The Church coexisting with Robots? by Rev Stephen Brooks

Where I live In Milton Keynes, people have been taken aback by white robots, as they travel independently about 4mph and can hold approximately 10kg of food or merchandise. JustEat have partnered up to use these robots to deliver takeaway food to customers. The robots travel from a local depot to the restaurant in time to pick up freshly prepared meals to then deliver to the customer. Once the robot arrives at the customer’s door, the customer is sent a unique code to unlock the robot’s box.

Technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are fashioning how people interact with everything from food to healthcare – and religion too. Artificial intelligence is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence displayed by humans and other animals. These tools are now being directed towards a plethora of difficult practical problems – for instance, diagnosing certain diseases, and analysing medical images, even outperforming human doctors in some tasks. Where I live, there has been a remarkable rise in the number of autonomous vehicles (also known as self-driving cars) – vehicles that are capable of sensing their environment and navigating without human input.

Technology is already enhancing religious practices around the world – from electronic Scriptures to robot priests – and different faiths have absorbed new ideas from the world of technology to enhance mainstream religious practices.

Due to the high concentration of young people aged between 16 and 30 across the Middle East and Asia, Muslims can download apps, such as Muslim Pro, with daily prayer timetables, notifications for both sunrise and sunset, and an electronic compass pointing the way towards Mecca. Developers in Japan have developed a robot priest, programmed to conduct Buddhist rituals. Peppa the humanoid robot, complete with ceremonial dress, can perform a funeral ceremony for $462, compared to the one performed by a human priest for $2,232.

Followers of Catholicism can plug into the Confession Chatbot app to interact in a life-like two-way conversation with a robot. While it could potentially remove embarrassment in confessing a person’s innermost secrets and guilt, where those interactions end up remains a concern in light of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytical scandal. Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, robot priest BlessU-2, with the ability to recite biblical verses and offer pre-composed prayers, was built for the small German town of Wittenberg to mark the anniversary of Martin Luther’s religious revolution in Europe.

Faith leaders are increasingly concerned about morality and the ethics behind creating human-like machines. Social media’s addictive nature and the use of sexbots are just two examples of the reservations they have. Much more work remains to be done exploring what 2000 years of Christian ethics and social thought have to say about modern robots and AI.

A small sample of these issues includes:

  • When an autonomous vehicle crashes, who is responsible?
  • Should lethal autonomous robots be permitted in warfare?
  • Should we support efforts to develop ‘artificial persons’ or machines that mimic humans or animals?
  • Are social robots appropriate, and if so, how are they to be used?
  • Should we use robots for child and elder care?
  • How do we navigate the privacy, transparency and justice issues that arise as AI is applied to big data?
  • How do we show care for those whose jobs are threatened by automation?

These are just some of the areas where ethical issues arise in the use of AI. We will find a way forward not by asking what technology allows us to do; rather, by starting with questions about who we are as human beings, and what role technology ought to play. Movies like The Matrix, and Terminator paint a picture of a dark future where technology turns on humanity. These stories portray different variations on the ‘Frankenstein narrative’, in which technology turns on its human creators and threatens their existence. Many of these movies raise thoughtful questions about what it means to be human, exploring questions of identity, existence, free will and how we are distinct from our machines.

Some have suggested that the advance of technology and AI will eventually solve all our problems. The term `technicism` is a word that has been coined to refer to the faith in technology as saviour or rescuer of the human condition. But not everyone shares an optimistic view of the future of AI, and warnings about the dark side of AI can be found in some surprising places. Stephen Hawking has warned that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” and Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has called AI “our biggest threat.”

In response to the many ethical issues that arise in AI, several organisations have been established to engage them. The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University is an example of one secular organisation, whose mission is to consider threats from machine intelligence. In 2016, the United Nations announced it would establish a Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in The Hague. As Christians who care about God’s world, we must do more than wax eloquently about the issues or critique them from the sidelines. We need to actively join this conversation, which has already begun, bringing insights from Scripture and from Christian philosophy and theology to contribute to the common good.

In particular, as we wrestle with these new developments, we must remember what Scripture teaches about what it means to be human, and the kind of world God would have us develop. The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation 2010 highlighted the need for “taking the whole Gospel to the whole world,” including the area of technology. It encourages us to “promote authentically Christian responses and practical action in the area of public policies, to ensure that technology is used not to manipulate, distort and destroy, but to preserve and better fulfil our humanness.”

A Christian worldview recognises the reality of human creation. Jesus Christ, who is “the Word who became flesh” (1 John 3:2), reveals the value God places on humanity. In the new heavens and earth, we will not be disembodied spirits floating in the heavens, but we look forward to the “resurrection of the transformed body and the life everlasting.”

Our call is to help point the AI discipline in the right direction, and help discern a responsible road forward in obedience to God. Left on its own, AI will likely veer in the wrong direction, putting efficiency ahead of people.


Rev Stephen Brooks


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *