Lots of recent writing on Artificial Intelligence is focused on the far off vista of human-level AI powered robots in everyday life. The main philosophical questions examine the age old human questions of sentience, autonomy, free will and self determination. We can now add spirituality to that list, strange as it may seem.
“…it stands to reason that AI will be able to teach us a thing or two about what it means to follow God.” Rev. Christopher Benek
On the face of it, this is rather strange to me. Today’s AIs are very mathematical and use well understood techniques (even if those techniques are sometimes surprisingly powerful but lacking theoretical understanding). So if eventually a human-level AI is created, we can be certain that we’ll be able to understand exactly what it is and how it works. But it won’t be following God.
This reminds me of a scene in the film Contact. Jodie Foster plays radio astronomer Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway, who discovers an encoded message being broadcast from an alien civilization in deep space. Invited to a briefing in the White House by Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett) to discuss this, she is very surprised by the opinions of Richard Rank, head of a conservative Christian organisation (played by Rob Lowe). At that point in the movie, the message itself consisted of a series of prime numbers accompanied by a large number of pages of engineering schematics. Their dialogue goes like this:
Rank: “My problem is this. The content of the message is morally ambiguous at best…”
Arroway: “This is nuts.”
Rank (forcefully): “Excuse me, Miss. We know nothing of these creatures’ values. The fact of the matter is we don’t even know if they believe in God.“
Arroway: “This doesn’t make any sense. If you were to ask…”
Constantine: “Excuse me Dr. Arroway. We won’t be suppressing any opinions here today.”
Although correct to point out that different people’s opinions should not be suppressed, it may also be the case that not all opinions have equal merit. This is particularly true when it comes to interpreting a set of mathematical equations, engineering schematics or algorithms.
The scientist Arroway and the religious Rank have such completely different perspectives and understanding of the same thing, they can’t even communicate properly.
But to state that an AI composed of algorithms would “participate in the process of discipleship and spiritual formation that is inherent to Christ’s redemptive purposes” – well, to quote Arroway: This doesn’t make any sense.