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The Challenge Ahead

The Challenge Ahead

Tuesday April 14 2020



IN the 2015 film Ex Machina, a robot with a young woman’s face appears for most of the time to be a victim of the humans in the story. But towards the end of the film there is a twist, when (plot spoiler!) we see that all long the robot has been manipulating the humans.

Popular culture has long been fascinated by such themes. Isaac Asimov’s 1950 sci-fi novel I, Robot, the Blade Runner films and the Commander Data character in Star Trek are as thought-provoking as they are entertaining.

But now reality may be overtaking fiction. We may be conscious that information technology is changing our lives and those of our children, but perhaps less aware of the accelerating rate of change, and the moral and ethical issues involved.

An apparently benign use of artificial intelligence (AI) occurs in Japan, where robots designed to be as human-like as possible help care for an ageing population. More questionable is the massive investment in developing sex robots. Here opinion is divided between libertarians who see no problem with this, and others – by no means just faith groups – who fear that it will promote attitudes that dehumanise women.

Since many people view realistic robots as ‘creepy’, some manufacturers make them small and cute instead. One company advertises that their helpful mini-robot “loves to be around people, and the relationships he forms are the single most important thing to him,” lulling the user into the illusion that the machine has a personality behind the programming.

Devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and Apple’s Siri are being developed by companies who aim to have their technology present in every home, every workplace and every vehicle. Such devices listen to our conversations, and respond to our instructions. So should we train children to be polite to Alexa? If that seems ridiculous, might it not be a problem if they learn patterns of communication based on a master-slave conversation?

Some screen-based interactions also use AI. ‘Chatbots’ are online locations where a programme responds to typed messages in a way that data gathered about us indicates will be affirming. But this ‘relationship’ reflects the values of the programmers, who are mainly male, young, white, single, materialistic and tech-savvy.

The late Stephen Hawking worried pessimistically that AI might one day end humankind. A more immediate issue may be who wields the power that the new technology undoubtedly brings. As C S Lewis said decades ago with remarkable prescience (using the non-inclusive language of his day): “Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men.”

Professor John Wyatt of University College London is currently researching these and related issues. He highlights resources within the Christian tradition which help us understand that true humanity can never be reduced to merely how the brain functions, even if certain aspects of the brain bear some analogy to computer coding.

In finessing the doctrine of the Trinity, the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers defined a person as someone who was in relationship with another person. As with the Godhead, true human personhood is therefore found in an I-you relationship. So any human interaction with AI, no matter how sophisticated the technology, can only ever be an I-it encounter since the machine has been programmed to respond to conversations in a particular way.

Any technology from the simple knife to advanced nuclear energy can be used by humans for both good and malign purposes. There is no doubt that AI and robotics have great potential for good and for the flourishing of humanity. But there are also significant challenges that need to be carefully thought through.


Alistair Donald is Chaplain to Heriot-Watt University, site of the UK’s first National Robotarium which will open next year in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh.