Religion & Robots, Part I: Robbie finds God.

 Article by Michael Szollosy

It was probably always an inevitability, but something has most certainly become a ‘Thing’ when it is covered by the intrepid reporters of US Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Yes, it seems that a pastor in the USA (where else?) is espousing the idea that robots driven by sophisticated artificial intelligence should be welcomed into the Christian faith. Reverend Christopher Benek of the Providence Presbyterian Church in Florida reckons that since robots are already capable of beating people in chess and in game shows, can mow our lawns and vacuum our floors and give us directions, it cannot be long before they achieve consciousness. And once they are as intelligent as human beings, for Benek it naturally follows that they will, just like human beings, seek spiritual enlightenment.

The Good News is that, according to Benek, spirituality will naturally evolve in superior artificial intelligence, so that instead of being driven to evil acts and being a threat to humanity – as Stephen Hawking and others are warning – intelligent robots of the future will, through better moral and ethical understanding, be a much more benevolent and benign species on our planet.

Artificial Intelligence, Benek says, may even ‘lead humans to new levels of holiness’, teaching humans to better live lives in accordance with Christian principles.

(It would be unfair, perhaps, to point out how often human spirituality has lead us to commit so many of the acts against others in the name of God or gods – e.g. murder, genocide – that we so fear intelligent robots will wreak upon humanity as a whole. And it leaves open the possibilities of new religious wars based on different faiths competing to convert and save these newly manufactured souls.)

robots love their goods too

robots love their goods too

Benek’s ideas, however, are certainly further evidence that our cultural attitudes towards robots are changing, from monsters that promise destruction and the end of the human race, to our last and best hope of salvation. (Remember a couple of blog posts back, about the notion of robots as our saviours and, for example, the tag line of Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie: Humanity’s Last Hope Isn’t Human.)

 Of course, to students of the Bible, none of this should come as a surprise. We’ve been here before, and the idea of humans being replaced by superior, moral machines was predicted long ago.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh has corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said until Noah, ‘The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (Genesis [not Genisys] 6: 11-13)

Reverend Lionel Preacherbot

Reverend Lionel Preacherbot

And of course Reverend Benek’s beliefs are not entirely without foundation, as there is a precedent (of sorts) for robots finding religion. In Isaac Asimov’s story ‘Reason’, the robot known as QT1 (‘Cutie’) decides that he is a prophet in the service of The Master, his true Creator and their station’s source of power. He quickly converts all of the other robots to his new religion. And we’ve seen robots in thrall to religious fervour more recently, too, in the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and through the Robotology teachings of Reverend Preacherbot.

What Benek’s aspiration demonstrates is (again) the basic confusion between intelligence and… well, everything else that goes into making up human beings. It is worth remembering that even if – perhaps even when – scientists create a supremely or infinitely intelligent system, this will not necessarily mean that these robots will be emotional creatures, and it is even less likely that they would develop any sense of spirituality. All of those qualities we attribute to a fully sentient AI robot – anxiety, cynicism, suspicion, genocidal tendencies, and need for spiritual fulfilment – are the by-products of millions of years of human evolution, and do not come pre-loaded into a ‘consciousness.dat’ file (as per Chappie).

And we might hope regardless that such a highly advanced intelligence would not experience the same fallibilities that make humans susceptible to those… less rational aspects of religion.

(The Daily Show piece perhaps illustrates this best, with the reporter’s ‘robot’ first subjecting Reverend Benek to a brutal interrogation – e.g. ‘Why does God give babies cancer?’ – and then storming out of a synagogue, insisting, ‘No one touches my robo-junk.’)

god * jesus

Some folk are rather upset at the notion that robots might be welcomed into the Lord’s Church, and though some of their objections are very entertaining, we may have to accept that Benek’s prophecies may not come to pass, and at least that we will not be sharing our pews with intelligent robots anytime soon.

There is, however, the intriguing prospect that robots might replace human pastors at the pulpit (and again this is ground we have covered recently in this blog), but again, this possibility seems some way off yet, if for no other reason than there seems to be a lot of resistance to the idea of robots in general, let alone to the idea of them leading a congregation, amongst the followers of Christianity in the West.

And that leads us to the next instalment of this blog when, on a more serious note, we will examine the question of what role religion may have in the larger cultural attitudes and acceptance of robots in our lives.

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