Yes, the machines are starting to think for themselves, but do they have souls?

Image credit: piqsels

By Catherine Pepinster

Scientists are calling it the Second Machine Age. The Industrial Revolution heralded the advent of the First Machine Age, in which machines reproduced human physical labour.

Now the Second Machine Age will see human mental capabilities reproduced and even bettered, thanks to the advances made by artificial intelligence (AI), a sophisticated form of computing that replicates human cognitive functions.

AI is now developing at such an increasing rate — and is being used to solve specific problems — that the Second Machine Age is practically upon us. Machines can perform tasks that until recently had been reserved for humans, such as detecting a disease, driving a car, predicting a restaurant’s food requirements or optimising logistics for a global retailer. AI does all this by identifying patterns in data. It is technology inspired by the human brain.

So, if AI is developing so quickly — cars that can now self-park, robots that offer care to those with dementia, artificial limbs that can run and dance, and drones used in warfare — how similar are these machines to us? Could robots get so advanced and replicate people that they might one day even have souls?

That was the question posed at a briefing, Spiritual Silicon: Could Robots One Day Have Souls?, organised jointly by the Religion Media Centre and Theos, the Christian think tank. It was the first of three sessions on science and religion, drawn from the Theos research project, Science and Religion: Reframing the Conversation.

The research discovered that the vast majority of people (75 per cent) were not convinced that robots were just like us: they did not believe they had souls. And yet, despite that convincing rejection, a small percentage (5 per cent) thought they actually might, given their intelligence abilities.

What is it about robots, however clever they seem, that makes the majority perceive them as soulless? What, in other words, makes humans human? Members of the briefing panel focused not so much on our capabilities but the exact opposite.

Laura Janner-Klausner, rabbi of the Bromley Reform Synagogue, suggested that people had a profound vulnerability, while Nick Spencer, senior research fellow at Theos, ventured that our physical body — the thing that can be so vulnerable — is the key vital difference.

Anthropologist Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University in Leicester, said: “Human beings do not come into the world fully formed. So, humans need relationships.”

Those arguments helped us to understand how humans are different to robots, but what about the soul? Theos kept its questions about the soul in its survey unspecific, focusing instead on making the question as clear as possible.

Professor Neil Lawrence, an AI specialist, said: “This is [about] a fundamentally different intelligence — machines are not embodied.” However, he warned that it was more difficult to deal with issues surrounding the soul because people keep moving between different words such as sentience, sapience and consciousness. But he noted that many of them derived from a Latin word meaning to breathe.

This certainly connects to some attempts to define the soul as the spark of life within each person, or their innermost being. Could a machine ever be considered to have such a spark?

Rabbi Janner-Klausner said how we treated even objects impacted on our humanity.  If a robot had cared for a parent with dementia, say, should we just pull the plug when it’s all over? “Should we bring a ritual around it?” she asked. “If it’s looked after your mother who has Alzheimer’s, and you kick it in, you bring your violence to it, it encourages your violence. It’s not about the robot. It’s about you.”

But others feared that the problem with AI and robots is that we make too many assumptions that they are more like us than they really are. “We have to be careful about anthropomorphising,” said Professor Lawrence, and Professor Richardson said: “We have encased robots in anthropomorphic language yet no machine is like us … We have immersed ourselves in a disturbed fantasy about machines.”

Dr Spencer argued that our history showed that humans made mistakes about what constituted a person — he cited racist attitudes to black people — so it was worth questioning what we were looking at. He reminded the briefing that intelligence and processing power were often cited as what characterised a human being. But plenty of humans — such as those born with profound disabilities or those who experienced debilitating illness or terrible accidents — did not have these abilities. Therefore, were they not human? If they all had a soul, it helped to define them still as human.

Mark Vernon, who is involved in the research project Understanding Spiritual Intelligence, run by the International Society for Science and Religion, said that rather than have souls, robots offer something to our own souls: “Might people’s sense of personal relationship with computers be helpfully likened to people’s personal relationships with religious objects, like icons or bibles? Such objects are inanimate but resonate with our soulfulness, hence we treat them with respect.”

He added: “No computer has ever felt even the slightest sense of amazement at its activities, as we routinely do.”

Eve Poole, the interim chief executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, quickly riposted: “We don’t know that!” Dr Poole, a greater enthusiast for the potential of AI and robots than others at the briefing, added: “We have seen self-awareness in machines that are quite simple.”

David Midgley, a Buddhist and founder of the young Jamyang Buddhist Centre in Leeds, wasn’t so convinced: “We don’t know anything about the subjective experiences of machines, or whether they have them,” he said. “Therefore, we have no reason to believe that they do.”

The Theos research team, working with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, interviewed 100 experts and commissioned a survey of 5,000 adults, and found clear differences in opinion according to age and religious belief.

The study showed that young people are more receptive to the idea of extending human rights to robots, with 27 per cent of under-30s thinking this would one day happen.

The study also found that those with more fundamental, religious beliefs, Christian or Muslim, were more likely to believe that one day robots would have a soul — no doubt as they advanced in their power and ability, making them more like thinking humans.

It also found that:

  • Those who pray frequently are slightly more likely to disagree with robot souls (80 per cent) compared with those who occasionally pray (76 per cent) and those who never pray (74 per cent).
  • The groups most likely to be against the notion of robot souls are those who are clearly against the idea of human spirituality or immortality — closely followed by those clearly for human spirituality or immortality.


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