Truck drivers, accountants, barbers, taxi drivers, roofers, bricklayers, umpires, journalists, even surgeons—these are all occupations threatened by the rise of robots and artificial intelligence.
Fortunately for clergy, all of the websites that calculate the risk of losing your job to a robot show that priests and ministers are safe, with some putting the risk at zero and others at less than one percent.
Unless you live in Japan, that is. A company in that country has unveiled a robot that chants traditional Buddhist funeral prayers.
Some may say that nothing beats a human priest at the end of a life, but you can’t beat the price: A live chanter charges 240,000 yen, but the robot only costs 50,000 yen.
That may sound strange to some, but what if you could ask Siri on your iPhone to pray for you? Would God hear it? Does God hear prayers spoken by any intelligent being, robot or phone, or just prayers uttered by humans?
These are the kinds of questions being asked these days by people interested in the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and religion.
One of those exploring this subject is Jonathan Merritt. Earlier this year he wrote an article in Atlantic titled “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” In it he suggested that the rise of AI raises some “fundamental questions” for adherents of that religion.
One of those questions is what happens if robots develop the ability to make ethical decisions—something that only humans are—currently—able to do.
He notes that we already have driverless cars that make decisions based on traffic around them: slow down, move left, stop. But what if those cars could also make moral decisions?
This is something Google is working on. In the future, cars may be able to decide what to do if a child runs in front of a driverless car with four passengers. Should it swerve and risk the lives of those in the vehicle or hit the child—one life instead of four?
And what if the robots become fully sentient, rational agents—beings with emotions, consciousness, and self-awareness?
Merritt quotes Kevin Kelly, author of The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, who says that then there will be “a spiritual dimension to what we’re making.”
“If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur,” says Kelly, an active Christian.
“If humans were to create free-willed beings, absolutely every single aspect of traditional theology would be challenged and have to be reinterpreted in some capacity.”
Would this include the Christian idea of salvation? If artificially intelligent machines can think and make decisions, could they also establish a relationship with God?
Christopher Benek, a Presbyterian pastor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida who describes himself as a “techno-theologian,” thinks they could.
“I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” said Benek in an interview in Gizmodo.
“It’s redemption of all of creation, even AI. If AI is autonomous, then we should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world.”
Christians aren’t the only ones asking these questions. So are some Jews.
In an article titled “Are you ready for robot prayer quorums?” Adam Soclof asks if a self-aware robot that could hold a conversation, would it qualify to be counted for a minyan, a quorum of ten men (in some synagogues, also women) required for traditional Jewish public worship?
He quotes Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, who thinks they could.
“When something looks human, and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah [the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and oral Torah] might consider the threshold to have been crossed.”
Goldfelder doesn’t think we are anywhere near that point now. But it’s coming. “I do think that Jewish thinkers should start tossing around the questions, because we’re probably 30, not 100, years away.”
Kelly feels the same way. What would happen if a free-willed, thinking AI machine says: “I want to believe in God”?
At that point, he states, “we should have a response.”