Last week I had the pleasure of attending the termly lecture of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge. The theme for the evening was robotics, and for me the event was preceded by a memorial service and a rain-swept open-air funeral in Dorset over the previous two days: so much to focus on the affairs of the soul.

Discussion at the Faraday event centred on the difference between advanced Artificial Intelligence robotics and what it means to be human, with the speakers concentrating on relationships and personality as the key determinants. But it was accepted that self-learning system simulation can be trained to emulate so much about relationships, including emotional response.

The question of accountability was also raised: an issue not far from reality, as insurers are already battling with the challenge of driverless cars. If your AI robot goes AWOL, who is responsible for the damage it could cause?

It was my first visit to this fine institution, which is doing so much work to help build bridges between science and faith: the former, with its incessant search for understanding and reason, and the latter, so often accompanied by that awful phrase “it’s a mystery”. The reason that I describe that phrase as ‘awful’ is that these days, when children and young people are actively and continually encouraged to persist in asking the question ‘why’, resorting to “it’s a mystery” is simply not acceptable.

I see science as ‘unwrapping God’s technology’, as readers of this commentary will be aware from my ‘Love in Creation’ thoughtpiece: and I see no reason why we should stop with matter and energy. I believe it is indeed right and part of our human challenge that we should explore our reasoning about the spiritual world.

If, for example, you believe in life after death - a key part of Christian teaching - I find it hard not to conclude that our memory is vested in our soul, not in the physical tissue of our brain. How else will we recognise ourselves after we die without such recall? There would be little meaning in life after death if there were no memory.

So where does this leave us with Artificial Intelligence? Might it be possible for an AI robot to develop a soul? On the face of it, absolutely not - but imagine that brain tissue were incorporated into such a robot, so that something like a brain transplant could result in a hybrid human-robot. You may say “perish the thought”, but we all know that scientists do not all comply with one of my favourite sayings from a former Bishop of Worcester, “not everything that can be done, should be done.”

For those who believe in God - really a necessary precursor to accepting that there is such a thing as a soul - I would say that the spiritual relationship is not within human gift, but in the gift of God. For if, as I describe in ‘Love in Creation’, the universe is indeed flooded with that unconditional love which is God, that love falls on all things material: whether human, animal, vegetable or mineral. It is the capacity to receive that love and to meet the challenge embodied within it, to become a channel for sharing that love and care for others, that defines relationship with God. Who are we to draw the line on where that occurs? Certainly not just those labelled with religious faith.

So here is the challenge for AI robots: can they become truly altruistic? They may be able to run a company, but could they run a charity, with the vision and passion that that requires? One for the robotics engineers, of which there were several at the Faraday event.

Note: Please bear in mind that opinions expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect views of the Faraday Institute or of the speakers at its termly lecture.

Finally, and on a very different subject – we’re pleased to hear that the Government will be reviewing payment for university education – student loans. Whatever the arguments are for charging for courses, it cannot make sense for young people to start their working life with a £50,000 albatross of undergraduate debt hung around their shoulders: how can they start to understand the psychology of economic freedom that comes with an early approach to building savings and investments? We will certainly be responding to the consultation ..


Gavin Oldham

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