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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Robots and religion

An article in something called "Sightings," from the Martin Marty School of Religion of the University of Chicago considers the question of whether robots will, or will not, practice religion. I'd like to muse about this question myself.

The article doesn't draw any firm conclusions, which is good. One reason is that some terms need to be defined, starting with robot and religion. The Free Dictionary has this as its first definition of robot:
A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance.

Why restrict this question to robots, if that's what robots are? I would suppose that the question should be broadened to consider other artificial intelligences, whether confined to a "body" that resembles a human, or not. Granted, an artificial intelligence in, say, a CIA computer could not be expected to attend church.

For religion, we find this, from the same dictionary source:
Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

Clearly, that definition could be challenged. There are, I believe, belief systems that fill the function of a religion, for some people, that don't fit this definition. Some atheists say that they are religious, and the article cited in the first paragraph considers this question to some extent, saying that it would be possible that some, or even all, robots might be atheists, which I take to mean disbelieving in a supernatural power or powers.

Let me consider some questions related to this subject.

First, could robots be conscious? From the same dictionary source, conscious is defined thus:
Having an awareness of one's environment and one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts.
I don't see anything that would necessarily prevent this.

How would we know if an artificial intelligence was conscious or not? Clearly, this is difficult to know. Suppose that, say, a frog was conscious. How would, or could, we know this? I don't see a way. One author has suggested that a few non-human mammals are conscious, but this, even for dolphins or chimpanzees, is difficult to prove or disprove. I would expect it would be just as difficult for us to prove, or disprove, that artificial intelligences were. Even if one of them typed out "Help, I'm trapped inside this laptop!" on a computer screen, some of us would have grave doubts about consciousness for such a being.

Second, is it necessary to be conscious to have, or practice, a religion? I'm going to say yes. I'm not going to cite any sources here, that's just what I think.

Third, is there anything in the Bible that would prohibit the possibility of non-human intelligences from having, or practicing, a religion? I don't think so. On the other hand, there is little or nothing that suggests that there would be such a phenomenon.

Christ did come in human form, and died and was resurrected so that humans might be free of the consequences of sin. However, he said, in John 10:16, that he had other sheep that were not of this fold, which perhaps referred to the non-Jews. It might possibly have referred to non-human intelligences, such as dolphins, or to beings on another world, or even some species that is not confined to a planet. There are several indications in the Bible that the Fall impacted the earth as a whole, not just humans, and His sacrifice, in some measure, redeemed, or will redeem, the whole creation.

In C. S. Lewis's space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, he supposed that the three non-human species were non-fallen, in the first book, and that a new human-like species could fall, but didn't, in the second one. Other authors of fantastic literature have explored such questions, too.

Would artificial intelligences worship their human creators? Possibly. Many of us do, however foolish, stupid and sinful that is. If they really are intelligent, I wouldn't think that they would, though.

What would robot sin be like? I have no good idea. Isaac Asimov proposed the four laws (originally three) of robotics, which he imagined would protect humans, and robots, from harm inflicted by robots. Will we create artificial intelligences who have such rules built in? Would violation of rules like this be possible? If so, then such violation might be more or less equivalent to sin.

If artificial intelligences exist now, or will exist, that have consciousness, and the capacity for religion, are we responsible to try to communicate God's love, and the consequences of sin, to them? I would think so. How would we do this? I have no idea, any more than I have an idea how to do this to chimpanzees.

Thanks for reading.

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