Machine in the ghost: Can a robot pray? Does an AI have a soul?

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EXCERPTS: The wooden monk, a little over two feet tall, ambles in a circle. Periodically, he raises a gripped cross and rosary towards his lips and his jaw drops like a marionette’s, affixing a kiss to the crucifix. [...] For almost five centuries, the carved clergyman has made his rounds, wound up by an ingenious internal mechanism hidden underneath his carved Franciscan robes, a monastic robot making his clockwork prayers.

Today his home is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, but before that he resided in that distinctly un-Catholic city of Geneva. His origins are more mysterious, though similar divine automata have been attributed to Juanelo Turriano, the 16th-century Italian engineer and royal clockmaker to the Habsburgs. [...] there is one inviolate rule about the robot: he is creepy.

[...] While nobody believes that consciousness resides within the wooden head of a toy like Turriano’s, no matter how immaculately constructed, his disquieting example serves to illustrate what it might mean for an artificial intelligence in the future to be able to orient itself towards the divine. How different traditions might respond to this is difficult to anticipate.

For Christians invested in the concept of an eternal human soul, a synthetic spirit might be a contradiction. Buddhist and Hindu believers, whose traditions are more apt to see the individual soul as a smaller part of a larger system, might be more amenable to the idea of spiritual machines. That’s the language that the futurist Ray Kurzweil used in calling our upcoming epoch the ‘age of spiritual machines’; perhaps it’s just as appropriate to think of it as the ‘Age of Turriano’, since these issues have long been simmering in the theological background, only waiting to boil over in the coming decades.

If an artificial intelligence – a computer, a robot, an android – is capable of complex thought, of reason, of emotion, then in what sense can it be said to have a soul? How does traditional religion react to a constructed person, at one remove from divine origins, and how are we to reconcile its role in the metaphysical order? Can we speak of salvation and damnation for digital beings? And is there any way in which we can evangelise robots or convert computers? Even for steadfast secularists and materialists, for whom those questions make no philosophical sense for humans, much less computers, that this will become a theological flashpoint for believers is something to anticipate, as it will doubtlessly have massive social, cultural and political ramifications.

[...] When it’s possible to make not just a wind-up clock monk, but a computer that’s actually capable of prayer, how then will faith respond? This, I contend, will be the central cultural conflict for religion in this century.

[...] Merritt has argued that ‘AI may be the greatest threat to Christian theology since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.’ While that point is well taken, it could equally be argued that, just as evolutionary thought reinvigorated non-fundamentalist Christian faith (as with the Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or the process theology of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead), so too could artificial intelligence provide for a coming spiritual fecundity. ‘The way we define God’s image in our human nature or our image in the computer has implications,’ writes the theologian Noreen Herzfeld in her book In Our Image (2002), ‘not only for how we view ourselves but also for how we relate to God, to one another, and to our own creations.’

So how will we come to view ourselves and these beings we’re creating? What might this theological richness – in all of its potentiality and its disjuncture, its hopefulness and its disruptions – actually look like? If it can be indulged, imagine the headlines, hashtags and history books of the next 25, 50, 75 years. Of the next century... (MORE - details)

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