World Religions and AI

There are practical, ethical and theological challenges for religion posed by technology and AI. But what if the technology is actually becoming theological in itself?

AI poses several challenges for the religions of the world, from theological interpretations of intelligence, to ‘natural’ order, and moral authority. Southern Baptists released a set of principles last week, after an extended period of research, which appear generally sensible – AI is a gift, it reflects our own morality, must be designed carefully, and so forth. Privacy is important; work is too (we shouldn’t become idlers); and (predictably) robot sex is verboten. Surprisingly perhaps, lethal force in war is ok, so long as it is subject to review, and human agents are responsible for what the machines do: who those agents specifically are is a more thorny issue that’s side-stepped.

Jewish writers are quite sanguine about the whole thing. Confronted with the prospect of an AI-driven robot apocalypse, Rabbi Jack Abramowitz writes for Jew in the City magazine ‘[w]e have pretty good forecasts for our end-of-the-world scenario – the Messianic era, the future revival of the dead, etc. – and being taken over by a giant computer or sentient holograms doesn’t really fit into that scenario too neatly.’ Oi vey! He also says that the theological interpretation is that man can create intelligence, the interpretation being that ‘[t]he Talmud in Sanhedrin (65b) says that humans have the potential to create worlds, including life.’

Emma Davis poses the question ‘can robots be Jewish?’, and the answer seems to be probably not. However, Rabbi Mark Goldfeder suggests that his interpretation of the scripture is that where someone is not physically capable of fulfilling any element of religious obligation, that it doesn’t apply to them. It doesn’t stop them being a member of the tribe, he says.

Pope Francis in Davos earlier this year mentioned AI, though only briefly. ‘Artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological innovations must be so employed that they contribute to the service of humanity and to the protection of our common home, rather than to the contrary, as some assessments unfortunately foresee,’ he said. He was particularly conscious of the place of human dignity, and of labour, in these pursuits. It doesn’t appear that AI has any special place in the Vatican thinking on technology, which in turn appears part of the dialogue on economics. This echoes Tim Morton’s suggestion in Hyperobjects that a primitive AI may already have established itself as early as the industrial age, a ‘weird cybernetic system’. Outside the Vatican, and especially in the broader Christian church, there is much more debate, it seems.

Islam appears less effusive (at least based on a cursory search) though there is evidence of an emergent debate. For Hindus, there seem to be a number of ethical debates, but few theological ones.

My focus of course is less on how organised religion addresses technology and AI, either from a theological perspective, or that of proselytisation; rather I have focused on where technology itself is becoming theological. Nor is this about a ‘Singularity Church’, or Anthony Levandowski’s AI God (Elon Musk said of his former employee that he should be ‘[o]n the list of people who should absolutely *not* be allowed to develop digital superintelligence.’) Our theology is more a way of being, within which churches can form and have opinions, relevance and culture. Our theology has moved from being religious, to political, to economic (Agamben) – and is potentially moving towards becoming technological.

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