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‘Could robots rule world?’ asks Cathedral lecture

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Professor John Wyatt, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics at University College London, discussed the social, ethical and religious implications of Artificial Intelligence at the lecture.

His talk began by noting how science fiction has been imagining human-like robots for decades, but fiction is fast becoming fact. Just as the Industrial Revolution changed the fabric of society in the 19th century, so the current advances in Artificial Intelligence, AI, will have a profound impact on many aspects of life in the 21st Century.

This raises profound philosophical and ethical questions about the difference between biological humanity and robots. If we can build machines that behave and think like humans, what should we do with them and how should we understand the uniqueness of human beings? If robots can display “human” sensitivity and emotion, will it be appropriate for them to become our companions, friends and lovers? How do we set limits and boundaries on these relationships for children, adults and the elderly? And how should we see ourselves in relation to machines that can process information faster than we can?

A reductionist might hold that the human brain is just an information-processing machine made from meat rather than from silicon chips. In contrast, Professor Wyatt argued that, if “intelligence” is merely “processing power”, this is not the same as “personhood,” which is a distinctive feature of human life that is not reducible to matter and energy.

The French philosopher Descartes argued “Cogito ergo sum” (I think; therefore I am), pointing us toward the importance of subjective awareness and conscious intentions. On the other hand, Professor Wyatt noted that people still exist even when unconscious, suggesting that personhood is even more fundamental than the consciousness that it can generate.

Christian teaching holds that self-giving love between people is essential to God the Holy Trinity. It is the highest expression of our humanity, an aspect of our being in the image of God. While calling brains and people “machines” can be a useful metaphor, it is a serious error to think that we are literally just meat machines, or that behaviour and processing power is all that there is to a person. There is a further dimension to personhood.

Christian theology also highlights the distinction between beings who are born as opposed to things that are made. This distinction may become increasingly important as we are surrounded by machines that simulate human behaviour, relationality and personhood.

Our children are fundamentally the same kind of being as we are. They come as a gift from our own being, and they are equal in status and dignity to ourselves. On the other hand, machines and robots are made by us and are not the same kind of being as us, no matter how much their behaviour is like ours.

Professor Wyatt encouraged Christians and those of other religions to take a lead in identifying and defending the unique status and importance of human beings. We should be cautious of any tendency to reduce humanity to the same status as machines or robots. Instead, in the light of Christian understanding of the dangers of human sin, hubris and selfishness, he urged the development of approaches to social responsibility and regulation that will support the positive uses of AI to protect the vulnerable and enhance the common good. Furthermore, he noted that the UK has the potential to play an extremely influential role in this global debate.

Professor Wyatt is currently exploring the social impact of artificial intelligence and robotic technology in conjunction with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge. With a background in paediatrics and neonatal care, he is Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics at University College London and the author of a major book on medical ethics from a Christian perspective:– Matters of Life and Death.

This was the tenth annual Cathedral Lecture organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk, a local group affiliated to Christians in Science. The Science-Faith lecture series was first established in 2009 by Professor Derek Burke, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia.

Together with colleagues from UEA, Professor Burke set up a discussion group called Science and Faith in Norfolk, which hosts the Annual Cathedral Lecture. The group has also developed close links with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge. With the tenth lecture complete, Professor Burke has retired from his formal role but the group he co-founded holds a regular programme of lectures and discussions in Norwich.

For further information, contact the Secretary of Science and Faith in Norfolk:; there is more information on the SFN website.

Pictured above Prof John Wyatt speaking at Norwich Cathedral.

This article comes courtesy of Network Norfolk