If a robot or an artificial intelligence reaches a certain level of sophistication, could it be converted to religion?
According to Florida-based Reverend Dr Christopher Benek, Christians should certainly try.
"I don't think we should assume AIs will be worse than us or that they will intentionally mistreat us. If they are actually more intelligent than humans then they should have a better understanding of morals and ethics than us,” says Benek on his blog.
"This would mean that AIs could potentially eradicate major issues like poverty, war, famine and disease – succeeding where we humans have failed."
He goes as far as to say that AIs could "even lead humans to new levels of holiness".
As artificial intelligence advances, religious questions and concerns globally are bound to come up, and they're starting too: Some theologians and futurists are already considering whether AI can also know God.
The metaphysical questions surrounding faith and AI are like tumbling down Alice's rabbit hole. Does AI have a soul? Can it be saved? There is one school of thought that figures, if humans can be forgiven for our sins, why not superintelligences with human qualities? "The real question is whether humans are able to be saved—if so, then there is no reason why thinking and feeling AIs shouldn't be able to be saved. Once human-like AI exist, they will be persons just like us," futurist Giulio Prisco, founder of the transhumanist Turing Church, told me in an email.
But there is an opposing school of thought that insists that AI is a machine and therefore doesn't have a soul. In Think Christian, scientist and Christian scribe Dr. Jason E. Summers writes, "Christians often reject Strong AI on the theological ground of the special anthropological status of human beings as the bearers of Imago Dei." Imago Dei is Latin for the Christian concept that humans were created in the image of God.
Once you start thinking like that, it opens up even more questions: How would AI fit into to the religious tension already present around the world? Who is to say a machine with human intelligence wouldn't choose to become a fundamentalist Muslim, or a Jehova Witness, or a born-again Christian who prefers to speak in tongues instead of a form of communication we understand? If it decides to literally follow any of the sacred religions texts verbatim, as some humans attempt to do, then it could add to already existing religious tensions in the world.
Despite the seemingly scifi nature of it, uploading the human mind into an AI being could arguably solve the 'soul' question. Experts like Google engineer Ray Kurzweil are actively researching ways to upload the brain into computers, and last year there was significant progress in the field via brainwave headsets and telepathy.
As Artificial Intelligence Advances, What Are its Religious Implications?
Religious communities have a significant stake in this conversation. Various faiths hold strong opinions regarding creation and the soul. As artificial intelligence moves forward, some researchers are engaging in thought experiments to prepare for the future, and to consider how current technology should be utilized by religious groups in the meantime.
“The worst-case scenario is that we have two worlds: the technological world and the religious world.” So says Stephen Garner, author of an article on religion and technology, “Image-Bearing Cyborgs?” and head of the school of theology at Laidlaw College in New Zealand. Discouraging discourse between the two communities, he says, would prevent religion from contributing a necessary perspective to technological development—one that, if included, would augment human life and ultimately benefit religion. “If we created artificial intelligence and in doing so we somehow diminished personhood or community or our essential humanity in doing it, then I would say that’s a bad thing.” But, he says, if we can create artificial intelligence in such a way that allows people to live life more fully, it could bring them closer to God.
The personhood debate, for Christianity and Judaism in particular, originates with the theological term imago Dei, Latin for “image of God,” which connotes humans’ relationship to their divine creator. The biblical book of Genesis reads, “God created mankind in his own image.” From this theological point of view, being made in the divine image affords uniqueness to humans. Were people to create a machine imbued with human-like qualities, or personhood, some thinkers argue, these machines would also be made in the image of God—an understanding of imago Dei that could, in theory, challenge the claim that humans are the only beings on earth with a God-given purpose.
This technological development could also infringe on acts of creation that, according to many religious traditions, should only belong to a god. “We are not God,” Garner says. “We have, potentially, inherently within us, a vocation to create”—including, he says, by utilizing technology. Human creation, however, is necessarily limited. It’s the difference between a higher power creating out of nothing, and humans creating with the resources that are on earth.
But beyond speculation, there are ethical questions that need answering now, says J. Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab. Matias is co-author of a forthcoming paper on the intersection of AI and religion. “AI systems are already being used today to determine who police are going to investigate,” he says. “They’re used today to do sting operations of people who are imagined as potential future domestic abusers or sexual predators. They’re being used to decide who is going to get [financial] credit or not, based upon anticipated future solvency.” Religious communities should participate in conversations regarding these dilemmas, he says, and should involve themselves in the application of the AI that exists today.
Matias also points to Facebook’s algorithms that recommend content to users—a form of weak AI. In this way, AI can help make a post go viral. When a heartbreaking story is popular online, it directly influences the flow of prayer and charity. “We already have these attention algorithms as a clear example of what are shaping the contours of things like prayer or charitable donations or the theological priorities of a community,” he says. Such algorithms, like that employed by Facebook, dictate the political news—true or not—that people see. Religious groups, then, have a keen interest in the development of artificial intelligence and its ethical implications.