by Hal Hodson
What would Jesus do? An evangelical Christian group has bought a humanoid robot in order to study the dilemmas its brethren pose for humanity
A SPECIAL guest will be attending this year’s creationist conference in North Carolina. It is not a Christian. It is not even a human. But it is helping evangelists find answers.
The Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, North Carolina, this week unveiled the $16,000 humanoid NAO robot from Aldebaran Robotics it has bought to study the ethical dilemmas posed by technology.
“That Jesus adopted human form is extremely significant, from a Christian perspective, on the value of humans as a holistic being that’s physical and spiritual,” says Kevin Staley, who is leading the project.
He worries that rapid advances in robotics may start to erode some of the value that Christian theology ascribes to humans.
Staley has a list of questions he wants NAO to help answer: “What sorts of societal burdens or pressures are these robots intended to alleviate? What sort of problems will they introduce? What are the advantages to having a robot like this in our company?”
Religious interest in emerging technologies is nothing new, says Arthur Caplan of the NYU Langone Medical Center. Until now, the focus has been on medical technology. “Religious concerns have shaped blood transfusion, vaccine research, xenografting, stem cells and cloning,” Caplan says. The driving theme is whether those technologies are respectful of human life. Robots with human-level functionality may push the same buttons, he says: “Does it break the natural order of things?”
Humans have a tendency to anthropomorphise robots to a much higher level than other non-human things, says Kate Darling, a lawyer turned roboticist working at the MIT Media Lab. She says this is down to robots’ seemingly unpredictable motion, growing ability to interact socially and their physical presence in our lives.
“We had people interact with very cute baby robotic dinosaurs, and then at the end of the workshop we asked them to torture and kill them. They were pretty distressed by this,” Darling says. This raises questions about how to bring up children with a robot in the house, she says.
Some companies are already tackling these questions. Google, for example, obviously has questions of its own. After spending billions of dollars on a slew of robotics and artificial intelligence companies, the internet giant has reportedly set up an internal ethics board to handle the technology from one acquisition, AI outfit DeepMind.
Staley has different concerns. He wants to understand how robots might end up replacing us. “We’re approaching a point where it’s possible that a robot would become an accepted substitute for a human person in a number of ways,” he says. “There’s the question of marrying robots. There will be another significant market for robots when it comes to sex.” (See “Cure for love: Fall for a robot to fend off heartache“.)
Ultimately, Staley says he wants religious communities to have a say in the way robots shape our future. They are well on the way to doing this. The Southern Evangelical Seminary has launched a competition to give its robot a name. “They’re obviously anthropomorphising it already,” says Darling.