Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Book Reviews

The Robots are Coming: Us, Them and God

Nigel Cameron, Care, 2017, 160pp, £9.99

Here is an excellent treatment of artificial intelligence and robotics from a Christian perspective. Well researched, informative and thought-provoking, it is a topic which will have a growing impact on us all.

In seventeen short chapters the reader is taken on a journey covering the history of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), the massive developments that have taken place in recent years and the consequences on society at large, along with a reflection on the pastoral issues raised. Each chapter is followed by questions useful for personal or group study. The book ends with a helpful glossary of terms and an appendix of further resources.

The book explains the range of robotics now available: A robot is in essence an intelligent machine, a computer designed and trained for a specific task. It was in the 1920s that a Czech playwright coined the word “robot” to describe slave labour. Today, robots range from the car assembly line, to automated voices on our phones, as well as programming algorithms to seek out information or perform specific tasks. Search engines, SatNav, ATMs, Siri and Roomba are a ubiquitous part of life. What was once thought impossible, e.g. self-drive cars able to turn right when facing oncoming traffic, has now been achieved by companies such as Uber. The “smart house” where everything is interconnected online, enabling remote adjusting of heating etc. is already with us. As a consequence, “A regular person has more technology in their life now than the whole world of one hundred years ago”. The question of at which point robotic intelligence gets cleverer than humans (“singularity”), is a cause for debate; some anticipate its arrival as soon as 2045, others that it will never happen. The author warns us to “never say never”.

Recent decades have seen the following milestones: In 1996 the IBM computer “Deep Blue” beat Gary Kasparov the famous Russian chess grandmaster. According to Gordon Moore who developed and marketed the Intel chip, “every single year (for the past fifty years) the chip keeps doubling in power and computer technology gets more potent”. As a result, the average smartphone has a million times the computer power used to land Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969. The combining of man and machine (cyborgology) took a step forward in 2002 when Kevin Warwick, a lecturer at Reading University, underwent a surgical implant of a hundred electrodes into the median nerve fibres of his left arm. As a result he was able, by squeezing his hand, to activate a robotic hand 3,400 miles away in the USA. The impact on world stability is chillingly expressed in a quote which closes the book: “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” The speaker? Russia’s President Putin.

Are these developments for good or bad? Among those at the cutting edge is Ray Kurzweil. Bill Gates says of him, “He is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.” In Kurzweil’s opinion, “we will build our moral values into robotics, then solve our problems”. There, of course, is the rub: Whose moral values are being programmed into machines? Others are more pessimistic. Bill Joy believes, “humans might not have much of a future… We will either kill ourselves or the robots we make will intentionally malfunction resulting in the terminator scenario!” Likewise Vernon Vinge, a science fiction writer, states, “The longer we can keep our hand on the tiller the better”. Bill Gates and Elon Musk (billionaire founder of PayPal and promoter of AI) are pouring vast amounts of money into research to safeguard its future use. All believe there are seismic changes ahead, changes we have to prepare for and think through now.

Various consequence of these developments are considered: the impact on care for the elderly; the moral values we will teach our children, one example cited being the talking Barbie doll; the large-scale loss of jobs – how will we provide for ourselves without work; and our relationship with robots, including sex robots, which is already becoming big business worldwide.

The biblical teaching of mankind made in the image of God is addressed, albeit briefly. We have brains to reason with, moral choices to make, an ability to create, a responsibility to rule the earth and a need for relationships.

The book closes by drawing attention to some hard questions we need to be asking: Do we need to work? Who will decide how robots make decisions? How do we treat robots? Will having robots turn us into slave-masters and make us power mad? How do we protect our children? Is robotics part of God’s plan for our dominion over the earth or should we stop because of the dangers involved? Does it matter that we may be putting our children and the elderly into robotic, rather than human, care at such critical ages? Positively, will this free up the elderly and young for evangelism? Do we need a break – a Sabbath – from technology? Where do we go from here?

All in all this is a very helpful book, big on technology, somewhat repetitive towards the end and brief on the biblical assessment of God’s image in man.

For those wanting to pursue this topic further, Care organised a day conference with a list of notable speakers, including John Lennox. He spoke with typical brilliance on humanity’s creation in the image of God and its implications for us. All the talks on the day are freely available at www.care.org.uk/robots.

Steve Carter
Retired Pastor, Tredegar, South Wales

 

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