This past summer, some 2 million people traveled to Wittenberg, Germany to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. It was nothing less than an act of impiety that marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
While faithful visitors were no doubt intrigued by the many exhibits making up the World Reformation Exhibition, they were likely surprised to find a robot priest named BlessU-2 behind a pulpit inside a technicolor “Church of Light” constructed from translucent acrylic glass and wood panels.
BlessU-2 is essentially a “large iPod” with arms and a head; it most closely resembles an automatic teller machine. Upon request, it lurches into motion, asks in which language a sojourner wants their blessing, raises its mechanical arms and shoots beams of white LED light from animatronic hands as it delivers a message.
“May the God of Hope fill you with joy and peace and believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy spirit,” the robot priest bestows upon its parishioners. A printout of the blessing pops out of a slot at the bottom, where an ATM would dispense cash.
BlessU-2 is an interactive experiment put on by the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau. It’s meant to spark conversation and debate about the relationship between technology and spirituality. “The main purpose is to challenge people to consider the meaning of faith in a world of ever-increasing technology and artificial intelligence,” says Jeffrey Myers, an American Presbyterian pastor currently serving the Protestant Church in Germany. “An encounter with the robot makes people think about questions like, ‘What is blessing all about?’ or ‘In whom or what do I place my faith?’ and ‘Who or what is essential to the experience of being blessed?’”
These are pretty deep questions, but according to Myers, the reaction to the robot has been “overwhelmingly positive.” BlessU-2 delivered 600 blessings in its first week alone.
Its success may raise an intriguing question: Could God one day appear as a superintelligent computer?
“I don’t think AI might give answers to the great questions of life,” says Fabian Vogt, the author and theologian who developed BlessU-2. “But maybe it will help us to ask the right questions. That’s the reason we show BlessU-2 in Wittenberg. It stirs a lot of very intelligent questions that should be answered.” For example:
- How does a blessing work?
- Can God use a robot to bless people?
- Are there ethics for the digitalization?
- How much will the society and the church change because of robots?
- What will the future church look like?
Of course, plenty of interesting possibilities pop up when you start talking about Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) that can perform the same intellectual tasks as humans. Things get even weirder if you start thinking in terms of Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) — AI that’s incomprehensibly superior to even the most intelligent humans.
Paul Syers, who’s done AI-related forecasting and policy analysis for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (but who speaks entirely on his own behalf), somewhat echoes Vogt when he says, “It’s certainly possible that AI may one day help humans tackle some of spirituality’s big questions, but that’s up to humans, not AI.”
Syers adds that at the moment, spiritual matters appear to be inherently tied to humanity, as in the idea of a soul. This, he says, is also closely related to consciousness, which even the most advanced AI hasn’t yet achieved.
But if technological advancements do eventually allow for machines that can “feel” in some manner and possess a certain sort of consciousness, Syers thinks that our attitudes toward a machine’s ability to weigh in on spiritual matters may change. “Over time, as people experience non-human entities that can ‘feel’ and have a sense of self, it’s very possible that the human ability to anthropomorphize things will shift people’s opinions to view AI as having some sort of spiritual quality.”
While Pastor Myers maintains that church members and worshipers don’t need to worry about priests being replaced by machines, one could argue that a robot viewed by society as an emotional and intellectual equal might pass as a stand-in.
But let’s take it one step further, into the realm of the singularity — the notion that once AGI is achieved, a “runaway reaction” might occur in which the computer begins to self-update at a blinding rate, instantaneously becoming so advanced that we can no longer comprehend its power.
Since computer technology is so much faster and more scalable than biological matter, futurists like Ray Kurzweil have said that a self-improving computer will likely become exponentially advanced enough to lead to “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”
If that were the case, could AI become so advanced that it might appear to be God-like, all-knowing and omnipresent? Is God just a computer that’s yet to be invented?
“This is an easy one: Yes,” says Syers. “I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’”
He offers a few possible scenarios:
- For one, ASI could be equally intelligent but much faster, eclipsing our present ability to process information, allowing it to instantaneously process and store tremendous amounts of data.
- Alternatively, ASI might be unfathomably more intelligent than humans, possessing the ability to arrive at solutions to problems that are intractable given our current brainpower as a species.
- ASI might also be a combination of all these things.
In any case, it’s easy to see how a robot — or Skynet-like conglomeration of many robots — might embody all the qualities of an all-knowing Creator.
Syers, though, believes there’s a huge “but” regarding our potential to see super-intelligent robots as a race of God-like creatures. “As computer capabilities are increasing, people’s abilities to normalize those capabilities (i.e., not be surprised by, in awe of, etc.) are keeping pace. So as computer capabilities increase, and even various aspects of artificial intelligence are achieved, our society may continue to nod our heads, say ‘cool,’ shrug our shoulders and ask when the next advancement is coming.”
He has a point. If you were to show an iPhone to someone from the mid-1980s, their head would explode. At that point, voice-activation software and self-driving cars were still in the realm of science fiction (See: Knight Rider). Today, we get upset over a sluggish iOS update.
Back in Germany, BlessU-2 continues to spit out benedictions, but will never come close to higher-order thinking, much less arrive at an empathic thought. In fact, despite the rapid advancement in AI and machine learning in the past decade, Syers doesn’t think that AGI will be developed for several generations.
That said, tech and spirituality have always overlapped to some degree. The pyramids and other Egyptian monuments like the Sphinx were erected using the most innovative technology the world had seen at the time, and the Reformation BlessU-2 was created to mark what was only possible with the help of the printing press, which had been developed only decades earlier. Similarly, Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain with a master’s in divinity from Harvard University, believes that technologies like video chat can improve people’s spiritual lives today.
Egan recently wrote On Living, a memoir about her experiences helping people come to terms with their own mortality. Over the phone, she tells me about the first time she was able to set up a Skype call between a woman on her deathbed and her grandchildren. “That might not seem like a big deal to us, but to the person who is dying without the ability to get out [of the nursing home], giving them the ability to talk and see their grandchildren over the computer was revolutionary,” Egan says. “Any technology that helps people maintain, strengthen or grow their relationships with the people they love is going to be a great boon to their spirituality.”
And that’s the real blessing.