Robots are cool, but are they people?

For years, futurists, techies and sci-fi writers have looked forward to the day when robots would work alongside humans, and replace us in dirty, dangerous jobs. From looking at the Boston Dynamics YouTube channel (which is really cool), it would appear that day is not far off. As cool as the advent of robot workers is (and it’s really cool), it brings with it some ethical questions, especially in the area of artificial intelligence. While I’m pretty sure that nobody would say there’s anything wrong with hooking up a team of Spot Minis to pull your truck if you run out of gas (or even just for kicks), there are other robots, with more sophisticated programming, that present some ethical challenges. Human-like robots, like Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, are becoming increasingly creepy, er, I mean lifelike, and able to hold conversations.

Already the debate is going on in the secular world over whether or not robots have rights, and whether or not artificial intelligences can become people. I think it’s important to start thinking biblically about this now, before the debate is on among the general public, so that we can have a proper, biblical view of the role of robots in society. And yes, I know the Bible doesn’t talk directly about robots. That’s ok, biblical principles still apply.

The first thing we need to understand is why scientists and others would argue that robots can become self-aware. The expectation is that as robots’ computations become more complex, they will eventually become so complex that they become sentient, like humans. At this point, it is believed, robots will be people, equal with, or better than, humans.

As cool as this sounds (unless you’ve watched Terminator), it misses out on two crucial points, which show that robots can’t become people. 

The first flaw in this view is that it grounds personhood in the wrong attributes. Biblically speaking, personhood is not grounded in how sophisticated one’s thought process is, but rather in the image of God present in them, as seen in Genesis 1:27. The image of God is why we have rights; it is what sets us apart from animals and robots. 

Basing personhood on cognitive complexity is a terribly unreliable method, given that cognitive complexity can vary from person to person. A child’s thought process is not as complex as an adult’s, even if that child grows up to be a brilliant scientist. At what point does that child become a person? There can be no objective answer on a cognitive complexity basis. Even worse for the cognitive complexity thesis, the same person can suddenly cease to be a person due to disease or brain damage. On this theory, I’m not a person until I’ve had my coffee; and I suspect I’m not the only one in this predicament.

Robots aren’t made in the image of God, they’re really just computers with bits that let them do stuff in the real world. A robot’s ‘thought’ process is fundamentally the same as whatever device you are reading this on. When a robot ‘thinks’ all that it’s doing is putting current through really tiny, really complicated circuits, which are nothing more than really tiny machines. These circuits then ‘read’ the program and (ideally) activate the other mechanisms that make up the robot, to fulfill its programming. I know that my using the term ‘read’ for a computer’s response to programming makes it sound like it’s exercising some form of intelligence. It’s not; what’s actually happening is the program is a series of electronic impulses that moves the components of the circuit so that it does what it was made for. It works in exactly the same way as this (very cool) marble machine, only instead of marbles the circuit is run by electrons. A robot is just a series of mechanisms, activated by smaller mechanisms, which are activated by still smaller mechanisms, which are activated by electrical current. A good way to picture it would be a super complicated Rube Goldberg machine, in which tiny machines set off larger machines, causing the robot to walk, talk, and fulfil its programming.

At no point does the robot actually exercise any intelligence, although they may simulate it very well. A robot has no soul, and no will of its own, although we may simulate these things with some degree of accuracy. The result of this will not be true artificial intelligence, but rather a simulated intelligence, something that acts intelligent but isn’t. Although they may look like people (which is creepy), robots aren’t people. They aren’t made in the image of God, and they don’t have souls. They’re still pretty cool, though.

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