By Lianne Kolirin
When human interaction was reduced to a minimum in the pandemic last year, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a humanoid robot befriending lonely children emerged as a bestseller.
Klara and the Sun is, of course, fiction, but one in five of us would actually consider getting a companion run by AI (artificial intelligence) if it were to become available in the future, a new study has revealed.
While 53 per cent of people would not consider the prospect, 20 per cent would be open to such a relationship, according to the study carried out as part of a project entitled Science and Religion: Reframing the Conversation.
More than twice as many men than women would be in favour, however: 28 per cent of men were open to the notion compared with 13 per cent of women.
Dr Nick Spencer and Dr Hannah Waite, from Theos, a think tank on religion in society, and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion conducted their research over three years funded by the Templeton Trust. The paper, Drivers? Doctors? Friends? Who Will AI Replace?, used data from an extensive YouGov survey of more than 5,000 UK adults, and 100 in-depth interviews with leading scientific and religious thinkers.
According to the latest figures from the Campaign to End Loneliness, there are nine million lonely people in the UK “who lack the friendship and support we all need”.
However, while AI companionship may in part aim to alleviate loneliness, the concept proved considerably less popular with older people. Almost a third (29 per cent) of under-30s would consider an AI companion, compared with 10 per cent of over-60s.
The topic was up for discussion on Tuesday when the Religion Media Centre gathered an online panel of experts to discuss the research, which also questioned respondents on whether they would prefer to be operated on by a robot surgeon than a human, and whether they would agree to be transported by a self-driving car.
The overall hesitancy was reflected in the responses to both the other questions, with 56 per cent saying they would be reluctant to travel in self-driving cars and the same proportion preferring a human surgeon to AI.
When it came to driving and companionship that reluctance rose in those with a religious background — although it did not appear to influence people’s views on surgery.
Dr Waite said: “Conversations around AI are becoming increasingly prominent in our society … so it’s an area where science and technology meets questions of religion and human interaction.”
Joining the panel was Sue Black, Baroness Black of Strome, an anatomist and forensic anthropologist. “Humans are social primates and we need the interaction,” she said regarding AI companionship.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi to Reform Judaism from 2011 to 2020, said any kind of handing over of that area of life was “very problematic”.
Dr Beth Singler, junior research fellow in AI at Homerton College, Cambridge, said “it’s really important that we’re realistic about where we are” in terms of AI replacing traditional human roles. She said there remain a “lot of real-world flaws” in driverless technology, while it is more likely AI will be used alongside humans in the operating theatre.
Companionship is also complex, she said. “There’s a very strong difference between the perfect friend and the good enough friend and the AI that presents itself as the perfect friend may not be good enough for us.”
While the reality of such scenarios may be way off, Dr Spencer said that those open to AI in general tended to be younger and more educated.
“Younger people and the elite are more positive of it which means we are going to see a lot more of this,” he said. “It’s going to happen because there are enormous commercial forces that want it to happen.”
The issue of companionship also has darker connotations, the debate heard, as several panellists felt the technology could be hijacked by those with sinister motives.
Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University Leicester, runs the Campaign Against Sex Robots. She said paedophiles would argue that the world is divided “into a real world over here and a fictitious world over there”.
She added: “They argue, ‘Let things go on in the fictitious world.’ But the reason why child abuse is represented in objects is because there’s child abuse against children. They are only doing it because it exists in the world. More needs to be done at the political level to abolish the practice.”
Other forms of AI have, however, helped reduce criminal behaviour, according to Baroness Black who has pioneered new technology identifying sex abusers through veins on their hands.
She said the criminal justice system requires professionals like herself and police to sift through images and footage of “horrific abuse”. As the perpetrator’s hands are often the only part of them seen in the images, technology has been developed to identify a suspect from their hands.
“The change that AI will lead to in my job is incredible,” she said. “It means I don’t have to look at those images.”
Hamish McRae, a columnist and commentator, is the author of The World in 2050. He said AI could help to eliminate the “drudge work” from many sectors, which would leave the important stuff to humans and enable living standards to rise.
“When any new technology comes in, it always takes quite a lot of time for us to figure out how to use it positively,” he said.
Comparing the advent of AI to the first cars, he said: “Very early on, motor cars killed an awful lot of people. It took a while to figure out that you had to have driving tests and pedestrian crossings and social etiquette and I don’t think you can hurry this.
“We have to accept that and welcome that slowly, two steps forward and one step back, to use this wonderful technology to create better lives for us.”
Watch the briefing on our YouTube channel here