Artificial Intelligence and the Soul
Bjork, Russell C., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
The view that there is an inherent theological conflict between strong artificial intelligence, on the one hand, and biblical teaching regarding the origin of the soul, human worth, and humanity being created in the image of God, on the other hand, is examined and shown to be ill-founded. Christian theology, therefore, has no stake in the claim that the possibility of technological accomplishments in this area is inherently limited. Consideration is also given to how a biblical understanding of human personhood can inform work in artificial intelligence.
"Finally, and most elusively, we are learning something about consciousness itself ... If we can identify that cognitive kernel, can we one day endow a machine with it? ... Human beings have always been brash enough to ask such questions but lacked the necessary gifts to answer them. At last, we are acquiring that ability ..." So ended the introduction to a special section in a recent issue of Time titled "A User's Guide to the Brain." (1)
For many years, thinkers have speculated about creating an artifact that deserves to be called a person. Moreover, intelligent robots or androids of various sorts have been prominent in works of popular culture (e.g., Commander Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation, R2D2 or C3PO of Star Wars, Andrew Martin of the Isaac Asimov short story which was later turned into the film The Bicentennial Man, or David of Artificial Intelligence). Is creation of such an artifact theoretically possible? Certainly there are many today who believe this to be the case. For example, Rodney Brooks, the director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, claims that "the question then is when, not if, we will build self-reproducing intelligent robots." (2) However, some Christians have seen this possibility as contradicting Christian doctrines concerning humanity, such as the nature of the soul or humans being made in the image of God. As one writer put it, "I fully grant that my theology would crumble with the advent of intelligent machines." (3)
Is there an inherent conflict between biblical teaching and the idea of an intelligent artifact? Or is it rather the case that Christian theology has something to say about how one might approach such a goal? Note that these are phrased as theological questions, not technological ones. No existing systems even come close to the kind of intelligence displayed by, say, Commander Data, and there is no hard evidence that such a system will exist in the near future, if ever. But one who believes in this possibility can legitimately point to a long history of technologies that we take for granted today, that were once believed to be impossible. The question I wish to address here is whether Christian theology has any necessary stake in the impossibility of creating an artifact that deserves to be called a person, on the one hand, or has anything to say about how one might pursue such an objective, on the other hand. In particular, I want to address three issues:
1. Is there a conflict between artificial intelligence and biblical teaching about the origin of the human soul?
2. Is there a conflict between artificial intelligence and biblical teaching about human worth or our being created in the image of God?
3. Does biblical teaching about human personhood have any implications for work in artificial intelligence?
First, though, we need to look at a preliminary question: what do we mean by the phrase "artificial intelligence"?
What Do We Mean by "Artificial Intelligence"?
With the invention of the digital computer, the idea of creating intelligent artifacts moved from the realm of fiction into actual research programs, often referred to as "artificial intelligence." However, different writers use this phrase with a wide variety of meanings, both with regard to goals and basic methodology. (Indeed, the author of one undergraduate textbook speaks of the "paradoxical notion of a field of study whose major goals include its own definition." (4)) In regard to goals, the term is used in two quite different ways.
Sometimes, "artificial intelligence" is used of processes that achieve the same results as human intelligence (or even better results) in a specific domain. (This is sometimes called "weak AI"). An old, but oft-quoted, definition that reflects this is "the science of making machines do things which would require intelligence if done by men." (5) For example, Deep Blue--the chess-playing program that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997 (by a score of 3.5 to 2.5 in a six-game match)--made use of heuristic knowledge of board situations from a library of master games played by human experts, coupled with sophisticated look-ahead strategies. Further work in this area could well result in systems that no human can ever beat. (6) The armies in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were animated using software agents to generate the individual warriors. Many banks and other lenders use automated credit-scoring applications to evaluate prospective borrowers. Such systems, while very effective in their domain, are useless outside it--e.g., the agents used for animating The Lord of the Rings cannot play chess or score credit applications.
On the other hand, "artificial intelligence" is sometimes used in a broad sense, to refer to the goal of creating artifacts that are intelligent (and hence even self-conscious persons) just as we humans are--e.g., like the science fiction robots and androids listed earlier. (Sometimes this is called "strong AI"). While some artificial intelligence researchers see work on weak AI as generating insights which will ultimately lead to achieving strong AI, other researchers are quite happy to devote their attention to the former without any commitment to the latter. (7)
While work on weak AI can raise significant ethical issues related to the appropriateness of entrusting certain tasks to machines, it is strong AI that raises issues related to the essential nature of humanity, the focus of this article. To make this clear, I will sometimes use the word "person" instead of the words "intelligent" or "human." "Intelligent" lends itself to multiple interpretations, and also seems to be applicable (at least to some extent) to animals. "Human" is too restrictive--the Christian faith acknowledges the existence of persons who are not human (e.g., God and the angels). (8) Of course, the term "person" itself needs definition. I will use the term in the sense of Lynne Rudder Baker's definition: "What makes a human person a person is the capacity to have a first-person perspective." (9) She elsewhere defines this as "a perspective from which one thinks of oneself as an individual facing …
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Publication information: Article title: Artificial Intelligence and the Soul. Contributors: Bjork, Russell C. - Author. Journal title: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Volume: 60. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2008. Page number: 95+. © 2009 American Scientific Affiliation. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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