Will machines become more human, or will humans become more like machines? The answer is both are happening at a rapid pace. It’s no longer, ‘the robots are coming!’ The robots are here. Yet the language is slippery: robots, androids, cyborgs, synths, replicants, artificial intelligence, nanobots, droids… what do we mean by all these? Is there a difference? Does it matter?
We need to understand the progress in two directions. First, humans are becoming more machine-like all the time. Think how technology enhances our abilities. Most people wear glasses or contacts. They help us see, fine. Hearing aids help us hear. But a cochlear implant takes this a step further. Implants that ‘see’ for the blind are on the way. Prosthetics compensate for lost limbs, and we’ve all seen the amazing ‘blade runners’ in the paralympics. But ‘smart’ prostheses help with balance, strength, speed, dexterity – even enabling paralysed people to walk by communicating with brain impulses. Pacemakers and synthetic organs are critical for survival, and nano-scale neurological interface blurs the lines between brain and machine.
So… what happens when the artificial enhancement is stronger, better, and more durable than the human original? If you could have an eye implant that would enable you to see 10 times further with perfect clarity – and switch to infra-red – would you get one? (If cost were no barrier!) Maybe not – until all your friends did, and suddenly you felt left behind. This is the fast-growing world of ‘transhumanism’, the belief that the future of humanity lies in human enhancement through bio-tech and human-machine interface. Transhumanism has become a pseudo-religious movement where we become the architects and designers of our own evolution.
Then there’s the other direction. Machines becoming more human. We’ve seen this for decades in science-fiction: ‘Data’ in Star Trek, or the ‘synths’ in Humans. The Replika app uses AI to ‘learn’ how to respond to an individual in a real friendship. Japan is heavily dependent on robots in the care industry, and people become deeply attached to their artificial carers. In Westworld, a man asks his companion, ‘are you one of them, or are you real?’ She replies, ‘If you can’t tell, does it matter?’ At what point should a robot have rights, the status of personhood, or the ability to choose for itself? Can a robot pray? Sound far-fetched? These are just the beginnings of the multi-dimensional challenges of ‘robot theology.’