John Reader reflects on the philosophical questions and theological challenges of robots, embodiment, and human identity in Joshua K. Smith’s ‘Robot Theology: Old Questions Through New Media’ (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2022).
June 4th 2022 in the UK is the 4th day of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations but the news this morning is all about the events from which she will be absent, not surprising given her age! She had appeared for much of the event on screens projected at a great distance from the assembled crowds. Had there been the possibility of a robot or avatar replacement would that have sufficed instead? What is so important about the presence of the “real person”?
It would seem that real people are in process of becoming an anachronism. Joshua K. Smith’s new book, Robot Theology: Old Questions through New Media (2022), addresses the question of how Artificial Intelligence and robots might become part of the theological vision.
Smith suggests that the lacuna in the field of human-robot interaction (HRI) is firstly because Christians and theologians have a pessimistic view of human nature (3). This subject might be more appropriately approached under the heading of a critique of dualism and the division between mind or spirit and body. A second explanation for this lacuna could be the widely held Christian belief in human exceptionalism and the doctrine of the humans made in the ‘image of God’ (imago dei). Smith suggests that humans are unique in terms of function, rather than ontologically distinct. I agree that these are crucial questions but would argue that they require deeper reflection, and could perhaps benefit from the concept of distributed agency, as well as ideas of human non-human assemblages (see my “Theology and New Materialism” 2017).
The main aim of this book is to examine how robots can serve as a new media for theological and metaphysical discourse in an age of scientism (4). Humans and robots can work together for human flourishing if there is a balance between humans’ involvement and the morality of the machine. By making moral machines, we must give careful attention to how robots are designed to interact with humans. With this consideration, the telos of machine should be to aid the efforts of an array of religions and ideologies. Smith rightly suggests that technology is no mere tool but is in fact a profoundly religious ideology. What, however, I feel is lacking is a more robustly philosophical perspective. For, in his analysis, there is a danger of subsuming “technology” beneath a theological banner, which could be regarded as a form of biblical imperialism.
In chapter one Smith argues that attempts to transcend human limitations through technology have been around a long time. What, he asks, is different about robots? How, following Jesus, can we respond to “the other” in the figure of robots (13). There is a danger of idolatry in human attempts to manipulate and control robots in search for identity and security. For there is a temptation to turn new technologies into objects of reverence and worship (15). AI and robots will not simply change the world around us, but will also change the way we relate to each other. Does this not then require a new conceptuality? Smith correctly points to the dangers of a view of reductive materialism that would suggest these issues will be resolved through the scientific study of the material world.
As AI must be embodied in mechanical computers, and draws upon human user interaction and natural resources, there remains a danger of treating it as a disembodied agent, in which ethical values and responsible decisions are built into the machines beyond philosophical questioning. In the second chapter, Smith describes how Christians and theists believe that there are objective moral standards that point to actions or desires that are either right or wrong. Despite grounding moral values in the Bible, he nevertheless demands a more nuanced investigation to ethical and regulatory guidelines (25). He writes: “We know there are God-given standards to what makes something good and just.” The problem of the Tower of Babel was, as Smith interprets, not that humans were collaborating through technology, but rather that they had desired to subvert their Creator through technological means.
Technology is, Smith insists, neither innately good or bad. Rather each instance must be assessed according to the following three criteria. First, technology must not conflict with God’s moral law. Second, technology must promote the Christian understanding of love. Third, technologies must foster the biblical concept of stewardship. And fourth and finally they must not oppress and limit liberty and conscience. (27)
Any advances will come at a cost and no matter how tempting the benefits “we cannot subvert the design and decrees of the LORD”. Smith further discusses familiar issues concerning responsibility, privacy, big data and the dangers of the control of technology (See Zuboff 2019, and Veliz 2021). Current approaches to AI and robot ethics typically assume a mechanical metaphysics, in which there is no room for the nonmaterial or the supernatural (37). We should, I suggest, seek to move beyond reductive materialism and form-matter dualisms by developing the insights of New Materialism(s), as perhaps a more promising source of critique in conversation with elements from less traditional religious sources.
In chapter three on Christian anthropology, patiency and personhood, Smith argues that there may be ethical reasons to grant certain qualified entities negative rights and protections because to do so may positively impact conditions of human and environmental flourishing (45). There are, he suggests, four recognized forms of personhood. First, moral: this person is a moral actor and therefore a moral patient. Second, psychological: this person is sentient, can suffer and displays intentionality. Third, legal: this person can be the subject of law or exercise rights. Fourth, relational: this person is determined by the nature of relationship or character they play in the moral actor’s story (48).
The next section is on robots and moral patiency. The key question is whether moral agency can be attributed to robots? To do so, Smith argues, risks devaluing and dehumanizing humans through human-robot interaction. Not granting moral standing to social robots though is dangerous as to neglect this scholarship is to risk skewing anthropology toward a non-biblical perspective of the human person (57). Social robots, he suggests, do not ever have to be moral agents or pass the Turing test. For when a robot behaves in ways that are similar to humans it is of no consequence whether they have an inner self, moral agency or consciousness. Regardless of these concerns, they deserve moral consideration simply because of the potential moral injury to the human counterpart. Is this not a watered-down version of human exceptionalism? Would not the conceptuality of human non-human assemblages be a more effective means of dealing with this? Is it not simply about interactions but about the ways in which both evolve and develop through relationship?
It seems clear, in Chapter Four, that many current debates are trying hard to catch up with these developing issues, and it is not immediately obvious that an explicitly Christian or biblical perspective should have anything distinctive to offer. Smith begins, in Chapter Five, with a section on the biblical idea of friendship or companionship supplemented with a study of modern philosophical and psychological views. Will human values and relationships be damaged or undermined by those with robots? There are issues of exploitation and manipulation for the benefit of the controlling party. He further discusses the dangers of surveillance and external control. Friendships with robots can, he concludes, supplement human friendships, yet cannot be considered as a substitute or replacement, as such a substitution would also undermine or devalue those relationships. Could there though not be examples where “friendships” with the non-human are more reliable and secure than those with humans?
Smith begins Chapter Six with the biblical-theological understanding of race. Further brief sections include important yet well-documented concerns about inbuilt bias in the technologies. How and to what extent can governance and regulation counter these biases and how can the processes of development be engaged early enough to make a real difference? (See Evans and Reader address this in “Ethics after New Materialism” Temple Tract 2019 proposing a modest ethics).
In Chapter seven Smith presents an important section on embodiment. He argues that the Christian tradition has, in its disdain for disembodiment, effectively made an unholy alliance with physicalism (121). There should, he argues, be room in the Christian metaphysics and ecclesiology for a qualified disembodied presence. Embracing strict theological physicalism seems to conflict with the biblical reality that presence is not merely about biological material or physical embodiment (123).
Experiences during the pandemic have raised the issues of presence in a significant way and require further reflection, but attempting to interpret this through an exclusively biblical lens holds the debate in a straitjacket, and could alternatively be remedied by bringing in other sources and ideas. There are further concerns for the pastoral context, and the role of the remote or virtual as well as the presence of robots. There are also environmental consequences of disembodiment that need to be taken into consideration.
In the brief conclusion, Smith reiterates the attempt to lay out some of the territory. While this is an important task my main concern is that the subject requires a more fully developed interpretive framework drawing on philosophical as well as theological sources.
On 1st October 2021 the Ethical Futures Group hosted a workshop at Trinity College, Oxford, for participants to share material which will form part of the content of a forthcoming book on the subject. Senior Research Fellow John Reader reports from the event.
10 people were present in person and another 6 at one time or another were present virtually, including two colleagues from the USA who made presentations. The technology worked well, and it is important to note this, as this hybrid workshop itself shows one of the positive impacts of the technology.
What do we mean by “postdigital”? Essentially, the “postdigital” indicates that we have now entered uncharted territory, where the task is to discern questions that need to be raised and to critically engage with both the positive and negative aspects of the digital itself. It is not possible to do justice to the depth and range of the rich content shared on the day, but only to articulate some of the more general themes that emerged.
First, it was clear that all share the concern that this area requires a greater depth of analysis and deployment of conceptual resources—both theological and philosophical. The world outside the churches is already well ahead and much ecclesiastical engagement revolves around the practicalities of employing digital technology in response to the impact of the pandemic. Whilst there is church involvement at a national level over matters of policy, at a local level the questions are largely pragmatic or still to be formed.
Second, there is a range of views on the extent to which the digital reshapes not just our practices but also our beliefs. Is it simply a matter of mastering a new “tool for mission”, in which case the question might be that of what is gained and what is lost in the process? Or is there a more profound re-shaping of what it is to be human underway, in which case there will also be implications for the divine assuming an incarnational theology? Most of the presentations worked on that basis and explored conceptual resources that might enhance that approach.
The issue of power was a constant throughout the day. Who controls the technology and in whose interests? Are we fully aware of the extent to which the Big Tech companies now determine developments and use them to exploit not only our data but also human labour at a basic level? Accounts of refugees being “employed” to operate digital systems in appalling conditions contrast with the affluence and comforts of Silicon Valley, for instance. Then there are the issues of privacy and anonymity and who “owns” our personal data. Even when congregations share online worship, they do not fully escape the intrusive elements of the technology.
What exactly is the relationship between the material and the spiritual in religious traditions? If we have an understanding of being human which assumes that we are embodied and embedded, then what are the implications for enacting the rituals which are central to the religious life? If all are “partakers” and participants, then what is the role and authority of ministers and congregational leaders? Does the digital enable a greater democratisation of worship and religious practices and beliefs?
Much time was spent exploring how the postdigital pushes the boundaries of belief in ways that might be more amenable to more radical theologies, by encouraging a transformation of our understanding of embodiment. Discussions of digital afterlife are one aspect of this, and the Foundation will be hosting a webinar on the subject at 5pm on 8th November. Are time and space both reconfigured by the digital, in which case notions of presence and absence, and indeed the sacred, come into play? Where then do we find the spaces—subversive and otherwise—where the divine might be mediated by the new technologies? Possible routes into a new postdigital theology included: notions of the sublime; understandings of the Trinity, which are potentially to be rediscovered through a computational theology; and encounters with “the Other”—technological, human, and divine.
Throughout, though, there was an awareness that the dominance of the Big Tech companies—now more like independent nation states than nation states themselves—leaves the applications of the digital open to commercial and political interests which exploit rather than enable. So, while wanting to engage positively with the new possibilities created by the digital and to explore the implications for what it will be to become human in this context, how do our institutions and societies guard against becoming unwitting pawns in this extractive and reductive form of materialism? If governance and regulation come too late to the party, what form of ethical approach offers a better safeguard and what understanding of the divine might support the critical distance that is required? The workshop was simply a starting point and a platform for further debate which will be developed in the book. Many thanks to those who contributed on the day and others who will write chapters but were not able to be present.
John Reader reflects on Anita Sethi’s recent memoir, following both her internal and external journeys, and applauding her use of digital media to bring about new forms of public interaction.
This will not be a ‘normal’ book review, but then this is not a normal book. It is an exceptional book touching reflectively on themes that are central both to the work of the Foundation’s Ethical Futures Group, and more widely on how the UK perceives itself at this moment. In effect, Sethi, by pursuing her own very personal journey, presents us with a mirror of where we are now and how much needs to change. What follows are some of my own reflections on her reflections—as some of the ideas she shares resonate with the work of our own Ethical Futures Group.
In summary, Sethi sets out to walk across ‘the North’ as a response to being the subject of a hate crime while travelling on the Trans-Pennine Express in 2019. Her account of the incident, and references to earlier ones which she did not report, throws a shameful and disturbing light on the depth and prevalence of racism in this country, exacerbated by the Brexit process. This is her story to tell, though it is echoed in the experiences of many others. For those of us who have never experienced such discrimination, it is a story to take to heart and begin to understand.
It is also a story of hope, though, as by recounting her own journey, both the external one across the northern countryside and the internal one of coping with the trauma and anxiety brought on by this incident, she shows the importance of human connections to the ‘natural world’—and how caring for others incorporates our care for the environment.
Determined to establish for herself, and for others, that she belongs here, as a Mancunian and a northerner, she draws out the significance of the geological and geographical terminology which she encounters as she both walks and researches the areas which she explores. This includes places such as: Kinder Scout, with its symbolism of free and open access to all; Malham Cove; High and Low Force; Hull Pot; and travelling the Settle to Carlisle railway. Railways played an important part in her own family background, and she reminds us of the human cost of the construction of these vital networks of communication.
The walking is difficult and at times dangerous. She gets lost and then finds her own way through. Others accompany her or offer advice along the way, but some of this is journeyed alone with the vulnerability this might entail. Vivid descriptions of this bring the areas to life and ought to be read for their own value. Her engagement with nature is both therapeutic and links to the idea of ‘the sublime’—as found in Turner’s paintings and the writings of Burke and Kant from an earlier age.
Perhaps, though, it is the internal journey which is most powerful and demands our attention. As a woman of colour, she is acutely aware of being told that she does not belong here, despite being born and brought up in Manchester. Prince Charles, on meeting her, commented that she did not look as if she came from Manchester! Perhaps one should not be so surprised at this, but it sums up the deep-seated prejudice which permeates our society.
Not to be dissuaded by this, though, Sethi has deployed digital media to communicate and share her experiences. This is of great significance to the work of the Ethical Futures Group and brings together our concerns for both the digital and the environment. She records the original incident on her iPhone, which enables her to share and report it more effectively. She also recounts the funeral of a serviceman who died without family where the service was tweeted widely and enabled many to attend and pay their respects even though they had never known him.
So, Sethi’s work is very much ‘of the moment’ in that she uses digital media to bring important events and incidents to light to combat both racism and loneliness. This is an important insight into how the digital can be used to create those alternative public spaces that are so badly required in order to further the causes that Sethi herself espouses. ‘Yet the internet and social media can paradoxically both enhance connection and create a sense of isolation’ (p. 153). Therein lies the tension which characterises how the human interacts with and is itself shaped by the digital, just as the human interacts with and is shaped by the natural world.
The book is a powerful, disturbing, and yet hopeful read—and a journey that we each need to travel from different, but related, perspectives.