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Can electronic persons sin like us?

Catholicism and other faiths are grappling with artificial intelligence and its moral and theological consequences

Can electronic persons sin like us?

A robot plays the piano at the Apsara Conference, a cloud computing and artificial intelligence conference, in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province on Oct. 19. (Photo: AFP)

Thinking machines stunningly matching the human mind are just around the corner. Will they sin like us?

The digital metamorphosis has already taken root in society. Today, artificial intelligence (AI) can fly planes, interpret X-rays, examine forensic evidence, churn out masterpiece artworks and compose symphonies in the style of Beethoven.

Morality has already caught hold of AI. Tech major Google is testing waters with “artificial moral reasoning” so that the tech giant’s proposed driverless cars can make the right decisions on potential threats and mishaps.

Since artificial agents are set to become household names and receive smarter facelifts, robot experts expect them to act in an ethically sanctioned manner under certain conditions.

Using the computational theory of the mind, the power to represent and reason about external agents, it is possible to produce a lying machine that entices people into believing falsehoods.

So, moral reasoning is obviously expected from those robots that are programmed for lethal action and fatal behavior. They will have to go by a moral code and to follow it they will have to be ethically charged to prevent harm from external agents that come their way, even if inadvertently.

Christian theology has never anticipated non-human intelligence and much less the concerns it creates

The scope and nature of robot ethics — which also goes by other names like ethical AI, machine ethics and moral robots — have grown beyond mere information retrieval. AI’s success story in pattern recognition, such as fingerprint/face verification, speech recognition and handwriting recognition, asks them to be responsible in their actions.

Assuming that an appropriately programmed robot has a mind of its own, as it can literally understand and have a cognitive state, does it mean that it is endowed with a consciousness even if it acts on a third-person perspective?

If consciousness is an entity that is sentient, wakeful and conscious of the self, robots possess it inherently and visibly. Theologians are hesitant to initiate a discussion on the consciousness of AI, but technologists are convinced that AI is right on track to achieve autonomy and independence.

Some consider AI with consciousness as the greatest threat to Christian theology since Charles Darwin published his epoch-making work On the Origin of Species in 1859.

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Christian theology has never anticipated non-human intelligence and much less the concerns it creates. Consciousness of AI and disruptive technologies in the pipeline challenges theology with serious questions. What happens to the soul of a person if his electronic clone continues to live on?

Let us cut complex theology to simple questions. Should the self-thinking machines need to attend church, sing hymns and care for the poor? Can the electronic person sin and should s/he receive sacraments?

The Church’s criteria to evaluate technology is its impact on morality and human society. More than seven decades ago, Catholic theologians re-evaluated the concept of a “just war” after nuclear weapons were developed. The same is expected to take place with the re-examination of Catholic principles regarding AI.

The Pontifical Council for Culture and the German embassy to the Holy See hosted a one-day symposium on AI on Oct. 21. "The Challenge of Artificial Intelligence for Human Society and the Idea of the Human Person" was aimed at promoting awareness of the profound cultural impact of AI on human society.

The meeting featured experts from the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, Catholic theology, human rights law, ethics and electrical engineering.

If AI, particularly general artificial intelligence, would be kind of somewhat autonomous, it invites us to think about what is it that really makes us human

Experts from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Goethe University, Boston College and Google discussed whether AI can reproduce consciousness and philosophical challenges, and what it would mean for Catholic doctrine.

Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told Vatican Radio that the symposium was aimed at knowing “the impact AI is likely to have on a whole range of human activities.”

“If AI, particularly general artificial intelligence, would be kind of somewhat autonomous, it invites us to think about what is it that really makes us human,” he said.

Bishop Tighe was skeptical. He said it is better to not develop those technologies which may not be “able to ensure that they are truly at the service of humanity.”

It is not that Catholicism is the only faith grappling with AI and its moral and theological consequences. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are also in the same boat. And all of them face a shipwreck caused by AI.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

1 Comments on this Story
RANJIT YAWU
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