The threat of artificial intelligence

A mere ten years ago, neither Facebook nor YouTube existed. Google was obscure. Obviously, times have changed since then – so imagine how much will change in another decade. But for some religious people, technological change is far from a blessing. They worry that true artificial intelligence (AI) may be invented and that AI will challenge their religious beliefs. Laurence Tamatea (University of New England, Australia) has recently compared Christian and Buddhist reactions to AI, finding that they both hope to prevent the meaning of human life from being transformed into something mechanical.

Technology may greatly complicate what it means to be human – which, according to Tamatea, for Christians usually translates into “what it means to have a soul” and for Buddhists “what it means to have self-consciousness.” The future may very well birth genetic engineering, allowing humanity to radically alter its biology in a few generations. It may also lead to cyborgs, giving humans the chance to replace many (or even most) of their organs with durable, superior machine parts. But most problematic for the religious, it seems, is that machines may exhibit very human-like abilities in the form of strong AI.

Tamatea employed the Christian theological concept of the imago Dei to categorize both the Christian and Buddhist responses to AI. The imago Dei states that God created humanity in God’s own image. For Christians, this tends to be quite literal, but for Buddhists, since the imago Dei is foreign to their religion, Tamatea notes that the imago Dei captures what makes humanity unique. In this sense he applies the imago Dei to Buddhism.

He further unpacks the imago Dei, listing three common approaches to it: substantive, functional, and relational. The substantive imago Dei means that what makes humanity unique is a particular property (usually rationality or free will). The functional imago Dei states that the imago Dei is a title, that is, humans simply are made in the image of God and nothing more – there is no property or underlying reason (other than God’s love). Finally, the relational imago Dei asserts that humans stand in a unique relationship to God and that is what consists of the imago Dei.

With this imago Dei framework in place, Tamatea sets out to compare Christian and Buddhist responses to AI. On the whole, he found that Christians responded negatively to AI and saw it as a threat. This is clearest in the case of those who hold to a substantive imago Dei: if machines can achieve rationality and free will, wouldn’t they too be made in God’s image? The other approaches are not less problematic. If humanity births AI, then, in the functional approach, did humanity just take the place of God? And if humanity is made in God’s image and AI is made in humanity’s image, would some sort of transitive property apply that would allow the AI to argue that they too are made in God’s image? As for the relational approach, would AI be able to have a relationship with God? It appears that nothing would stop them, and so they would be able to capture the imago Dei.

Surprisingly, in Tamatea’s analysis, Buddhists on the whole don’t handle the issue any better. Of course, the imago Dei does not directly apply, but Tamatea draws striking parallels. Rather than framing the worry in terms of the substantive imago Dei, Tamatea found that Buddhists overall argue that there is something about consciousness or the Self that cannot be captured by a machine. In other words, there is a property of sorts that enforces the uniqueness of humanity. And while Tamatea could not find any parallels between Buddhism and the functional imago Dei or relational imago Dei, he argues that Buddhists want to hold on to the uniqueness of humanity as much as Christians.

There should be a few important items noted on Tamatea’s approach. First, he very openly admits that he did not conduct any statistically significant surveys or consult experts in Buddhism or Christianity, instead relying solely on Internet forums where he lurked (that is, remained an observer without contributing to any online discussions himself). Second, it’s a little unclear as to why he chose to use the imago Dei as the concept by which to compare Christian and Buddhist responses. In the case of the substantive imago Dei the two religious traditions do seem similar, but, as the article itself shows, the imago Dei is a much richer concept than that. Finally, Tamatea may be exaggerating the difficulty AI poses for the imago Dei. After all, aliens would pose exactly the same sort of problem – so what’s specifically problematic about AI? Further, many theologians would readily grant that aliens and AI would have the imago Dei, rendering the whole situation unproblematic.

All this being said, it is still fascinating to see Christians and Buddhists – people from very different religions – react so similarly (online at least) to the possibility of true AI. How many people of other faiths also encounter the same dilemma? Will attitudes change if true AI is actually realized? Perhaps we’ll find out in 10 years.

For more, Tamatea’s article “Online Buddhist And Christian Responses To Artificial Intelligence” appears in the current issue of Zygon.

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