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Robot Theology [a review]

The past few years have seen a flurry of renewed excitement about the prospects of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Tech startups abound that promise to "leverage machine learning" to do everything from making your night photos clearer to generating new works of art to driving human passengers around in self-driving cars. On the one hand, there can be a temptation to simply explore the horizons of possibility without any regard for ethics. On the other hand, some might find themselves suspicious by default of any technology at all, much less technology that purports to be artificially intelligent.

Science fiction authors have long explored this space, asking intriguing questions about humanness and personhood. If a robot can imitate more and more human qualities, where is the "line" between humanity and robots? Is it ethically objectionable to create something that you can converse with and that may even look human, but that robot's sole purpose is to do work for you free of charge? Is it abuse to beat a robot that looks like a human child when it malfunctions? What is the difference between legal personhood and moral personhood?

Joshua K. Smith, in his recent work Robot Theology: Old Questions Through New Media, explores this diverse set of questions at the intersection of theology, ethics, computer science, machine learning, psychology, and legal studies. He holds the conviction that while there are some genuinely novel questions around modern technology (specifically AI), Christian theology and ethics provide a great deal of foundational help in trying to parse through those questions. The book reads at times as a survey of the relevant academic material in these various disciplines, and at other times as a reflection on the issues at hand. If I have any quibble with the book, it's that it simply tries to do too much; at times it seems to meander through different source materials because Smith has to do so much legwork to draw all these disciplines together.

In the end, though, I found myself thinking about and reflecting upon aspects on this discussion that I had never considered before (such as the similarity between robotics and slavery or the differences between mere legal personhood and full humanity). I appreciate the chutzpah to attempt such an ambitious project and the desire to "get out ahead" of the issues and provide some theological and ethical reflection on a corner of our world that usually receives precious little.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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