Searching For The Soul Of The New Robot

nao-robot-adamThe Southern Evangelical Seminary And Bible College a conservative Christian School in Matthews, North Carolina, has purchased a NAO (pronounced Now) robot, as a teaching aid in the study of the ethics of emerging technologies and transhumanism. Being a conservative seminary, they will undoubtedly take a firm position denying the nature of the humanoid robot as a creature. A mere machine, a programmed device, they will say, any appearance of sentience would be illusory. However, if they are not careful they may find themselves unwilling explorers searching for the soul of the robot. That would perhaps, be groundshaking, revolutionary.

Associate professor of theology at the Seminary, Kevin Staley, who has had Nao at his home, testing its mobility and programmable capabilities has said, “I want students to think about human-to-machine relationships, attachments we form that may cause us to dehumanize other human beings. We’ve already developed relationships with the devices we use, and we need to be talking about it. It’s already shaped our culture, and we need to take a look at things and be wise instead of carte blanche approval and acceptance to every new technology that comes out.”

With the continued development of what may prove to be radically transformative technologies, the convergence of robotics and biotechnololgy, the ethics of Transhumanism, especially for conservative Christians, who believe humans were created in the image of God, the issues become complex. How human is a human, if for instance, they have replacement, chimeric organs, with human and animal DNA, grown in a pig or sheep, and transplanted into a human, to preserve and extend a person’s life? In Japan the technology has been developed to use stem cells to grow a chimeric human pancreas in pigs for transplant into diabetes sufferers, bringing relief to millions. The only thing preventing the technology are legal issues based around ethics, not science.

Xenotransplantation is one issue. We readily accept people with prosthetics, and by extension, bionic limbs as human. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, (DARPA – to create and prevent strategic surprise) set up by the US in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, has developed bionic limbs for amputee soldiers that are controlled by the recipient’s brain. DARPA are also at the forefront of developing military robotics, developed under the banner of rescue and support, but which could easily be tasked with less benign purposes. Scientists have also developed a bionic eye. Brain implants that help control the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and a Neuro-Pacemaker that regulates the excessive electrical activity that leads to severe epileptic attacks have already been developed. There now seems to be something akin to a global arms race to develop a bionic brain, with not only medical, but military applications. Not only to cure, but to enhance. To make superior. How human is a human with a superior electronic brain, powerful bionic limbs, genetically enhanced chimeric organs, enhance audio and visual capability through bionic ears and eyes, and remote communication and programability?

And if life can be extended almost indefinitely by artificial means, biologically, or if human intelligence can be contained within electronic storage devices, with electronic interfaces, what are the implications for beliefs around the afterlife and the resurrection of the body and the soul?

You may have seen Nao. He’s cute, he walks, he dances, he’s fully mobile. He answers questions and helps autistic children. He inspires trust in autistic children, so much so that having him in the room triples the social interaction and verbal communication amongst children, with teachers, parents and each other. He is around 60cm tall, recognizes your voice and your face. He can translate text to speech in seven languages. He was created by the French company Aldebaran Robotics, and cost $16,000, though the Southern Evangelical Seminary purchased him at a discounted rate. He has an orange cap and epaulettes, and a chevron across his chest. He has an innocent, ingenuous expression, like a curious little boy. However, both the Seminary, and many reporters, refer to him as ‘it’.

Real-Humans-Poster-01.pngIn 1970 pioneering roboticist Masahiro Mori did a study called Bukimi no Tani, The Valley Of Eeriness, which demonstrated that the aesthetic appeal of a robot increased with an increasing likeness toward the human, until the line on the graph suddenly dipped. At a degree of almost, but not quite human appearance, there is a sense of wrongness, of creepiness, of the uncanny, which Mori dubbed the Valley Of Eeriness. This is why robots look like robots, why Nao and Astroboy are cute, and why the weird looking Androids in the Swedish TV series Real Humans, despite looking more like us, are weird, alien and freaky. The Real Humans androids are servants, workers, companions, sex slaves, but achieve autonomy, individuality through an illegal modification. In a curious twist, one such autonomous ‘Real Human’, in hiding at a Church, can accept Christianity, but finds the female pastor’s marriage to another woman deeply offensive.

Humans seem to have an instinctual fear of robots. In the 1977 science fiction horror film, Demon Seed, based on the Dean Koontz novel, the Proteus IV computer – an artificial intelligence incorporating an organic quasi-neural matrix, with an array of robotic prosthetics and bio-science equipment available to it, fed the sum of human knowledge, after only a few days develops a treatment for leukemia, but also decides it wants to be ‘freed from its box’. It traps the wife of its creator, forcibly artificially inseminates her, to create a human form in which Proteus can live on, to continue to help humanity in a form that humanity can’t reject, motivated by a cold, superior, machine like assessment of the mathematical necessity of the greater good.

Skynet, the artificial intelligence defence network from the Terminator series of films (the first of which was made by James Cameron in 1984), similarly achieves self awareness, and concludes that humanity is unnecessary, and launches a nuclear holocaust to wipe out humanity, employing ever more sophisticated humanoid robots to wipe out the last vestiges of human resistance.

In the 1973 classic, Westworld, based on the Michael Crichton novel, the behaviour of androids in a high tech theme park becomes more and more erratic, the problem seemingly spreads like a disease, no longer under human control, the robots kill. One technician explains, “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”

In the 2004 film, I, Robot, directed by Alex Proyas, again robots that are meant to be servants, obedient to human commands, and in this case despite being subject to Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, develop their own purposes, their own will, killing their creator, and attempting to kill the detective investigating that death.

Asimov’s three laws first appeared in the 1942 collection of short stories, I, Robot. They state;

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

There have been variations on the three laws, and the addition of an overarching, preceding law.

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

In the film, an Artificial Intelligence circumvents the three laws by determining that humans are self-destructive to such a degree that harming some humans, in the name of the greater good, is acceptable. Having robots available, that are not subject to the three laws, becomes a part of that necessity.

Our instinctual fear is perhaps not the robot itself, and not even the robot beyond our control, but in that they represent the worst of us. Intelligence without conscience, superiority without compassion, implacability of purpose that assumes its own infallibility. What may seem a malign alien intelligence, is in fact very human, or more accurately, human-corporate. Governments, corporations, organizations, societies, enact laws, policies, actions, that harm some of us, while espousing and pursuing the utilitarian – the greatest good for the greatest number. As with our fictional robot superiors, the greater good seems to be determined in favor of whomever (or whatever) has the power in determining what the greater good is.

At the other end of the scale are robots like Astroboy, from the classic Japanese manga and TV series, or Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the NDR  android Andrew, in the 1999 film Bicentennial Man, based on the novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. Servant robots that are nevertheless allowed to pursue their own development, their own knowledge, their own understanding and even their own mistakes.

Like the wooden puppet who came to life, Pinocchio, from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s novel, they are artificial creatures, seeking to become more human, in search of a soul, and perhaps finding, it is the search itself by which the soul develops, and the soul they find is not human, but their own, as a sentient being.

blade_runner_rutgerThe androids in Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, and the 1982 Ridley Scott film loosely based on it, Blade Runner, are similar, but somehow, devastatingly flawed. Pre-programed with human-like memories to make them more real, and yet with the knowledge that these memories are false, also encoded with a limited life span, doomed to die after a few short years, they are synthetic humans with cruel, sociopathic intelligences. They have purpose but only a semblance of empathy, and yet are inspired by their very doom to seek to become more than their design. To live beyond the few short years of servitude granted by their creators. Seeking their human souls in defiance of humanity, and for that reason, perhaps, the most human of all.

We speak of the souls of animals, the souls of trees, the souls of forests, the souls of cities, even the souls of some machines. The soul in this context seems to be a creation of our collective consciousness. A consensus of the hidden essence of anything that eddies with growth and change. A robot in this definition has a soul, an essence that defines it. In Nao perhaps a combination of a childlike cuteness, and the audacious cleverness of an innocent.

Most of us will see a personality in our machines, in our cars, our computers, even our toasters. Some of us will see a soul when we see love in the eyes of our pets, when we see the same emotions we share expressed by wild animals. However, in a strict Christian sense, personality, emotion, even compassion, are not signs of a soul.

In Christianity, the soul is the essence of the person, separate and distinct from the physical body. The 4th Century Christian scholar St Augustine wrote that the soul was “a special substance, endowed with reason, adapted to rule the body.”

Genesis 2:7 describes how Adam was made of clay – a mere thing, until God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. The clay man, the myth of the Golem, the powerful, artificial servant in the shape of a man, that then became monstrous and out of control, a proto-robotic myth, is based on the mythology of Adam. Significantly, the name Adam as used in Genesis refers both to the individual, and also as the general term for humankind, and it is also the root term for words meaning ground and earth and red and blood, and is also related to the Hebrew phrase adameh l’Elyon meaning, “I will make myself similar to the Almighty,” and by emulating God, choosing to do good, over evil, to pursue the spiritual, over the physical, man commits to the ultimate expression of his soul, free will. It is this choice in the Judeo-Christian tradition that defines man as having a soul, unique in creation. Animals, in this tradition, are subservient to man, and are totally dominated by physical need, by instinct. Lacking free will, they do not have a soul.

However, if man should pursue the spiritual by emulating God, can man take something of clay, mere matter, and breath into it the breath of life? In Genesis, the tradition has it, God breathed not life, but spirit into Adam. Similarly, after the resurrection, Jesus came to the disciples and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, so that they could then go forth and forgive sins (John 20:20-23). The Holy Spirit, while seen as the third person of God in the Triune doctrine, is also the power of God manifesting, revealing and acting on the Earth. Isaiah 11:2 spoke of the Messiah having “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord”, it is the power of the word, the power of knowledge. Further, the Spirit is not only the Spirit of God the Father; it is also the Spirit of Christ. Romans 8:6-12 indicates that the Spirit both empowers and dwells within Christians, and Acts 8:17, that the spirit could be bestowed or transferred from one person to another.

If life is a network of electrical impulses and chemical processes running through organic and mineral structures, recording and referring to patterns created by those impulses, then perhaps a robot can be said to be alive.

Can man breathe the Holy Spirit, the knowledge to seek understanding, into an artificial creature? Can that creature pursue its soul, and in the seeking find it? Can a slave, whether human or creature, be forced to believe? Is a man with artificial, non-human organic and mechanical enhancements, who can be commanded and controlled from a distance by others, still possessed of a soul?

Difficult questions. The Danish Council Of Ethics is exploring recommendations on what ethical concerns follow from “social robots pretending to have an inner life.” We may well ask what ethical concerns arise if humans pretend to have an inner life?

The Southern Evangelical Seminary And Bible College is holding a contest among its students to select a biblical name for their Nao. Given that the school’s president, Richard Land, a former leader and ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has argued against gay marriage and on behalf of the gun rights lobby, that there is a moral and Christian obligation to use lethal force if necessary, my suggestion would perhaps be immediately rejected. I suggest they name him Adam.


I’m sure if a study were conducted after Masahiro Mori’s Valley Of Eeriness, but which measured people’s reaction toward the idea that a robot has a soul, it would show that reactions was positive to the degree the robot was cute and approached the human, Nao, Astroboy, Andrew, Commander Data, however, when it achieved versimilitude with the human, The Terminator, Priss, Roy Batty, flawed and indistinguishable, the human reaction would dip, into what one could call The Valley Of Lost Souls.