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Robot deep in thoughtIs there life after death? We have pondered that question about ourselves and our animal companions for millennia. Now, the same inquiries are being posed about androids, robots and other kinds of artificial intelligence. Do these life-forms have souls? Can they die? Should they be held to the same religious and moral codes as humans? With the advent of these potentially groundbreaking technologies, some insist that now is the time to find answers.

A Brief History of Fictional AI

The first instance of artificial life in fiction can be found in the 1920 play “R.U.R.” by Czech writer Karel ÄŒapek. Our imaginations have birthed creations such as Commander Data, an android from the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” television show, and Legion, a geth character from the “Mass Effect” video game series. A 2013 Transchordian article discussed Afrofuturism and AI in popular music with R&B artist Janelle Monáe’s creation of Cindi Mayweather. In her concept albums, Monáe creates a fictional universe where AI are second-class citizens. Mayweather, an android, becomes a fugitive to escape being disassembled. Her “crime”? Falling in love with a human.

Real World Ramifications

Legal, industry and scientific experts now grapple with how to treat AI and what its presence will mean for society. According to a January 2017 article in The Guardian, the European Union’s parliament has already proposed an “electronic personhood” status that incorporates certain rights and responsibilities. Meanwhile, notable thinkers like scientist Stephen Hawking and inventor Elon Musk worry about humanity’s fate. A 2017 Vanity Fair article mentions that Musk is the most alarmist among them, with his warnings about AI turning rogue and exterminating their human creators.

AI and Issues of Faith

A 2017 Atlantic piece discusses religious views about the soul, usually described as an eternal non-corporeal essence that continues within and beyond one’s body. The problem, as explained by Christian author Mike McHargue, is that prevailing theological thought struggles with how to define the exact nature of the soul. The Genesis creation narrative purports that Adam became a “living soul” after God breathed into his nostrils. When the prophet Mohammed was asked to describe it, his answer in the Quran verse Al-Israa 17:85 is decidedly cryptic: “The soul is one of the things, of which the knowledge is only with my Lord.”

Our ancient writings did not anticipate the advent of artificial life-forms. Among those making theological arguments about the issue, they tend to fall into two different camps:

  • Only a god can create souls, due to a special relationship between the divine and humans
  • Sentience and autonomy are the only requirements for having a soul

Some compare artificial life-forms with humans generated by in vitro fertilization or cloning. If “test tube” babies or cloned individuals would possess souls, why not AI? Interestingly, famed computer scientist Alan Turing posed a somewhat similar argument in his own writings. In 1950, he responded to what he termed the “theology objection,” which states that “thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul.” Turing posited that the production of artificially intelligent machines was no more disrespectful to a divine entity than procreating human children and “we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.”

The Debates Continue

“Creator, does this unit have a soul?” This interrogative from a geth being to a maintenance tech in the Mass Effect video games sparks a fearful reaction from its inventors and leads to a war between the two factions. Yet it’s a valid question, considering recent technological innovations. Will we be baptizing androids or conducting funerals for AI? We don’t know yet, but in a future where they live side by side with humans, religion, law and philosophy will be forced to shift to adjust to a new reality.

 

Category: Society Technology

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