Books  |    |  September 5, 2000

In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit

Book by Noreen Herzfeld.
Published by Augsburg Books.
148 pages.

In Our Image is the first extensive theological engagement with the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Herzfeld probes this new field, which seeks to model human intelligence in computers, for its theological depth. She argues that “At the root of the fascination our current culture has with creating an image of ourselves in an intelligent computer lies a continuing problematic of defining … what it means to be truly human.” She shows how AI continues the classic Christian quest for defining the image of God in humans.

Offering a smart, accessible history and typology of research in AI, Herzfeld shows how its rival schools parallel competing options in the theological anthropologies of Niebuhr, von Rad, and Barth. She probes our interest in AI and argues that a relational anthropology informs the best research and the many depictions of AI in science fiction and film. Herzfeld’s exciting work further develops this relational model, in which she finds a needed corrective to the individualistic and narcissistic tendencies of much recent spirituality and the seeds of a human/computer ethic.


In an article in Wired, Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, warns that advances in robotics and in nanotechnology could result, as soon as 2030, in a computer technology that may replace the human species. Hans Moravec, of the artificial intelligence (AI) lab at Carnegie Mellon, pushes the time back to 2040 but agrees, “by performing better and cheaper, the robots will displace humans from essential roles. Rather quickly, they could displace us from existence.”

What is a Christian to make of predictions such as these? Is the idea that computers are the next step in evolution compatible with traditional Christian understandings of what it means to be human? Is there anything about being human that machines will never duplicate? Even though computer science and technology have a long way to go before computers will begin to think or act at all like human beings, now is the time for us to examine what motivates the field of artificial intelligence and what exactly it is we hope to create through that field. Whether computers, our “mind children,” as Moravec calls them, are positioned to replace humanity or to coexist with us, whether we even wish to pursue the dream of AI at all, depends on which aspect or aspects of our own nature we hope to copy in our attempt to create autonomous machines.

It is this larger question of what it means to be human that is graphically posed by AI. The goal of AI is to create an “other” in our own image. That image will necessarily be partial, thus we must determine just what it is in ourselves that computers must possess or demonstrate to be considered our “mind children.” The question of what we humans might share with one completely other to ourselves has been examined by Christian theologians through the concept of the image of God in which, according to Genesis 1, human beings were created. Is this image that humans share with God related to the image we wish to share with our own creation in AI? What part of our nature do we consider so important that we wish to image it in our creation? This book examines what it means to create in one’s own image in the dual contexts of Christian theology and the field of artificial intelligence. In both fields, the image being transferred from creator to creature has been viewed in a variety of ways yet is always something central to our understanding of what it means to be human. The goal is to see whether these understandings of the human condition, from two such disparate fields, are at all commensurable and to explore what implications our concept of being human might have, both for the project of creating and coexisting with artificially intelligent creatures and for the project of creating a Christian spirituality that is relevant in a technological age.

Table of Contents

In Our Image: The Desire for Artificial Intelligence

  • In Our Image: A Culture’s Hopes and Fears
  • A Spiritual Question: “What Is Human Being?”
  • Why a Spiritual Approach to AI?

Reason, Regency, or Relationship: Three Approaches to the Image of God

  • Scriptural Background
  • The Image of God as Reason: The Substantive Approach of Reinhold Hiebuhr
  • The Image of God as Regency: The Functional Interpretation of Gerhard von Rad
  • The Image of a Triune God: The Relational Interpretation of Karl Barth
  • One Symbol, Multiple Interpretations

Copy, Tool, or Friend: Three Approaches to Artificial Intelligence

  • Imago Hominis as Reason: Intelligence as a Quality in Symbolic AI
  • Imago Hominis as Regency: Intelligence as Function in Weak AI
  • Imago Hominis as Relationship: The Turing Test and Emergent Systems
  • Parallel Images

HAL or R2-D2? Two Images of Artificial Intelligence in Science Fiction Film

  • Hal and Colossus: The Computer as Disembodied Reason
  • Robby, R2-D2, and David: The Robot as Companion or Magical Helper
  • Relationality in Science Fiction: More than the Turing Test

Why Create an Artifical Intelligence? A Christian Critique

  • Cybernetic Immortality: A Substantive Concern
  • Expanded Dominion: A Functional Concern
  • Alone in the Cosmos: A Relational Concern
  • The Depth of Our Dreams

Toward a Human-Computer Ethic

  • Human-Human Relationship
  • Human-Nonhuman Relationship
  • Human-Computer Relationship
  • A Question for the Future

About the Author
Noreen Herzfeld is Associate Professor of Computer Science at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. She holds a doctorate in theology and advanced degrees in computer science and mathematics.