News  |    |  September 1, 2014

What Robot Theology Can Tell Us About Ourselves

News Article by Michael Schulson.
Published in Religion Dispatches.


There are places you never expect to be in life. For me, this was certainly one of them: in a conference room in suburban Charlotte on the campus of Southern Evangelical Seminary, with an enormous old Bible on a side table, shelves of Great Books lining the walls, and, on the conference table itself, a 23-inch-tall robot doing yoga.

Meet the Digitally Advanced Viritual Intelligence Device, a NAO (now) robot known as “D.A.V.I.D.”

Weighing at a little over 11 pounds and costing $16,000 (the seminary was given a discount from Aldebaran, NAO’s French manufacturer, and a donor covered the cost), D.A.V.I.D. evokes a certain sculpture by Michelangelo—human artifice reaching for a kind of material perfection.

D.A.V.I.D. does yoga. Its eyes flicker purple and green. It can recognize faces, respond to vocal cues, read emails out loud, play MP3 files, and trace a sound to its source with a swivel of its football-shaped head. Tiny motors drive the flexion of its joints. Download a certain program, and the robot will begin to play soothing New Age music as it stretches toward the ceiling and then lowers itself, gradually but with surprising grace, into a perfect downward dog.

D.A.V.I.D. may be cute, and robotic yoga may be goofy, but the intentions of SES and Dr. Kevin Staley, an associate professor of theology and the robot’s handler, could not be more serious. Through those 23 inches of silicon and plastic, they hope to tackle questions about what it means to be human; about how we should interact with the non-human entities in our lives; and about what a uniquely Christian response might be to a world in which humans start to seem more like computers, and computers start to seem more and more like human beings.

Welcome to the future of theology. Or, more accurately, welcome to the theological past. While SES, an independent evangelical school in Matthews, N.C., claims to be the world’s only seminary to own a robot (and I can’t find any reason to doubt them, unless you count Siri on all those theological iPhones), the entanglement of robotics and Christianity has a longer history than you might think. [ . . . ]