Can Artificial Intelligence Display–or Promote–Spiritual Intelligence?

by FASPE Fellows Fr. Andrew J. De Silva, Cornelia Dalton, and Alissa Joelson

The recent advances in artificial intelligence have ushered in contentious disagreements on whether the world will be a better place as artificial intelligence takes a greater place in it. Typically, both in literature and fact, the robot has been strong on information and short on self-realization or empathy. With many believing artificial intelligences could become self-aware or self-perpetuating soon, some like Elon Musk believe this will spell the downfall of humanity. Others see the endless possibilities of the human experience “transcending the limits of our biological brains and bodies.” They see a future where we will be able to live as long as we want, with greater control over our fates. In the realm of religion, this controversy is at least as contentious. 

In the book Religion Online: How Digital Technology is Changing the Way We Worship and Pray, Chapter 5, entitled “Artificial Intelligence: Its Future Uses in Religious Compassion,” addresses the controversies and potential effects of artificial intelligence in the practice of religion. The author of this chapter, Amanda F. Sturgill, asks: if religion has traditionally been shaped by the limits of its contemporaneous technology, would it evolve to fit technology’s expanding limits?  An even more elemental question raised is whether a super intelligent and self-aware artificial being be considered alive. And if so, would this ‘life’ have the same dignity as God-given life? She highlights that religions which believe in a soul are much less able to place an artificial being on the same level as an ensouled being. 

This chapter is an important read for those interested in religion and its continued relevance and dialogue with a changing world. It raises awareness about certain technological developments on the horizon. Yet, perhaps more importantly, it challenges us to begin these important conversations about the relations between technology, compassion and faith.

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