McNair Lecture Focuses on Theology, Artificial Intelligence

24 October 2017, 1:04 pm Written by 
Published in Latest News

   “When we are creating our own images, we are replicating God’s creation,” Dr. Anne Foerst said at the John Calvin McNair Lecture at St. Andrews on Thursday evening.

     Students, faculty, staff, and community members from ages eighteen to eighty gathered to hear Foerst, Associate Professor of Computer Studies at St. Bonaventure University, discuss her research on the interplay between Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Theology. Foerst has served as director of MIT’s God and Computer Project, a dialogue between theologians at Harvard Divinity School and scientists at MIT. She advocates for understanding of religious elements within computer culture.

     She began the lecture by explaining that our brains limit us to treating only approximately 150 human beings as persons; those outside of the 150 people within our circle are seen as “The Other.” She compared the concept of “The Other” to current attitudes about immigrants being outsiders.

     The nature of God, Foerst stated, is revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically in Deuteronomy 10:19, which entreats believers to always invite the stranger in: “… you are to love those who are foreigners.”      According to the Bible, the nature of humans is to recognize that all people are made in God’s image, as the scriptures reveal in Job 31:15: “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?”

     The nature of the community is to love the stranger as part of the covenant. However, the community may want strangers to assimilate instead of keeping their own customs and traditions. For example, the community criticized King Solomon for having too many non-Jewish wives and mistresses.      “Christianity is built on so many paradoxes of alienation and embracing,” Foerst said.

     After discussing Judeo-Christian theology, Foerst moved to the subject of robots, beginning with Watson, an IBM robot programmed to beat all human beings at the “Jeopardy” quiz show. “He was a very effective search engine,” she said, “but had no awareness of his surroundings. I wouldn’t exactly call that human intelligence.”

     Another robot Foerst described is a battery-operated cat that purrs when it is stroked. When the petting stops, the cat opens its eyes and meows for more. The robot cats are used to provide comfort for elderly people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.      A third type, a life-sized talking sex robot, is designed to mimic human responses to sexual activity and to “react positively to tenderness and negatively to pain.” Foerst stated that incidences of rape have been reduced in China because of sex robot technology.      According to Foerst, personhood requires autonomy, or the ability to create actions or reactions independently, as well as the ability to socially interact with others. However, human beings who are not autonomous, infants for example, and those who are not able to interact socially due to autism, dementia, or other issues are still considered persons.      “We demand from robots something that we don’t require from human beings to be called persons,” she said.      Foerst predicts that autonomous robots capable of interacting with humans using feelings and emotions will be part of our future. “They will come, and in not too long a time. We will have to ask ourselves what to do.”