God in the machine: Artificial intelligence and religion

In July, the entrepreneur Elon Musk created a bit of a dust-up when he said artificial intelligence is a “fundamental risk to human civilization.” Pretty soon, pundits of varying views were weighing in. Some thought Musk was being an alarmist; others agreed with him. Still others said statements like Musk’s come from a misunderstanding and misplaced fear of artificial intelligence.

Opinions about artificial intelligence abound, but one thing is clear: It is making ever further advances into our daily lives. It is in our cars, cellphones, schools, banks, hospitals and homes.

Musk is not alone in his concern. People far beyond the tech sector have asked about the moral, ethical and religious implications of advancing artificial intelligence. What, if anything, might artificial intelligence reveal to us about the act of creation, the nature of consciousness and our role in the universe? Is there anything distinctive about the human mind that cannot be duplicated in artificial intelligence or created by man? This edition of ReligionLink examines what issues arise as artificial intelligence becomes less distinguishable from human intelligence and asks how religious notions of humanity are evolving to address artificial intelligence.

Definitions

Artificial intelligence refers to the development of machines that can think like human beings. AI is rapidly developing in areas of visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages. Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry on AI.

Deep learning generally refers to computer software that attempts to mimic the activity of the neocortex, the part of the brain where thinking occurs. The software can recognize patterns in digital representations of sounds, images and other data. It is used in IBM’s Watson computer and in Microsoft’s Bing and cellphones.

The singularity is the idea that, at some point, the rate of technological development will overtake humanity and alter civilization as we know it. Leading futurists such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil predict this time will come soon and will be ushered in by advances such as artificial intelligence.

Transhumanism is the futuristic philosophy that humans, as they exist now, are not in their final state. In other words, humanity is in an early stage in its evolution, which may include interfaces with technology in the future. Transhumanism is a philosophy concerned with the ethical use of technology in ways that can advance “human flourishing.” More about transhumanism can be found here, including an explanation of the relationship between transhumanism and religion.

Background

On AI and religion/spirituality

Articles on AI in popular culture

Other resources

Important resources/writings about artificial intelligence

 

Resources

Select organizations/groups

Online resources

Conferences

  • The Cambridge Muslim College will host a daylong conference on consciousness on Sept. 8, 2017, at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England.
  • “Religion, Society and the Science of Life” was a four-day conference held July 19-22, 2017, by the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion in Oxford, England, where several presentations by scholars concerned the implications of AI.
  • “Power and Limits of Artificial Intelligence” was a two-day conference held by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2016 that brought together scientists, ethicists and others from around the world to discuss the developments and dangers of artificial intelligence. Many of the speakers’ presentations were recorded and can be viewed on the Pontifical Academy’s website.
  • “Reality, Robots and Religion” was a three-day special course held Sept. 16-18, 2016, at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edward’s College in Cambridge, England.
  • The Center for Science and Religion at Samford University held a conference called “Transhumanism and the Church” and posted video of some sessions.

International sources

  • Werner Arber

    Werner Arber is a Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist and president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 2016, the academy held a conference titled “Power and Limits of Artificial Intelligence” with professionals working in AI. He has said it is important for the Vatican “to have a voice” in the development of AI. Contact via the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He is a Protestant and is based in Basel, Switzerland.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart Armstrong is a fellow in AI and machine learning at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University in Oxford, England. He is the author of Smarter Than Us: The Rise of Machine Intelligence, which the Machine Intelligence Research Institute recommends as a good introduction to AI for the layperson. Media requests must be made through the Future of Humanity Institute by email.

  • Michele Baker

    Michele Baker is a senior content strategist at the Digital Marketing Bureau, a marketing agency that focuses on the tech industry, in Newdigate, Dorking, England. She specializes in artificial intelligence marketing and wrote an article for the company’s website about the disruption AI may cause for religion. She also blogs about AI at Digital Voodoo. She can be contacted via Twitter.

  • Nick Bostrom

    Nick Bostrom is director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University in Oxford, England. He is considered one of the world’s leading thinkers about the future role and impact of AI on humanity. He is the author of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which the Machine Intelligence Research Institute recommends as a good introduction to AI for the layperson. Media requests must be made through the Future of Humanity Institute by email.

  • Michael Burdett

    Michael Burdett is a research fellow in religion, science and technology at Wycliffe Hall, a Christian college, at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. He has a background in aerospace technology and robotics and now studies technology, transhumanism and religion. He was recently awarded a grant by the John Templeton Foundation.

  • Nigel Crook

    Nigel Crook is the head of the department of technology, design and environment at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England. He is an expert on artificial intelligence and is interested in the ethical implications of its use. In November 2016, he gave a lecture on AI to BMS World Mission, a Christian organization, in which he said robots would need to develop “moral character.”

    Contact: +44 (0)1865 484452.
  • Asim Islam

    Asim Islam is a research fellow in science and religion at Cambridge Muslim College, a part of Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. He studies human consciousness and helped organize a conference on religion, science and consciousness at Cambridge Muslim College.

  • Beth Singler

    Beth Singler is a research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England, where she works on the Human Identity in an Age of Nearly-Human Machines Project. The project, which also involves professors John Wyatt and Peter Robinson, explores the social and religious implications of technological advances in AI and robotics. Singler is also an expert on Jediism, Scientology and the New Age idea of “indigo children.”

     

National sources

This source guide is part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Any opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

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