[hocna] LOOK WHO HAS A SOUL?
- THEOLGIAN EXAMINES THE SOUL OF A MACHINE
BY MARGIE WYLIE
Newhouse News Service - Published in THE SEATTLE TIMES, October 2, 1999
For thousands of years we have used mythical robots to explore the
question of what makes humans human.
In the Middle Ages, Jewish cabalists spun myths about golems, clay
creatures animated by the secret name of God. The ancient Greeks sought
to create homunculus, a tiny proto-person servant. More recently, Mary
Shelley's "Frankenstein" creature and the android "Star Trek" crew
member Data have raised the question: Can man-made creatures have souls?
Anne Foerst's calling is to ask that question, but not about mythical
creatures. As resident theologian at the Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Foerst has spent
the past four years pondering how increasingly smart machines may impact
our sense of humanity.
"I think that computer science, and especially artificial intelligence,
is THE field for religious inquiry," says Foerst, a German research
scientist and ordained minister who holds a doctorate in theology as
well as degrees in computer science and philosophy.
In biology or astronomy,. the questions theologians ask deal with God as
a distant and powerful being. But in the field of artificial
intelligence, the theological issues are more "personal," addressing
God's relationship to an individual being.
A human being asks, "Who am I What am I doing here? What's the meaning
of my life?" Foerst says. "Humans have a very strong sense specialness,
and these machines challenge that specialness in extremely profound
Lab's theological adviser
Lab director Rodney Brooks invited Foerst to work as theological adviser
for a new generation of smart robots that learn by doing, just like
One of these is Brooks' brain child, Cog, a robot built in roughly human
form except that he carries his "brain" on his back in a lap computer.
Cog is designed to discover and adapt to the world much same way a human
Traditionally, artificial intelligences - such as the chess-playing IBM
computer Deep Blue - a software applications primed with vast amounts of
data and then give complex rules for how to make decisions and for how
to learn to make other decisions.
Buy such a disembodied intelligence, Brooks argues, cannot possibly
experience the world as humans do. Only through experience as a
'physical being can smart robots develop emotions, which he argues are
prerequisite for a truly intelligent being. So the aim is for Cog to
become conscious of his body, his,, surroundings and, hopefully, some
day his "self."
When that happens, asks Foerst,' then what?
"At some point, Cog-like robots will be part of our community," she
says. If these robots look like us, act like us, and are aware., then
shouldn't we welcome them into the community of mankind? she asks.
Should we baptize them?
Take me to your seder
The way theologians answer that, question may shed more light on how
humans treat each other than how they treat smart robots, Foerst says.
We're pretty damned strict about how we define humanity," she says. "We
often actually exclude humans from the human community by saying, 'You
are just a Jew or just an African."'
Foerst says, "Isn't it better to widen up the criteria of what it means
to be human to include chimps and some smart robots, so then we avoid
the danger of excluding some pie?"
When she isn't asking big questions about human identity in a
technological age, Foerst also acts as the tab's gadfly, a role she
clearly relishes. "I make people aware of their assumptions about
artificial intelligence, she says, noting that computer scientists often
fail to recognize their own mythological or religious biases and end up
calling them science.
Some scientists "talk about downloading their brain contents into a
machine and then downloading it to the Web in order to live forever, and
they're not even aware that those things are faith statements," Foerst
says. "I don't want to deny that it might be possible at some point to
do that. But I wouldn't say it's the universal answer for death,
Religious examination isn't always embraced by the scientific field, and
in the super-rational world of artificial intelligence, Foerst's work is
especially controversial. Many scientists in this field fear that, at
best, theology muddies students' thinking. At worst, it denies that
recreating the spark of human intelligence is at all possible.
A course Foerst created in 1997 to explore links between religion and
artificial intelligence was attacked as "evangelical" by Marvin Minsky,
the MIT professor who founded the Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1959.
Minsky, like others at the school, thinks that studying theology is
incompatible with computer science. "The act of appearing to take such
a subject seriously makes it look as though our community regards it as
a respectable contender among serious theories," Minsky comments by
e-mail. "Like creationism and other faith-based doctrines, I suspect it
is bad for young students."
But Brooks, who describes himself as a scientific rationalist and
"strong atheist," says he can understand how faith can exist, with
science. "From a scientific point of view, my kids are bags of skin
full of molecules interacting, but that's not how I treat them. I love
them. I operate on two completely different levels, and I manage to
live with these two different levels."
Brooks reasons, "I suspect the same can be said of religious scientists.
Brooks s s his "Ultimate megalomaniacal goal" is to build a robot "that
is indistinguishable from a human - which I won't do before I die. I
But some milestones are already passed.
Today, deaf people can hear again with electronic cochlear implants that
tap directly into a nerve in the ear. Silicon corneas are in the works.
And these two examples are just the beginning.
As we start to connect silicon to biological material, in living humans,
where is the boundary between personhood and machinehood?" Brooks says.