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19 October 2017

The robots are coming: is the Church ready?

The robots are coming: is the Church ready?

As the development and impact of technologies proceeds at a dizzying pace, the Evangelical Alliance is keen to see that the Church is ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the times and knowing how to respond. We have recently been involved in a number of conversations about the impact of robotics and automation on society, and what the response of the Church might be. 

As part of a developing project to inform and engage Christians in the issues around this technological revolution, our member organisation CARE is hosting a series of events for scientists, politicians, church leaders and theologians. On 18 October, CARE held a consultation entitled: The Robots are Coming: Us, Them and God – named after a new book by Prof Nigel Cameron, president of the Centre for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington DC. 

In the name of time and financial efficiency science fiction is becoming reality as machines are increasingly taking human form. We are made in God’s image, yet now we are busy making lifelike humanoid robots in our own image. Coming online soon are care-bots, petbots, and even sex-bots. How do we relate to machines that look and sound like us? 

As chief executive of CARE, Nola Leach observed: ‘We’ve been dealing with issues around making life and taking life, but now we need to deal with issues around faking life.’ 

How do we relate to this brave new world? Being made in the image of God is the biblical basis for human dignity. So, what is the role for the Church, locally in terms of dealing with the impact, and nationally and internationally in terms of shaping the moral debate? 

As technology begins to impact day to day life, it raises huge ethical and philosophical dilemmas. Who writes the algorithms, that is, who writes the programming that determines what the algorithm decides and does? And who rights the algorithms: who challenges the outcome and corrects it going forward? 

These are, among others, profoundly important moral questions, especially so when combined with developments in neuroscience, genetics and bio-engineering. The promise of extraordinary prosperity is qualified by the danger of an underclass or service class existing to maintain the machines, that in turn exist to support the leisure lifestyles of the idle rich. Indeed, perhaps understandably, it is the impact on employment that is making the headlines as this prospect looms. It’s expected that 30 to 40 per cent of all jobs will be lost over the next 15 years. 

What will replace them? New jobs? What will people do with their time? What is the role of the Church in affirming the dignity of work, its role in giving self-worth? Indeed, what is the role of Christians in developing businesses and creating employment? Do these technologies uphold or degrade human dignity? Answering these questions will no doubt involve regulating technological development, creating new laws and possibly even taxing robots, as Bill Gates has suggested. However, this can only happen when the issue of human distinctiveness is settled – what is it that makes us special or different? 

For followers of Christ, this brings a responsibility to remind people that we are first of all ‘image-bearers’ of a living and loving God, and therefore endowed with dignity and responsibility. As Prof Cameron stated: “Humanism has been hijacked by secularists. The Church needs to come out as the world’s leading ‘pro-human’ organisation”. In other words, the Church needs to be an advocate for people, for families, for relationships and communities – because people matter to God. 

More events are planned for 2018 so watch this space for more theological reflections on this issue. For more information and resources, visit robotrevolution.org.uk or pick up a copy of Prof Cameron's book.