Books — God In The Machine

The Soul In The Machine


By Lisa Parsons

God In The Machine: What Robots Teach Us About Humanity and God, by Anne Foerst, Dutton, 2004, 212 pages.

Someone had to do it. Someone had to look at a robot and, instead of asking it to vacuum, offer it communion.

Anne Foerst is no missionary, but she is a philosopher of both religion and artificial intelligence. Working on her doctoral dissertation in theology, she traveled from her native Germany to Harvard Divinity School to study the archives of early-20th-century philosopher Paul Tillich — but she also snuck over to MIT to study the robots. Foerst did not actually offer the robots communion as in wafers; however, she does offer them communion as in joining together — with us.

“I personally think it is spiritual when I interact with [an advanced robot] and have emotional reactions,” Foerst writes. Drawing on the Bible and personal experience, she finds god and soul not within an individual skin but in the bonds between individuals, regardless of what the individuals are made of.

Citing, again, the Bible, as well as biology, Foerst asserts that human beings “don’t have it in them to treat every other human being as a person” (discussion of “sin” comes in here; following Tillich, she sees sin as “estrangement” and holds that sin does not imply guilt, as it is innate to us) — and if we can’t even treat all our fellow humans as persons, it’s no wonder we struggle with accepting robots as persons.

But Foerst, though she manages to hold onto the idea that humans are special, says robots can be people too.

You can’t be truly human, or display human intelligence, without a human body, Foerst argues (and it’s not just the brain but the whole package that’s required, because one’s intelligence is intimately bound up with one’s body), but you can be a person. Conversely, even some humans at some times do not have the status of “person.” A person, in other words, is whatever we treat as such.

That includes Kismet, a wide-eyed Furby-like robot at MIT. People respond to Kismet as if it were a person even when they really don’t want to. Foerst reports that some of Kismet’s programmers, after a while, took pains to keep the robot from seeing its own software code on a screen, or from seeing pieces of its own inner circuitry, lest it be grossed out or traumatized. Not that they knew it would, but just in case.

Foerst goes so far as to speculate that creating artificial intelligence is our whole purpose—that this is what God put us here for, to further creation.

God in the Machine is a nice blend of theory and anecdote. Also a nice blend of topics—how many people talk about Roman Catholic folklore, Hebrew scripture, and ELIZA, the psychotherapist computer program, all in one brief chapter? What other book will challenge you to consider both the Sermon on the Mount and the difference between R2D2 and C3PO? All in less than 200 pages.

- Lisa Parsons

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH