The religious have been contemplating the existential threat of artificial intelligence for millennia. Long before Alexa listened in on our conversations or deepfakes threatened women’s safety, Judaism’s Golem and Greek mythology’s automatons roamed religious texts.
Today, religious leaders are bushwhacking their way through the ethical implications of modern AI and, in many respects, they’re more organized and coherent than most politicians and academics. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the official stances of the Vatican, Southern Baptists and Evangelicals, and the Church of Satan take a firmer ethical position on AI tech than most governments and universities.
Before the robots, Satan
In 1988 Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, released a five-point program called “Pentagonal Revisionism” in response to decades of questions about what the church actually stands for and planned to do. The program contains the Satanic equivalent of squad goals for its congregation, including a concentrated effort to actualize ideas such as stratification (survival of the fittest), taxation of all churches, and a call for a return to “Lex Talionis” (legalizing retaliation).
But, more interestingly, the program also contains the following point:
Development and production of artificial human companions. The forbidden industry. An economic “godsend” which will allow everyone “power” over someone else. Polite, sophisticated, technologically feasible slavery. And the most profitable industry since T.V. and the computer.
In essence, LaVey predicted that humanity – at least the portion who subscribes to the humanist ideal espoused by the Church of Satan – would have a vested interest in sex robots and artificially intelligent servants.
LaVey died in 1997, too soon to see his predictions come to life in the form of robot vacuum cleaners, virtual assistants, and sex dolls with AI personalities. But the Church’s current leadership is still devoted to his ideals. Former High Priestess and current Magistra Blanche Barton, earlier this year, published an update on the church’s Pentagonal Revisionism plan:
Points four and five are the development and promotion of humanoids, and of total environments. Scientists and techno-geeks are doing a bang-up job in these departments, developing exceedingly realistic artificial human companions, both of the Real Doll and virtual Facebook-friend variety. There has also been great progress made in creating total environments – commercial ventures like Disneyland and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter abound, while any number of other permanent and faire-type periodic re-enactments allow for total immersion.
Evangelicals and Southern Baptists
The Evangelical community recently released a document detailing its stance on AI. It begins by beseeching Christians not to fear technology, but to understand and embrace it. It recognizes that AI poses an existential threat, but promises to mitigate those threats with God’s help:
We desire to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI, rather than responding to these issues after they have already affected our communities. In light of this desire and hope, we offer the following affirmations and denials about the nature of humanity, the promise of technology, and the hope for the future.
What follows is 12 areas where AI technology presents reason for concern, and how Evangelicals are going to deal with them. First off, the church denies that robots can ever become people:
We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.
This is important because, as the document goes on to point out, the Evangelical’s God only punishes humans:
We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create.
This solves the “who is to blame” argument surrounding the hypothetical moment a robot murders a human. But, the church also says we shouldn’t develop medical-use AI for the purpose of “improving, changing or completing human beings.”
It also says that robots shouldn’t be used for the purposes of sex or marriage, for the same reasons it believes LGBTQIA+ humans shouldn’t engage in the same:
We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.
The document further expands on its policies on the use of AI for war (humans are responsible), politics (we should never delegate to AI), and work (AI shouldn’t be used to give us a life of wealth and leisure). While many of the Evangelical’s stances seem like counter-culture in 2019, it’s clear the church is taking artificial intelligence very seriously.
Microsoft and the Pope
The Vatican and Microsoft might make strange bedfellows, but they’re aligned when it comes to AI. Earlier this year Pope Francis and Microsoft President Brad Smith held a closed-door meeting to discuss AI that resulted in the two combining forces to fund a contest.
The contest, according to The Seattle Times, comes with a prize to be awarded to “an individual who has successfully defended a dissertation on ethical issues involving artificial intelligence.” One would imagine that the combined forces of a technology company worth more than a trillion dollars and the world’s richest religion would produce an astounding reward – but one would be wrong. The prize is $6,500 US.
Despite that sprinkling of irony, Pope Francis and the Vatican‘s scientists are actually very interested and knowledgeable about AI technologies. Pope Francis, while addressing the Pontifical Academy, recently said:
It should be noted that the designation of ‘artificial intelligence,’ although certainly effective, may risk being misleading. The terms conceal the fact that — in spite of the useful fulfillment of servile tasks (this is the original meaning of the term ‘robot’), functional automatisms remain qualitatively distant from the human prerogatives of knowledge and action. And therefore they can become socially dangerous.
In another statement, this one to the World Economic Forum, the Pope wrote:
Only through a firm resolve shared by all economic actors may we hope to give a new direction to the destiny of our world. So too artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological innovations must be so employed that they contribute to the service of humanity and to the protection of our common home, rather than to the contrary, as some assessments unfortunately foresee.
The Catholic church, like the Evangelicals and Satanists, places a premium on the idea that AI should serve humans. All three view the technology as a tool to be used for the sole benefit of humanity. It’ll be interesting to revisit the religious themes surrounding AI once – if – the singularity arrives.
Will religious views change when machines are sentient?