The Consumer Electronic Show (CES) last week reminded me of the world’s increased fascination and intentional pursuit with developing humanoid robots. The term “humanoid robot” may bring up images of Rosie from The Jetsons, Hal from 2001:A Space Odyssey, Data from Star Trek, or the cyborgs from the Terminator franchise. Without a doubt we are talking about something more than a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.
Advances in computers, better machine-computer interfaces, advances in nanotechnology, increased complexity of artificial intelligence technology, and development of new materials have led to a race to see who can develop the most life-like humanoid robot in both form and function. DARPA continues to announce Grand Challenges in robotics, hosting competitions to build robots that do things like humans in a world made for humans. Toshiba unveiled its humanoid Geisha, ChihiraAico, last week at CES. “She” was complete with human-like facial expressions and communication, including crying. Other notable advanced humanoid robots include Honda’s ASIMO, RxRobot’s MEDi, and Aldebran’s NAO. NAO even comes with its own BMW to drive. If you think these humanoid robots are far from “invading” the hallowed theological halls of a seminary, you would be mistaken. Southern Evangelical Seminary & Bible College is employing NAO to study the ethics of emerging technologies. Yes, we need to be “salt and light” in deploying new technologies in society.
There are two broad classes of humanoid robots. The first is to develop robots that mimic human motion and actions so tasks can be achieved in environments dangerous for man (e.g., disaster recovery) or can be performed more precisely with repetition (e.g., building a car). These make sense and do not possess many ethical difficulties. The second class focuses on developing humanoid robots that can communicate with man and elicit emotions in the same way as man. That is, create something in our own image (imago homo). Is this our 21st century tower of Babel?
There is nothing inherently wrong or evil with technology. How we use technology, however, can give rise to dire biblical moral and ethical issues. For example, David Levy’s book entitled Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-robot Relationships immediately surfaces numerous issues that do not adhere to a biblical worldview. Will humanoid robots ever take over the world or replace man? No. All humanoid robots require programming. Unlike God, we cannot create ex nihilo. No humanoid robot will ever know or “feel” anything without programmers directly, or indirectly, tell them to know or “feel.”
The more troubling aspect of humanoid robots is they have the potential to pull us away from fellowship with one another and God. Already, we are in danger of interacting more with machines and less with each other. Think how much time you spend a day interfacing with machines. Humanoid-robots are now reaching a level they can communicate with us and elicit an emotional experience, all at our convenience. Scripture is replete with the call to fellowship in unity with one another (e.g., Psalm 133:1; John 13:35; Acts 2:42, 4:32; Ephesian 4:1-16; Colossians 3:14; Hebrews 10:25). We are God’s image bearers and nothing ultimately can or should replace human relationship.
There are at least three upcoming movies this year featuring humanoid robots (Chappie – March, Ex Machina – April, and T5 – July). These will be interesting social commentary on how society may respond to robots made imago homo, May we continue to be a testimony of imago Dei.