Star Wars has had a huge impact on the public acceptance of robots. With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story still in the cinemas, Nigel Bovey* talks to religion anthropologist Dr Beth Singler about a possible future populated by artificial intelligence.
Dr Beth Singler (pictured left), as anthropologist of religion and Research Associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge, UK, you have researched the New Age movement and new religious movements, such as Scientology and Jediism. What are you investigating now?
I am part of a team researching the social and religious implications of advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. We are not building or programming robots, or trying to create AI; rather, we are looking at the impact on humans of potentially near-human machines.
Will robots running the world be more than just science fiction?
I suspect advances may not come on a large scale straight away but in smaller ways. Over the next 50 years, automation is going to be one of the biggest changes to daily life. AI and robots are increasingly able to do things that we presumed only humans could do—and that is going to have a social impact.
What is robotics?
Robotics is the creation of a multiple-jointed object that reacts to orders. Robotics doesn’t necessarily imply intelligence, AI, knowledge or skills. It is simply A getting B to do something.
To what extent is Star Wars a working template for robotics?
Science fiction writers often develop ideas about future technology before scientists. The Star Wars robots are particularly interesting because, as well as the human-like C-3PO, there are non-human forms, such as R2-D2.
Star Wars robots are significant because they talk, they reason, they argue—they are very human. Yet in the films they are also commodities, tools that are traded. This offers an insight into the moral considerations of our future.
In an age of increasingly intelligent robots being commonplace and doing the jobs we don’t like, will we be happy to have created a ‘species’ that is intelligent, and possibly has consciousness, that we buy and sell—effectively, a future form of slavery?
The Bible describes humankind as being made in God’s image. What is your understanding of that idea?
There are a number of strands of Christian response. There is the idea that humans have dominion over, and responsibility for, creation. There are elements of independence, agency and relationship with the creator.
What are the religious implications of AI?
One question is, how will AI affect humankind’s religious view of itself as the epitome of God’s creation and its relationship with God? If we create AI beings in our image, will they have a relationship with us and a relationship with God? Will they, in fact, be spiritual beings?
From an anthropological viewpoint, I think about how religious communities will react to AI beings. How will they respond when a robot turns up at a church, mosque or synagogue and says, ‘I believe’? Will robots be welcomed? Will they be initiated and integrated into faith communities? This may sound far-fetched, but some strands of mainstream religion are already considering the implications of a transhumanist future.
You have spent many years studying religion. Why does religion appear to motivate people to break the rules of their religion, particularly in terms of ‘thou shalt not kill’?
Because humans are messy, complicated things. Religion is the way people dream. Religion is our aspirations, our narratives and our stories. Like technology, religion can be used for good or for evil. Religion has inspired many charitable acts and humanitarian movements. Religion inspires some people to do dreadful things. Although the rhetoric runs ‘God told me to do this’, the use of religion as a motivator is never as simple as that.
To what extent are new religious movements, such as Jediism and Scientology, a threat to the likes of mainstream Christianity?
The spontaneous emergence of religious groups has a long history. Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to have grown out of mainstream Christianity. The Rev Moon’s Unification Church claims to be Christian and that he was fulfilling the unfinished work of Jesus.
The difference is that, whereas in the past non-orthodox ideas would have been contained within a village or particular area, emerging technologies have allowed ideas to travel faster and wider.
When the first Star Wars film launched in 1977, nobody was standing on a street corner proclaiming themselves a Jedi and recruiting fellow believers. But with the emergence of the internet in the 1990s, fanzines and material that had previously been circulated at annual conventions started to be spread online to a global community.
I don’t see technology as something that changes the way we behave, but the sharing capability of the internet has enabled people to form and develop new religious communities. It is very likely to keep doing so well into the future.
*Nigel Bovey is editor of UK The War Cry from which this article has been adapted.