[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: The theological robot

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The theological robot

    Are we made in the image of God? Are robots too? A theologian wants to


The theological robot

    By Joshua Glenn  |  February 6, 2005

    WHILE VISITING MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab in the fall of 1995,
    esteemed Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox noticed that the
    motor--driven eyes of Cog, a 7--foot--tall humanoid robot, were
    tracking his every movement. So he reached out and shook the
    creature's hand. ''There was a collective gasp from the Harvard
    theologians and MIT scientists present,'' self--described robotics
    theologian Anne Foerst recounts in her new book, ''God in the
    Machine'' (Dutton). In her book, Foerst seeks to bridge the divide
    between religion and AI research--by arguing that robots have much to
    teach us about ourselves and our relationship with God. Foerst spoke
    with me from St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York, where she
    teaches theology and computer science.

    IDEAS: You engineered the Cox--Cog meetup while working as a
    theologian at MIT's AI Lab. Why would a robotics group invite you to
    join their team?

    FOERST: Back in 1993, when I met Rodney Brooks, the AI Lab's associate
    director at the time, he'd broken with the traditional assumption
    within AI that intelligence is merely a kind of software that can be
    programmed into a machine. Rod's group had recently built Cog, a
    machine that learned through physical embodiment and social
    interaction, just like we humans do.... I wanted to ask [his team],
    ''What does it mean to be human? Are we made in the image of God? Can
    a robot be human?'' He decided that my questions might prove helpful
    to their work, and invited me aboard.

    IDEAS: So did you decide whether or not robots can, in fact, be human?

    FOERST: What I learned from the AI Lab's robots, which were designed
    to trigger emotional and social responses, is that we can bond with
    them. So although they can't be human--to be human, I think, means
    needing to participate in the mutual process of telling stories that
    make sense of the world and who we are--humanoid robots can still be
    considered persons. Personhood simply means playing a role, if only a
    passive one, in that mutual narrative process. Like babies, or
    Alzheimer's patients, humanoid robots don't tell their own stories,
    but they play a role in our lives so we include them in our narrative
    structures. This suggests that perhaps we ought to think about
    treating robots right.

    IDEAS: And what does this have to do with God?

    FOERST: We too often use narratives of exclusivity--based on skin
    color, religion, language--to define the personhood of others. Yet the
    author of Psalm 139 writes of God that ''You created me as a golem in
    my mother's womb..../My frame was not hidden from you, when I was
    being made.'' God built us, according to this ancient biblical
    tradition, in much the same way that we now build emotional and social
    robots. Yet despite knowing each of us so intimately, in all our
    imperfection, God loves all of us. Thinking about humanoid robots can
    possibly help us learn to tell inclusive stories, narratives that are

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