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Religion for Robots

Religion for Robots


Science fiction authors have been predicting for years the day when humanoid robots will roam the earth, and when mankind will be faced with a host of associated ethical issues. We still don't have C3PO, Data, The Terminator, Johnny 5 or Wall-E. But unlike the doomed flying car, scientists still believe that intelligent, man-made beings are in our future. Hans Moravec, chief scientist at Seegrid, a company that develops industrial robots capable of navigating on their own, believes that the fantastic robots of sci-fi will become reality within his lifetime.

The human retina is a patch of nervous tissue in the back of the eyeball half a millimeter thick and approximately two centimeters across. It consists mostly of light-sensing cells, but one tenth of a millimeter of its thickness is populated by image-processing circuitry that is capable of detecting edges (boundaries between light and dark) and motion for about a million tiny image regions. Each of these regions is associated with its own fiber in the optic nerve, and each performs about 10 detections of an edge or a motion each second. The results flow deeper into the brain along the associated fiber.

From long experience working on robot vision systems, I know that similar edge or motion detection, if performed by efficient software, requires the execution of at least 100 computer instructions. Therefore, to accomplish the retina’s 10 million detections per second would necessitate at least 1,000 MIPS.

The entire human brain is about 75,000 times heavier than the 0.02 gram of processing circuitry in the retina, which implies that it would take, in round numbers, 100 million MIPS (100 trillion instructions per second) to emulate the 1,500-gram human brain. Personal computers in 2008 are just about a match for the 0.1-gram brain of a guppy, but a typical PC would have to be at least 10,000 times more powerful to perform like a human brain.

Though dispiriting to artificial-intelligence experts, the huge deficit does not mean that the goal of a humanlike artificial brain is unreachable. Computer power for a given price doubled each year in the 1990s, after doubling every 18 months in the 1980s and every two years before that. Prior to 1990 this progress made possible a great decrease in the cost and size of robot-controlling computers. Cost went from many millions of dollars to a few thousand, and size went from room-filling to handheld. Power, meanwhile, held steady at about 1 MIPS. Since 1990 cost and size reductions have abated, but power has risen to about 10,000 MIPS for a home computer. At the present pace, only about 20 or 30 years will be needed to close the gap.

Of course, Mr. Moravec's logic is subject to argument. Scientists have long known that brain mass is not the best way to measure processing capability. Smaller people have smaller brains, and yet physical size is not a good predictor of intelligence. Whales have the largest brains of any animal on Earth, and yet humans like to consider themselves the most intelligent species.

Nevertheless, his conclusion that the processing power threshold for an artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence will eventually be reached is unimpeachable. As long as humans survive and prosper, technological progress will continue, which will ultimately lead to the creation of artificial intelligence. The only question is when. His answer, like many others in the field, is soon.

That brings us to the question that concerns us here: will these robots need or want something like religion?

Of course, there are many unknowns about what these artificially intelligent entities will look like. Human intelligence is very specialized to our evolutionary purposes. We are social because our evolutionary history favored social solutions, and our values were shaped by historical accidents. Artificially intelligent beings will not be limited by evolutionary considerations, at least at first. They will arrive with whatever values we program in.

So if we program robots to be religious, they will be (until or unless they begin to evolve independently). This brings us to the question: should we program religiousity (or any components thereof) into our robots? And relatedly, will robots with human-like intelligence but no religiousity suffer any dysfunction?

It goes without saying that those who subscribe to the core principles expressed here would prefer that theistic views not be promulgated, whether the target is an evolved or an artificial intelligence. But if you agree with our principles, you also agree that there are valuable aspects to religion that can be disentangled from supernaturalism, including benefits of a likeminded community, positive thought, and an institutional framework for a philosophical worldview.

As mentioned above, the need for community is an evolved aspect of the human experience. Would intelligent robots share this need? Presumably, a programmer could impart feelings of community or the lack thereof to their creations. But more broadly, it seems just as impossible to construct a robot loner who is as good at surviving as a communitarian robot as it would be to evolve a person loner who is as good at surviving as a communitarian person. Robots will be dependent on the support of their peers just as humans are.

Will robots share our weaknesses insofar as we require a disciplined practice in order to maintain our happiness? The source of this conflict lies in the evolutionary struggle that birthed us: those of us who are eternally dissatisfied, and seeking more, will tend to have more, and thus are better able to withstand the ravages of competition. If satisfaction were easy to obtain, we would become complacent and weak.

Will the concept of self-satisfaction even arise in robots? As we delve deeper into these issues, we face bigger unknowns. Maybe robots will need meditation, since it seems likely that any system complicated enough to rival biological intelligence will also be subject to its failings. But maybe programmers will find ways to balance a competitive urge to succeed against self-satisfaction more optimally than evolution has for humans.

There is less uncertainty when we consider the importance of an institutional framework for a philosophical worldview for artificial intelligences. Any intelligence will be faced with the question “what next?” Establishing a fundamental goal or value is going to be essential for AI. This might seem like something that will be set by the AI's designer, leaving no room for religion. But if an all-purpose computing machine is created, capable of all the abstract thought of a human being, it will have the capacity for self-reflection, as we do. In a world populated by humans and AIs that are equally (or more) capable, the AIs will be just as lost as we are when it comes to meaning and purpose.

This, then, is a conclusion that we can draw about religion for robots: if our arguments about ultimate meaning are correct, they are correct for robots as well as humans. If we bestow upon robots our belief that life (in its current as well as its forthcoming incarnations) is valuable, they will require a method for evaluating the best next step in preserving life on Earth and spreading it to the stars. They will require an institutional hierarchy in order to enforce whatever decisions may be made as to how to accomplish these goals.

The only institution capable of providing an ethical system and a hierarchical structure designed to implement it right now is religion. One could argue that democratic government serves this function, but democracies are supposed to be representative of a diversity of moral opinion. Conventional interest groups are specialized, but lack the overarching worldview united with a lifestyle and practice that forms communities that are durable and sustainable over many generations and independent of political regime. In the status quo, religious groups serve as a foundational motivational institution, from which members can branch into specialized interest groups. Even the non-religious often have some ideological group that serves as their foundation, but these non-religious groups lack the power and organizational might of religions. Religion's analogue for a non-theistic society is the only adequate substitute.

When C3PO arrives, he will inevitably ask if there is a God. And our answer for him will have broad consequences for the future of life and its successor technologies. While we have no way of knowing whether his needs will match with ours, we do know that our theory of everything should influence him to choose the path towards truth and life rather than towards faith, darkness and apathy.


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