Can Robots Become Human?

It was 1979. The Stanford Cart became the first computer-controlled, autonomous vehicle when it successfully navigated a chair-filled room without human intervention because it could “see” 3D objects. BKG, a backgammon computer program, defeated the reigning world champion, marking the first time that man-made technology beat a human in a recognized intellectual activity. And Brown University modestly launched its computer science program as an interest group within the divisions of applied mathematics and engineering.

Today, almost 40 years later, the landscape of artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced dramatically. In October, for example, Saudi Arabia became the first country to grant citizenship to a robot, Sophia, who is considered to be “a delicate looking woman with doe-brown eyes and long fluttery eyelashes.” Apparently, “she” has feelings, too, and a sense of humor, as demonstrated on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

A week after Sophia introduced “herself” at an investment summit in Riyadh, Brown University students fittingly hosted a Veritas Forum to ask a question all of us are wondering: “Can Robots Become Human?” Two professors from two different worldviews—Roz Picard from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Christian, and Michael Littman from Brown University, a secular humanist—were asked questions by a moderator, Thomas Doeppner, vice chair and co-founder of the computer science program at Brown. More than 800 viewers joined the discussion online via live-stream, and over 265 students and community members attended—almost 40% of them were not Christians.

The professors discussed issues about which many of us are curious—whether robots will have emotional intelligence, how to program robots according to what is “good” (and who defines what is “good”), the role of non-engineers in the development process, the likelihood of unintended consequences and legal implications, and more. In a pastoral moment, Dr. Picard challenged the students not to automatically believe software, as though data from computers is more real. Don’t be satisfied with what is simple, she said. Look beyond and ask questions. Cultivate curiosity.

“The Forum had wide-ranging appeal, and I was happy to see students of all backgrounds in attendance,” said Christopher Luo (Brown ‘18), who studies computer science and leads a student Bible study through Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). “Personally, I was intrigued to reflect on the intersections between my studies and faith. AI from a Christian perspective—who would have thought!”

At the end of the night, 64% of the attendees surveyed said that the event “positively influenced my view that Christianity beliefs are viable in the university.” Many indicated that they wanted to continue the conversation. One non-Christian attendee told his friend that he has a nagging feeling that “all the other stuff seems empty” to him. Another student, who was raised Christian but is now an atheist, said to the Christian friend who brought her, “Maybe I actually misunderstood Christianity?” Her rejection, her friend wondered, seemed to be a rejection of a caricature of Christianity rather than the actual claims of the gospel.

Eddie Park (Brown ‘02), the RUF minister at Brown who has spearheaded Veritas Forums on campus for the past four years, left excited about both the night and the future. “Far from tired,” he said, “the planning team came out of the event with a ‘What’s next?’ readiness and enthusiasm. I look forward to these opportunities—for the sake of our King and his kingdom.”

Submitted to Christian Union for publication in The Christian Union Magazine Winter 2018.