Transhumanist pastor Christopher Benek made waves recently when he asserted that he "doesn't see Christ's redemption as limited to human beings," which led many (including us
) to conclude that he was implying AI have souls that could be "redeemed" by Jesus. But he recently clarified his statements, claiming that from a theological standpoint, humans are already AI in relation to God, and that we could potentially have an analogous relationship with sentient robots.
Benek stated that while he wasn't definitively saying that AI will have souls, he also wasn't ruling out the possibility:
"When people ask me if AI will have souls I usually respond asking for a clarification – 'What exactly do you mean when you use the soul,'" he said in a recent phone interview with Outer Places.
"Moreover, People hear me talk about 'Christ's redemptive purposes' and they don't understand that theological verbiage. They assume that I'm talking about issues of 'salvation,' and then people jump to the conclusion that I want to baptize robots. Aside from that perspective being a poor understanding of both baptism and salvation to begin with, they often then get concerned about the logistics of putting water on a robot, which is both absurd and pretty hilarious."
Benek explained that he believes AI could participate in good works that would help the world achieve the redemptive process:
"There are typically two schools of thought that dominates eschatological thinking in American Christianity. One line of thinking is that everything is going to go to hell in a handbasket, and there is nothing that we can do but wait for Christ to return and fix everything. The other line of thinking is that Christ invites us to participate in his redemptive purposes right now – helping to redeem humanity and interlock Heaven and Earth as a new creation. So slowly as we participate in Christ's redemptive purposes, we are helping to make the world a better place, and through God's grace the world gets better and ultimately reaches a redemptive state.
I see technology as part of that process. If we were at some point able to create an autonomous sentient being, that is at least as intelligent as we are, if not exponentially more intelligent, there's no reason to think they would not be able to participate in this redemptive process."
According to this view, the pervasive concerns about killer robots, or a "robopocalypse" may be unfounded. If we were able to make an autonomous, sentient AI, which Benek believes will happen, although not anytime soon, then he contends that their intelligence would lead them to be helpful rather than harmful to humanity:
"I think something that is sentient, autonomous and actually far more intelligent than us will reasonably determine that it's not helpful or productive to participate in war or destruction. I think that instead they will choose to participate in a process discipleship and spiritual formation that is inherent to Christ's redemptive purposes coming to fruition in the world. That's not making any definitive theological claim as to whether or not robots have souls, or go to Heaven, but it certainly seems reasonable to posit that they would have the opportunity and capability to work for the good of the world."
But the assertion that AI would necessarily work alongside humans in order to do what's "good for the world" is up for debate. When asked whether he thought there was a possibility that robots could decide the world is better off without humans, say, if they had a directive to protect the environment, he responded:
"One consideration is that humans are part of the environment. Right? We're part of creation. It would make logical sense to decide that certain behaviors by human beings are inappropriate. But if they're exponentially more intelligent than us, you would think they would be able to direct us to improve our situation. To throw humanity out would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
As a result, Benek disagrees with Stephen Hawking
and Elon Musk's concerns
that AI will necessarily stage a hostile takeover and/or exterminate human beings, but he shares their concerns about the "killer robots" that already exist: drones.
"Killer robots already exist," he said. "They are called military drones. When robots are programmed for a specific purpose like killing humans, developing sentience for such robots would inarguably be a danger to the well-being of humanity."
Benek further claimed that if humans built sentient artificial intelligence, AI and humans would have an analogous relationship to the one humans have with God:
"We know that God made us, right? So realistically that means that we are all artificial intelligence to God. The thing that makes us special to God is not our intelligence, or if we could define what a soul is, the fact that we have a soul. What makes us special to God is that we are loved by God, that we are made in God's image."
He further contended that if we are made in God's image, then artificial intelligence would theoretically be made in humans' image, making us co-creators with God:
"In this way we can understand all matter as God's technology. If human beings are called to be stewards of creation and Co-Creators with God (not equal to) then it stands to reason that eventually that, as we learn to live more fully into the Image of God in which we were created, we will be able to more precisely and perfectly replicate and imitate God's use of technology in the world. In many ways this implies that we are just beginning to understand the potential behind what it really means to be human."
The notion that humans are essentially artificial intelligence has been explored at length in works of science fiction. Battlestar Galactica made this point especially eloquently, and took a particularly theological perspective. Battlestar, like many other works, explores the implications of humanity "co-creating" by creating artificial intelligence, and the questions it raises about personhood:
"We currently imagine much of this potentiality through the works of science fiction. For example in the newest version of Battlestar Gallactica we envision a day when our technology will be so advanced that it will rival what we currently experience in creation. In the show, the most advanced Cylons are technological products of humanity yet are indistinguishable from humans with the exception of being designated a certain model. This then raises all sorts of theological questions regarding personhood, relationships, what it means to be made in the Imago Dei. The Cylons, like all Artificial Intelligence, forces humanity to look at itself as if it is looking into a mirror. And with that reflection comes all of the current wonders and terrors that go along with being human."