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).