June 14, 2007
Religion for the Robots
— Robert M. Geraci
Robots are getting smarter. Some optimists in artificial intelligence (AI) think that within just another decade or two they will be smarter than human beings. They will increasingly take over our most complicated work, from surgery to teaching to running our economy. Meanwhile, AI researcher Ray Kurzweil and others believe that eventually robots will tell us they are conscious and, having no good reason to deny their claims, we will believe them.
If robots become conscious, they may desire entrance into our society. This notion was championed by the well-known science fiction author Isaac Asimov, who named such a culture a C-Fe society because it would be made up of human beings (carbon life-forms) and robots (iron life-forms). Asimov held C-Fe society to be both a moral good and beneficial toward our long-term survival in the universe.
But will robots ever be religious? If you asked Richard Dawkins, the current champion of militant atheism, surely he would tell you that if robots get smart enough to hold a conversation, their very intelligence will preclude religious faith. But British AI researcher David Levy asserts exactly the opposite: he expects robots will be Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and more. And Kurzweil — (in)famous for his faith that we will very soon be able to download our minds into machines and thereby live forever — holds a middle ground: robots will be "spiritual" because "being — experiencing, being conscious — is spiritual." However, he makes no mention of gods. Kurzweil's spiritual machines will practice a New Agey kind of Buddhism: they will meditate but they won't become Buddhas, they will have "transcendence" but it won't be Nirvana. Kurzweil's notion of robot spirituality is too whitewashed to count for much among "real" religious folks, who will only shake their heads at the thought that "experiencing" equals spirituality.
Is it possible that robots will practice an authentic form of religion? This past spring, one of my students vehemently opposed the suggestion that a robot might one day attend his church. "It won't have a soul!" he shouted. "How do you know?" I asked. I reminded my students that throughout history people have denied that other people had souls or any real religion, and that those denials excused barbarous behavior on the part of the conquerors. This (admittedly unfair) comparison failed to sway many, but led other students to change their minds. The students admitted that their gods could, if they wanted to, grant souls to robots.
Of course, I don't know whether robots will have souls, or whether they will meditate, or sin, or pray, or carve idols, or sacrifice, or keep the Sabbath, or build temples, or believe in gods, or go to heaven, or reach enlightenment. But I do know one thing: mere intelligence will not suffice to gain them legal or ethical standing in our culture.
Only if we see robots as persons will they join our society, and here the border between science and science fiction has become rather blurry. Preemptively, legal scholars and governments have already begun debating the personhood of the hypothetically conscious future robots. As robots become more intelligent and more interactive, we will need to decide what legal standing they possess (can they sue for their freedom? can they possess property?) and whether they are real persons. Researchers and ethicists in Japan and South Korea have already begun worrying about what happens when people like their robots better than their human companions. Some people have difficulty throwing away old teddy bears, which neither speak to their owners nor help them with their homework. A cuddly robot might be a great deal more than just a toy.
I wonder, however, if we could really believe that robots are conscious if none of them practices any religion. Emile Durkheim long ago argued that religion is constitutive of social relationships. More recently Bruce Lincoln has shown that religious discourses create social groups, both dividing and uniting us. If no robots can enter into our religious lives, then I suspect we will deny them all equal and near-equal status in our culture. Naturally, if robots do become conscious, some may well be atheists (assuming for the moment that atheists are not, in some meaningful fashion, themselves religious). But robots needn't all be religious any more than all human beings are religious. To qualify as "persons," however, and thus enjoy equal status in our society, some of them need to be religious — and by choice, not deliberate programming.
How many robots must live religious lives for the realization of Asimov's C-Fe society? Again, I have no idea. But if all robots are atheists, I doubt we will believe that they "chose" to be so. The ability to make moral choices regarding whether and how to participate in religious practices and hold religious beliefs seems to me necessary, if not sufficient, for entry into our society.
"Robotic Age Poses Ethical Dilemma" (BBC News, March 3, 2007) can be read online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/technology/6425927.stm.
"Robo-rights: Utopian Dream or Rise of the Machines?" (Ipsos MORI, 2006) can be read online at: http://www.sigmascan.org//ViewIssue.aspx?IssueId=53.
Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking, 1999).
David Levy, Robots Unlimited: Life in a Virtual Age (A.K. Peters, Ltd., 2006).
Robert M Geraci is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College. His primary research explores how religious categories inform scientific paradigms in robotics, AI, and virtual reality. His homepage is: http://home.manhattan.edu/~robert.geraci/.
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