With the end of Battlestar Galactica fresh on our minds, it’s a good time to reassess the place of robots in Mormonism. In part, this post came about though my perusal of the academic journal Nanoethics where we find such great articles as The Opposite of Human Enhancement: Nanotechnology and the Blind Chicken Problem which you’ve probably read already, but in case you haven’t, check it out. As I thumbed through this journal, I realized that if it is not too early to think about the ethical use of nanites, maybe it’s not too early to start thinking about the theological problems posed by future cyber personalities. Of course, people have thought about robot ethics for a long time, and it is standard fare in Science Fiction. Indeed, South Korea has started to draw up guidelines for the ethical treatment of robots. But as far as I know there has not really been much consideration of how robots fit into our theology (well there is my Sunday School lesson). Proof that it is time to think about robots in the Church comes from the attention paid to cyborgs in Church magazines. The New Era has an article called Me, Myself, and Iris about one of our youth building a robot. So these issues are at least on the minds of the folks at the New Era a good indication that our explorations are appropriate.
Fairly realistic looking robots are just around the corner. Look at this one from Japan. As I say, let’s try a thought experiment to unpack some of the complexity on the place of robots in our theology.
This is a serious question. Suppose that advances in artificial cognitive functioning proceed forward to the point that we have something that really, really looks like a sentient being. In fact, suppose the following happens, say 200 years from now:
The set up.
Humans have discovered a substance called postronium that acts functionally much like neurons in human brains, i.e., they form multiple connections, allow the construction of neural nets, can establish new connections or break old ones, etc. A wad of postronium can form a neural net equal or greater in complexity than that found in the human brain. We have created a race of very human-like robots using this substance and they appear to all intents and purposes to have self-awareness, intelligence, and emotions. At this point in their future history, say, we have fought a war, come to peace accords, and we have given them Wyoming, excluding greater Yellowstone. Let’s say also that they are clearly not humans, we don’t understand them completely, and in their otherness they have very different ways of viewing the world. I don’t want to go into details but if you had a conversation with them you would not mistake them for humans. Further, they are engendered creatures, with two genders, one of which will bear much of the cost of reproduction in their re-creation centers so are more choosy in mate choice, more innately nurturing, and more interested in raising young robots. The other less inclined hang out with young robots, take pleasure in sorting themselves into status hierarchies, and more robotically aggressive. The engendered robots form pair bonds for life. There is inheritable variation in each comparable to that found in humans–meaning they can now evolve. They feel pain and listen to music (none of it human).
Now suppose, that they claim to believe in God and talk about their relationship with him (Sort of like cylons on BSG) but because of their otherness, it is theologically incommunicable to us in its completeness, but, we do recognize some of their Faith talk (They have a beetle in box they can’t describe to us as it were). Anthropologists have allowed us some access to their thought, but it’s incomplete, and seems strange.
Now, of course, we have no way to know if they are really conscious. We can’t even tell if our neighbors are conscious (you know the old solipsism problem, “How do I know I’m not the only person who is real!?”). And they are machines.
They seem to claim the following:
A. They are decedents of Adam through us.
B. They have a spirit that is an offspring of God.
C. They are part of a Fallen world in need of redemption.
D. They are more advanced than humans.
Now, a few upon reading the Book of Mormon believe it is true and want to start a Ward in Wyoming. Should we baptize them and extend to them the blessings of the Gospel? What conditions would they have to meet in order to be baptized? If you think they should not be, state why and what would change your mind if anything. I’ve tried to set this up so at least on the surface they seem to be candidates for meeting all the criteria for joining the church except for their non-humanness, for example, they could embrace the Proclamation on the Family, and meet outwardly some of the basic requirements for membership in the church.
This may sound farfetched, but advances in many areas point to a time when we actually face this. Much of human history (and many of its greatest harms) centered on people trying to define personhood—who qualifies for it and who doesn’t. Can you imagine a time when robots, even monogamous, engendered, apparently believing robots could enter the fold?
(Now some of you skeptics will declare that this will never happen. But there have always been some that believe that for theological reasons that humans would never fly, or reach the moon because it was not part of the Earth, or that God could never use evolution to create the human body, all of which we now know happened (and if you do believe that the moon landing was a conspiracy filmed in Hollywood, hold off talking about it, I only want to consider the question at hand about robots. Also, I don’t want this to turn into a discussion on priesthood restrictions in the past, and other related things, admittedly a very important topic, but I want to focus on robots. This is about the future, not the past).