Cover Image: Robot Theology

Robot Theology

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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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My Thoughts:
I requested to review this book because it seemed fun. The title “Robot Theology” seemed ridiculous, but my mind was changed when I began reading. I was instantly engaged with the content. The author seems very knowledgeable about the topic and the topics relating to robots and theology. The author gave enough information to understand the topics but not so much that the ideas needed a Ph.D. to understand. Very thoughtful and researched. I think the author makes educated predictions that this topic will be vital in future years and that we should begin thinking about it early.  

Who is this for:
This book is for people interested in robots, androids, Syfy, and how the themes fit into our theological framework. This book is also for people living in a world with robots and for those who want to be informed about the future of robots in a political landscape. Decisions are being made on robots, and people of faith should know about the laws and guidelines that are being made and work to enter the conversation early. 

Questions/Comments/Critique:
As I write this review, my wife just sent me a video of a robot in a hospital. A robot was delivering something by driving itself through the hallways. These are not issues for the future, they are issues for the present.
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In a long lifetime of reading a wide variety of Science Fiction,  I've noticed a polarity of viewpoint among authors and characters regarding Robots and Artificial Intelligence.  It seems either the concepts are embraced as the gateway to a new technological paradise; or Robots and/or AI are viewed with suspicion, distrust, paranoia,  even fear. Although not a scientist,  I expect that both Robots and Artificial Intelligence are here to stay, and both concepts will become even more important as the Future unfolds. 


Author Joshua Smith takes a valuable new approach and observes from the perspective of Christian Anthropology,  in a likable and readable,  deeply-researched book, which I'll be keeping close at hand to reread as the blooming fields of robotics and Artificial Intelligence bring us all new wonders and pressure each individual to determine for herself or himself how to consider these topics and how to react and to live in the imminent "brave new world, " as Aldous Huxley termed the future.
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