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September 22, 1999






Study of 'artificial intelligence' pushes
clergy, scientists to define the soul
___By Margie Wylie
___Religion News Service
___BOSTON (RNS)--For thousands of years, mythical robots have been used 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 Commander Data have raised the question: "Can man-
soul
ANNE FOERST, resident theologian at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. (RNS photo by Julia Malakie)
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 last four years pondering how increasingly smart machines may impact our sense of humanity.
___"I think computer science, and especially artificial intelligence, is THE field for religious inquiry," said Foerst, a German research scientist 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 said. "Humans have a very strong sense of specialness, and these machines challenge that specialness in extremely profound ways."
___Lab director Rodney Brooks invited Foerst to work as theological adviser for a new generation of smart robots that learn by doing, just like humans.
___One of these is Brooks' brainchild, Cog, a robot built in roughly human form except that he carries his "brain" on his back in a laptop computer. Cog is designed to discover and adapt to the world much the same way a human baby does.
___Traditionally, artificial intelligences--such as the chess-playing IBM computer Deep Blue--are software applications primed with vast amounts of data and then given complex rules for how to make decisions and for how to learn to make other decisions. But 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, someday his "self."
___When that happens, asks Foerst, then what?
___"At some point, Cog-like robots will be part of our community," she said. If these robots look like us, act like us, and are aware, then shouldn't we welcome them into the community of mankind? Should we baptize them? she asks.
___The way theologians answer that question may shed more light on how humans treat each other than how they treat smart robots, Foerst said.
___"We're pretty strict about how we define humanity. We often actually exclude humans from the human community by saying, 'You are just a Jew or just an African."'
___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 re-creating the spark of human intelligence is at all possible.
___In 1997, she created the "God and Computers" project, a credit course and lecture series that explores the links between religion and artificial intelligence. It was attacked as "evangelical" by none other than Marvin Minsky, the MIT professor who founded the Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1959.
___Minsky, like others at the school, thinks 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 said by e-mail. "Like creationism and other faith-based doctrines, I suspect it is bad for young students."
___However, as computer science bumps against the limits of rationality, more of its practitioners are feeling freer to explore their faith. Leading computer scientist Donald Knuth recently wrote a book called "3:16" in which he examined the third chapter and 16th verse of every book of the Bible.
___"I thought at first I would be ridiculed; I had this feeling like I was coming out of the closet or something," said Knuth, professor emeritus for the art of computer programming at Stanford University. "I hesitantly admitted to a few people that I was working on this book on weekends, but got an unexpectedly warm reaction."
___Knuth said he found "a lot of computer scientists have a God-shaped hole in their hearts."
___This fall, Knuth will present a series of lectures about his own faith titled "Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About" as part of Foerst's annual "God and Computers" forum at MIT.
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