Are you there, God? It’s I, robot.
In his relatively short tenure, Pope Francis has been hard at work welcoming spiritual seekers into the Catholic Church. He’s refused to judge LGBT people, sought to integrate divorced couples, and extended priests’ ability to forgive abortion. But Francis’s wide arms have arguably never stretched further than a mass in 2014 when he suggested the church would baptize Martians.
“If—for example—tomorrow an expedition of Martians came … and one says, ‘But I want to be baptized!’ What would happen?” Pope Francis asked. “When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, let’s do it this way.’”
While playful, this odd scenario got at a serious question about just how far the church’s welcome can go. Should Christianity, the world’s largest religion, embrace all intelligent life? Even aliens? Granted, the arrival of green space creatures seeking salvation isn’t very likely. But the Pope’s lesson opens the door to the acceptance of another science-fiction stalwart, too—one that’s not so easily dismissed. Namely, hyper-intelligent machines.
While most theologians aren’t paying it much attention, some technologists are convinced that artificial intelligence is on an inevitable path toward autonomy. How far away this may be depends on whom you ask, but the trajectory raises some fundamental questions for Christianity—as well as religion broadly conceived, though for this article I’m going to stick to the faith tradition I know best. In fact, AI may be the greatest threat to Christian theology since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
For decades, artificial intelligence has been advancing at breakneck speed. Today, computers can fly planes, interpret X-rays, and sift through forensic evidence; algorithms can paint masterpiece artworks and compose symphonies in the style of Bach. Google is developing “artificial moral reasoning” so that its driverless cars can make decisions about potential accidents.
“AI is already here, it’s real, it’s quickening,” says Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired magazine and the author of The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. “I think the formula for the next 10,000 start-ups is to take something that already exists and add AI to it.”
Despite AI’s promise, certain thinkers are deeply concerned about a time when machines might become fully sentient, rational agents—beings with emotions, consciousness, and self-awareness. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Stephen Hawking told the BBC in 2014. “Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”
This explosion of artificial intelligence—often referred to as the singularity—is one of many futures technologists have envisioned for robots, not all so apocalyptic. But the possibility of any threat to humans, even if small, is real enough that some are advocating for precautionary measures. More than 8,000 people, including Hawking, Noam Chomsky, and Elon Musk, have signed an open letter warning against potential “pitfalls” of AI development. Ryan Calo, a Washington University law professor, argues for the development of a Federal Robotics Commission to monitor and regulate developments so that we don’t innovate irresponsibly.
While concerns mostly center on economics, government, and ethics, there’s also “a spiritual dimension to what we’re making,” Kelly argues. “If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur.”
History lends credibility to this prediction, given that many major scientific advances have had religious impacts. When Galileo promoted heliocentrism in the 1600s, it famously challenged traditional Christian interpretations of certain Bible passages, which seemed to teach that the earth was the center of the universe. When Charles Darwin popularized the theory of natural selection in the 1800s, it challenged traditional Christian beliefs about the origins of life. The trend has continued with modern genetics and climatology.
Take the soul, for instance. Christians have mostly understood the soul to be a uniquely human element, an internal and eternal component that animates our spiritual sides. The notion originates from the creation narrative in the biblical book of Genesis, where God “created human beings in God’s own image.” In the story, God forms Adam, the first human, out of dust and breathes life into his nostrils to make him, literally, “a living soul.” Christians believe that all humans since that time similarly possess God’s image and a soul.
But what exactly is a soul? St. Augustine, the early Christian philosopher, once observed that “I have therefore found nothing certain about the origin of the soul in the canonical scriptures.” And Mike McHargue, a self-described Christian mystic and author of Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost my Faith and Found it Again Through Science, believes that the rise of AI would draw out the ambiguities in the ways that many Christians have defined terms like “consciousness” and “soul.”
“Those in religious contexts don’t know precisely what a soul is,” McHargue says. “We’ve understood it to be some non-physical essence of an individual that’s not dependent upon or tied to their body. Would AI have a soul by that definition?”
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