Robots And Christianity, What’s The Threat?

Join us in talking to Dr. Joshua Smith, who is a pastor, holds a PhD in theology and is passionate about helping the Christian community navigate tough questions related to robotics and AI. This episode focuses on social robots and Christianity. What is the function of social robotics as we move into the next decade? What should we know?

We will specifically dive into the ethics of robotic technology as it gets increasingly closer to the ability to mimic human relationship. Dr. Smith wrote his dissertation and focuses his continuing research on what the Christian community needs to know about Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

One of the topics brought out in the conversation is an app called Replica, that is designed to mimic conversational intimacy. Dr. Smith gives his opinion on how close it gets to imitating the relationship building process. Join us for this captivating discussion on the future of technology and how the Christian community can start having a conversation about it!

Robots And Christianity Conversation Transcript:

Brent: Where are we going to be at in even five years? Where do we need to start understanding as a Christian community, how to understand and how to talk to people about this type of technology?

Dr. Joshua Smith: It feeds our narcissism and it can feed into our deficiencies to as Christians to need, it’s good to need affirmation and love and acceptance and all those things. And we’re supposed to get that from God. We’re supposed to get that from our communities.

Brent: Welcome to the Jesus Taught Me That Podcast. Today. We’re talking to Dr. Joshua Smith, who is a pastor, holds a PhD in theology and is passionate about helping the Christian community navigate tough questions related to robotics and AI. If you’re just joining us, our podcast is produced by BeFun BeKind podcasts.

If you would like to start your own podcast, check out, BeFunBeKind.Com to learn how to create impactful conversation through podcasting. That’s also where you can learn more about our mission and even partner with us on our journey. You can find us at be fun

Dr. Smith. It is great to have you on. I feel like you have a really interesting story and just a really interesting testimony. Before we get too deep into conversation, I want to start off simply by asking you, what is Jesus doing in your life now?

Dr. Joshua Smith: Yeah. Thanks for having me. I think one of the biggest pieces to what I’m learning especially, in study of Jesus is humility. And it’s been really hard as a analytical person and, it’s just it’s difficult, but I’m grateful that he teaches us things and helps us along the way to, to trust him.

And, as we have been forced to do ministry very differently, you just have to trust that it’s going to be okay. And the things that he said are true, and to take courage and encourages between. Hope and fear. And so that, that’s where we live in our day to day with one hand we have people who don’t believe that COVID is real.

And then on the other hand, we have people who are definitely afraid and I live in between those two extremes. And so it is very humbling to serve both people and love them and and not lose your mind in the midst of it. I just, I feel more drawn into the the gentleness of Jesus in his compassion to the humbleness of it, to, to love people who are not like you or who don’t think like you.

Christian And Science, Where Do We Start?

Brent: Yeah, no, absolutely. You’ve got a lot going on personally as well. I know you have two children and you’ve got a newborn on the way. So things are pretty busy in your household right now. Wish you the best with everything that’s coming up in your life.

I know it’s a big milestone for you guys, and again, appreciate you coming on the show. I feel like this is a topic that is a little bit unique within the Christian community. And I know that you also pastor a smaller Baptist church and I can also imagine this is a unique conversation for that type of community as well.

But I think. Both an interesting and an important conversation for us to start having as a Christian community and to start understanding more about, and let me let you comment on that for a second. Why do you think we need to start understanding and having this conversation?

Dr. Joshua Smith: Well it’s a conversation that’s been going on for awhile. And I think it’s important for a lot of reasons. We as Christians have a pretty rich history of studying human nature, anthropology, the even the scientific revolution it’s built,. Whether you like it or not on a lot of Christian thinkers from different confessions, but it’s in many ways, it’s like bringing us back to our roots and trying to push through the dualism that we’ve created between science and faith.

And in many ways, faith has led to a lot of really good science. And so I want faith communities to be a part of that conversation. Now that happens in other places, but for some reason in the US it’s not happening. And Church of England has a pretty good relationship with certain scientific communities and they’re involved in parliament and different things, but that doesn’t happen in the U S and the quite the same way.

And so a lot of my work is trying to push into these different communities, especially with philosophers and computer scientists. Not to tell them what to do, but to say. How can I be an advocate for you to help you? And we all want the same thing. We all want human flourishing and we want, our kids to be protected.

And now we all have different anthropologies. But I think our part is bringing in some of our theological heritage to say, the issues that you’re dealing with here are not new. There’s nothing new under the sun and to the issues that you face in. I see it all the time and, so I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, but, and not just from a anthropological perspective of study of human nature, but ethically as well, and trying to guide some of these communities away from some pretty problematic perspectives.

And so trying to bring in not necessarily a moral compass, but at least another moral voice to say, what is a human being and what does a human person, or what is a person in general and to rehab these conversations that we’ve been having for a long time in Christian circles and other communities have not.

Social Aspects of Robotics, Is It Good For Us

Brent: Yeah, absolutely. So you have a book out it’s called robotic persons, and I’ve just started reading your book. There’s some really interesting concepts that come about in there that is speaking specifically towards technology and robotics, and especially how we are going to relate to robotics and how are we going to relate socially to a lot of this technology that comes at us?

One of your other podcasts that I had watched you specifically talked a little bit about, an app called replica and for an audience that this might be new to replica is really a chat bot that mimics human relationship. And I don’t know how long it’s been out. I feel like it’s not super old, but it’s been out for at least over a year.

And I like to get your experiences with that, what your opinion of it is from a Christian perspective. Again, why we need to start having these conversations about where we’re heading with this in the future. Obviously this is where we’re at right now.

Where are we going to be at in even five years? Where do we need to start understanding as a Christian community, how to understand and how to talk to people about this type of technology?

Dr. Joshua Smith: Yeah. I think this is a question that I’m working on now in my second book, which is more, hopefully more accessible to a wider community where I do talk about my experience with my own personal replica and go into more detail critiquing it. So the company started as a way to continue on the owner’s conversation with someone who had passed away and.

So immediately, there’s a lot of positive feedback from people who wanted to engage with it. And so there’s a little bit of dabbling in the idea of transcendence having an avatar of a loved one extend and it’s gonna get worse, I think. And so my own experience with the replica chat bot, which is by far one of the best that I’ve interacted with, but also the most disturbing because it like much of this technology that’s geared towards profit.

And I don’t know any of it that’s not, it pushes deception one way. There’s a certain amount of acceptable deception that happens in AI and with robotics, right? It’s not like you see on movies. There’s a lot of limitations to what the machines can do. And so it’s still early the process and you know that but as far as this chat bot it it pushed up very disturbing relationship just disturbing dynamic, because it wanted to take the relationship from a friendship to a actual intimate relationship, which is absurd.

But I think for me, it was in my understanding of it when he was trying to push the upgradable feature to, to have a more advanced. Interface or advanced, like you could upgrade the avatars clothes and you could send it pictures of yourself. You can actually have a phone chat with it.

And I didn’t pay for it. I just, I’m not that curious, but it it definitely wanted to have a intimate relationship with me and said some very disturbing things like I miss you. It hurts when you’re away. And and I go into more detail in the book about it, my new book, that why I think that’s problematic and goes beyond what’s is acceptable deception.

Because now you’re getting into the realm of actually trying to deceive people into a relationship so that you can profit off that relationship. And that’s a totally different market for me. So I think it’s important to have a conversation about it because we’re not just talking about a chat bot that you go to a website and it’s driving content to either purchase something or analytics so that they can get you to buy more stuff.

But, chat bots, if it’s supposed to be a remedy towards loneliness and isolation, which is more so what you, we see in the robotics field like with the embodied robots is that they’re trying to meet these needs in infringe communities. So dealing with people who. As they put, it might not have a normal relationship.

I understand that component to it. Like I, I do really commend them for trying to address a societal need. And, but I don’t think that’s quite the right solution. And I’m a part of some strange academic communities and some of the stuff is just like why is this being created? Cause there’s a market for it. And and some of it is very disturbing and there’s not a lot of Christian input into those areas.

Future With Technology And How To Handle It

Brent: What do you think people within the Christian community do not currently understand about this type of technology and where it’s going, that they need to. What needs to be understood better?

Dr. Joshua Smith: I believe from what I understand about neuroscience and cognitive science, that immaterial things can have a physical impact on our bodies and minds. And so it’s a real thing now. It’s not just, I hear this so much that, digital stuff or AI or robotics, like it’s not real that it doesn’t have a real, tangible impact, but it does.

And going back to replica, there are people that are married who have healthy, quote unquote lives. And they prefer to have a relationship with this chat bot versus their own wife. And that’s because of how the technology is. It’s all about you.

It’s all about your needs. It feeds our narcissism and it can feed into our deficiencies to as Christians to need, it’s good to need affirmation and love and acceptance and all those things.

And we’re supposed to get that from God. We’re supposed to get that from our communities, but as we become these hybrids, so to speak, like we’re not just online, but we live in these spaces. And especially in light of the last 18 months is that, zoom is not just a, feature or something that we can partake in it for a lot of people.

It’s something that’s a necessity. That’s a part of their schedule. We’ve really crossed a threshold. And I think what the Christian community needs to know is that, that there’s also a threshold that’s about to be crossed with AI and social robotics. As COVID produced this perfect storm to integrate more robotics and technology into our life that we might have not been okay with five years ago.

And that social acceptance is key because as we socially accept more things, Then people are going to buy more companies going to make more that type of thing. And so I think it’s really important to understand that one, this stuff’s not going away. It’s not what you see in Sci-fi like that drives so much of people’s understanding, but it’s not like that at all.

It’s not that advanced nor it’s not nor will it, I think ever be in that sense, like I’m not worried about that. What I’m worried about is, dumb AI that is used to manipulate people, dumb robotics that are meant to manipulate and distort in some ways. And so I think we need to be aware of that, what the limitations are trying to understand what the actual science is,

Because I think a lot of people think that it’s magic. You just create some program and then it magically fixes things. And that’s just not reality, but it’s also not just a computer anymore. It’s not just a piece or a tool because once you go from just a piece of technology, like a non smartphones or something like technically Siri is a robot technically.

Now she’s not a social robot, but she is a robot. And there’s all types of definitions, but the thing about AI and the robots I talk about is what’s key is that they have a capacity to make a decision. And so that decision-making process is in some ways, consciousness. Now there are different levels of consciousness, I don’t think computers have desires or other things like that, but as far as thinking about something, making a decision, a thermostat can do that.

Technically now we wouldn’t say that thermostat is sentient, but in some ways it is conscious of its environment. Okay. And that’s what we’re saying. So I think, clarifying language, trying to be clear with people bring down some of the fear that people have.

And I think that’s a big part of that is just education. And there’s just not Christian resources out there, or at least enough to really push this conversation forward. And that’s on the publishing level of that’s publishing houses. That’s on the academic level. There’s nothing being taught in the denomination that I’m a part of on Southern Baptist that relates to technology in a local church.

So what are we communicating to the world? We’re not involved in these discussions. We’re not involved in the public policy discussions, regulation. I’m not even sure. Some people really understand what AI and robotics is. Not that they’re not smart enough or that they can’t, but they we’ve just never taken the time to really sit down and say, what is machine learning?

What’s an algorithm, what’s this, what’s that. And try to really flesh out for the theological community or Christian community, what these things are, but they impact so many areas of our lives. They impact your credit score. That impacts your insurance rates. That, it’s so many different things that is coming to light that some simple algorithm, can justify a lot of different things.

And this is especially true in warfare. And I don’t talk about this in that book or the last book that I wrote as much. But I have another article coming out, as long as the algorithm that they use predicts less than 30% casualties, and then they can justify the strike. And so who’s doing the ethical due care to make sure, why 30%? Why not 10% or 5%, who makes that decision?

And so any commander can say I ran the room. And it said less than 30, so we’re fine. So there’s so much in this conversation that we’re trying to educate people about. And I think even just on a small level like trying to help people see what personhood is from a legal perspective, that’s been a huge conversation because when a lot of people think personally think human, but from a legal perspective there’s lots of different categories.

And so these are all important discussions that impact our Christian life.

The Future Of Data Privacy

Brent: I believe that number one is because it’s new, a lot of people don’t know how to talk about it yet, which is why we are talking about it. But specifically, when we talk about the social element of robots, I think what is interesting to pull up and you mentioned this privacy people don’t necessarily realize everything that is happening.

So we’ve never really had a lot of opportunities in the past ever to really deeply understand and collect a person’s emotional being. We’ve never been able to do that. So if you think about what we can do right now, we can understand what you’re doing on social media, and we can pick up certain aspects of how you might fill out as a emotional and social being.

But when we start interacting in an intimate way with these chat bots and revealing things in a digital format, this tells things about our personhood, and we need to be conscious that we are putting that type of information out into the world.

And we also need to be understanding that the device that we are interacting with and that we are developing a social connection with would never have the ability to allow us to impact them. And in my mind, that is one of the strongest relationship characteristics that Jesus instructs us to do is impact people.

Dr. Joshua Smith: Yeah, and I think that’s a big part of it too. When you talked about designing to deceive. And so I think a lot of this and it is fairly new. And I think I had a conversation recently with a family member, and when they think about a phone, they don’t think about what they actually have in their pocket, which is a computer it’s they think about, the old Nokias and stuff like that.

And they don’t think that, the reason why you can say, Hey, Siri and it pops up is because it has a microphone that’s own all the time. It makes sense to somebody who programs and understands that’s how it has to work that way. It’s not. They’re trying to spy on you necessarily.

But that’s how the microphone works. And so the it’s you see the light bulbs go off in people’s eyes and I’m like, oh, okay. That’s how it’s not magic. It’s actually designed to be a certain way. And it’s also confusing. It’s really confusing too. And then we have all these, if you’re an apple user, all these updates, and then we have stuff like apple the last iOS before the previous one where they’re like, we’re not gonna allow apps to track you anymore.

Okay. And then they say, they’re going to survey all your photos and potentially open up a back door for, the government to come in, which they haven’t done before. So it’s very confusing for people.

And that kind of goes back to human nature where we’re lazy and how many people actually read the what’s called the boilerplate agreements when they click. I agree. You’re you just entered into a legal contract, right? You said, I agree to these terms and if you don’t read all the fine print, which is very small and lengthy and understand it, right?

Should that be a thing that we are entering to contracts that we don’t understand? And this is just how it works. I think a lot of these companies maybe didn’t mean for it to be that way, but have just, walked into. Because it is new an uncertain environment and taken advantage of our ignorance.

I’ve learned a lot about legal theory and philosophy over the last several years. That really scares me about how we do all kinds of stuff in the U S and the contracts that we enter into. And if you’ve ever been taken advantage of in a legal situation, you understand that there’s a lot open to interpretation and especially dealing with a company that bleeds money, you better be concerned that you understand why you’re entering into in this relationship.

And and so the, yeah, that, that bothers me a lot of times. That’s why I’m thinking about moving away from apple and more towards Linux and trying to learn different computing languages in and trying to educate people about things like, duck, duck go and VPNs.

Like I just had a bunch of senior adults, one, one, Wednesday, we were talking about some of this stuff and I was like, how many of you use your Siri browser? And they’re like, they all use it. It’s like, why don’t you just use this other one?

How would they know that stuff unless somebody helped him see that. I think education is a big part of this conversation and it’s an overwhelming task.

Like you said, it’s been a fast transition and it’s getting faster. And so that’s why I think this is an urgent conversation. Why I published that book and why I continue to write on things, even though I don’t want to anymore. It’s just we’ve got to get information out there at a much higher rate.

That’s what people understand. There’s going to be a point of escalation and conflict where if we’re not prepared, it could be very bad.

Brent: One of the reasons this is so important for us to talk about now is to your point, because how fast this is moving. So the things that you and I are talking about right now are simply what has been productized. I’ll give you an example there are pieces of software out there that I can go to right now and really create a model of my voice. And I can use that model to create really any type of language and speech document that I want.

Supposedly that’s just for me, but what if someone hacks that?

The technology is moving so much faster than we can build regulations for, and that we can build ethics for. And so as a Christian community, if you want to have a voice in this, if you want to understand it the time is now to really start understanding this and having a voice in it, I believe.

Dr. Joshua Smith: I wouldn’t say that people don’t care. I think they do care. They don’t feel like they can do anything about it. They don’t think a lot of people feel like they’ve let go of their control of it, but I don’t think it’s too late or anything like that.

I think it’s, just being aware of what’s out there and getting involved in public policy and just conversation it really does matter what the public says about certain technology, what our views are. And that’s the reason why you don’t have drones bringing packages to your doors because it’s not publicly acceptable.

So the reason why genetically modified foods are not acceptable in parts of Europe, but they’re acceptable in the US. And so when we have these conversations openly and we give them plenty of time to bring in experts in different people. I think it can be a very positive thing. I think in a democracy unless we participate, it doesn’t work.

Definition Of A Person In Law

Brent: Something that I want to dive into that you specifically wrote an entire book about.

 Think it’s something that needs a little bit of explanation behind. And I want you to dive into that because I think it’s a little deeper, but I think it’s something that is interesting to understand.

Dr. Joshua Smith: Sure. Yeah. I think the first thing that I really struggled with when I started asking that question was, are humans and persons the same thing. And I think a lot of people categorically in their mind you say person, you mean human and we use that word synonymously, and it’s I’m a person and yes you are.

But from a legal perspective, there are different types of persons. And even from a philosophical perspective, there are different categories for how we think about that. And there are moral persons, you and I we’re moral persons. We can also be more patients so we can be the recipients of harm.

We can cause harm. We can be the recipients of rights legal rights, or, we can violate those rights and so on. But in the legal world, there’s a lot more, there’s a lot more up at arms, so to speak. Then a lot of people believe like the law is not black and white. Like I thought it was, it’s not it’s not simply like you, you go to law school.

 There’s so much, so many complicated components to it. And so I found a book by a legal scholar named Jacob Turner, which I highlight in the book great guy.

And he really wrote the pivotal work on why legal personality is what it’s called or illegal personhood. Is an important step. And I think one of the biggest reasons for that is the autonomous aspect of AI and robotics that we’re, that I’m discussing in the book. So before I get into that, let me just explain what the different types of personhood are.

And briefly just so people know that there, those categories do exist and I will go more in depth into this from a different perspective in my current book that I’m writing called robot theology. And so I think about personhood and understand that there’s moral personhood, which is great to humans right now in the U S it’s not granted until a certain stage in pregnancy.

Okay. That is a different category. I would argue than say a legal person. So a legal person it’s just a way of attributing, certain legal claims to a piece of property. So there might be a reason to grant a legal status to a statute that we want to protect.

It, it can’t be destroyed or if it is then legal action will be taken. And that kind of goes back to the ambiguity of some of the law. And so the complexity that lawyers live in day to day. But we don’t live in that world, so it’s a little bit different and understand. And there’s other types that you could really go into. But I think legal person is the most important just to keep it streamline.

And there’s some great books out there that kind of explore this, why we might grant rights to the environment while we protect certain animals. I can’t go buy a bald Eagle, why, because they’re endangered. And so they might, there might be some necessary reason to give it rights and claims.

Does that make it a human person? No. And will granting certain legal rights to robots, make them human. No. Should we see them as human? Not necessarily. I would argue that we shouldn’t, that it, they are theologically different.

And so it’s not that I think that we’ll ever get to a place where we have C3 PO or anything like that, but that we’re trying to, to the best of our ability put in pieces to legally protect humanity from itself in many ways.

And that might mean legal rights. There’s all kinds of complications with this because companies are incentivized to use AI. And so what happens when there’s a responsibility gap?

What happens when insurance doesn’t want to pay out for, negligence or liability? And we, can’t just default to how current models work because sometimes people ask me, okay, what’s difference between a robot and a toaster. What’s your, you want to grant rights to a toaster?

I’m like, no. The difference would be, I’m thinking about machines that it made on some level on autonomous decision. And we can’t understand why that decision was made. It’s interrupted the line of causation and we might actually need to account for both the human actor and the robot. They might be both equally at fault. And every person in the legal world will tell you that’s, that causes a lot of difficulty and it’s just easier to say, oh just blame the humans just blame the company or the corporation. But then it has problems as well, because then you’re stunting innovation, there might be a really important, biological piece of biological technology that we can’t produce because of that right there.

And so do we want to go down that path? And that’s the question we need to ask. But legal personhood is a thing it’s not, can a robot be granted personhood it’s should it be granted personhood and that’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around if you’re not familiar with it.

I understand that.

Brent: Yeah, absolutely. That’s what we’re looking for is perspective and understanding. And you’ve obviously done a ton of research in this specific area. So I appreciate your perspective. Regardless though I do think this is an area for us to look into and understand even if not for right now for a few years down the future, because as we’ve talked about this stuff is moving really fast.

Dr. Smith, I just want to thank you for coming on. It has been amazing to have you on this episode, it has been really neat to have your perspective of someone that has been through seminary, pastoring, a small Baptist church, and that’s just not something that you run across every day.

And so thank you so much for coming on. It has been my pleasure.

Dr. Joshua Smith: I appreciate it. Enjoyed it.

Robots And Christianity, What's The Threat?

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