, home assistant robots are going to be common in the coming years.

South Korea is also working in an ethical code for robots. The designed committee is to establish a code of conduct for the life of intelligent robots. The Asimov’s Three Laws are also seen insufficient by South Korea. Identifying robot units, preventing their illegal use, and assuring data privacy are other aspects that need to be taken into account.

It seems that the dawn of the age of robots is coming as predicted by Bill Gates [1], however it shouldn’t be seen as a dangerous or problematic issue as it won’t be as shocking and fast as predicted. In fact, it is already happening for many years. Don’t you think so? Look at these figures:

  • Year 2000: 742.500 Robots Worldwide (Japan 402.200; USA 92.900; Spain 10.500) [2].
  • Year 2003: 1.400.000 Robots Worldwide (BBC News).
  • Year 2004: 1.500.000 Robots Worldwide. [3]
  • Forecast for 2006-2009: It is projected that sales of all types of domestic robots (vacuum cleaning, lawn-mowing, window cleaning and other types) in the period 2006-2009 could reach some 3.9 million units.
    The market for entertainment and leisure robots, which includes toy robots, is forecast at about 1.6 million units, most of which, of course, are very low cost. [4].

[3] UN/ECE. Press release ECE/STAT/03/P03