Jottings on science, religion, technology, pop culture and faith from the Antipodes.

AI/Robotics, Faith & Religion, Science, Technology & Religion

Robot Theology (Part 1)

Robots, religion and theology are back on my agenda, and seem to be cropping up increasingly in my social media feeds and email. It seems that religious communities have woken up firstly, to the fact that the creation of systems that appear intelligent might have implications for how we think about ourselves, our belief systems and God, and secondly, that the implications of this technology upon the human condition – whether that is improving it or stressing it – need theological reflection.

One example of this is As Artificial Intelligence Advances, What Are its Religious Implications? by Ellen Duffer, which I was interviewed for back in 2017 and had forgotten about until it turned up again in a news feed last week. The article takes a stab at both points from about: who are we in light of potential AI and how might that change our world? [Other voices in the article include: James McGrath; Heidi Campbell; and Noreen Herzfeld to name but a few. You can find a response to the article by Gene Veith here]

The first point has been rattling around for a while now, particularly since the 1990s and through to early 2000s, perhaps because it was the most obvious (and sexy?) topic to engage with. Popular culture offered boundary questions about the true nature of humanity, sentience, and the soul; whether humans transgress divine boundaries in seeking to create ‘after our likeness’; and whether a robot could develop a (salvific) religious faith. In response to these sorts of questions, and the rapid development of computer technology, (Judeo-Christian) theological reflections such as these began to appear, though the first thinking can be seen back in 1966:

  • Barnard, David T. and John G. Stackhouse, Jr. “What Is This Quintessence of (Carbon-Based) Dust?: Reflections on Artificial Life.” Perspectives, November, 1993.
  • Davis, John Jefferson. “Artificial Intelligence & the Christian Understanding of Personhood.” In The Frontiers of Science & Faith: Examining Questions from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe, 103-12. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
  • Delio, Ilia. “Artificial Intelligence and Christian Salvation: Compatibility or Competition?” New Theology Review 16, no. 4 (November 2003): 39-51.
  • Durbin, William A., Jr. “Ramifications of Artificial Intelligence.” Christianity Today, April 4, 1996.
  • Foerst, Anne. “Artificial Intelligence: Walking the Boundary.” Zygon 31, no. 4 (December 1996): 681-93.
  • Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro. “Artificial Intelligence and De Las Casa: A 1492 Resonance.” Zygon 28, no. 4 (December 1993): 543-50.
  • Herzfeld, Noreen. In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit., edited by Kevin J. Sharpe. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
  • Kelly, Terence J. and Hilary D. Regan, eds. God, Life, Intelligence and the Universe. Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum, 2002.
  • Peterson, Gregory R. Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences., edited by Kevin J. Sharpe. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
  • Puddefoot, John. God and the Mind Machine: Computers, Artificial Intelligence and the Human Soul. London: SPCK, 1996.
  • Rosenfeld, Azriel. “Religion and the Robot: Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Religious Anthropologies.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 8 (1966): 15-26.
  • Rossano, Matt J. “Artificial Intelligence, Religion, and Community Concern.” Zygon 36, no. 1 (March 2001): 65-66.

These discussions often came back to deeper discussions about being human but they typically ignored, because it was not in the scope of their enquiry, questions about the disruptive potential of these kinds of technologies upon everyday life, as well as the potential positive outcomes for the human condition. More recently, theological and religious engagement with the second point – the implications of AI – has started to happen. In the next post, we’ll look at the transition between points 1 and 2 that took place in the 2000s.