Student Papers  |    |  June 15, 2018

Robots and AI: The Challenge to Interdisciplinary Theology

Doctoral Thesis in Theology by Erin Elizabeth Green. University of St. Michael’s College.


The growing presences of increasingly sophisticated and humanlike robots and artificial intelligence (AI) brings about new theological challenges. In military, biomedical, industrial and other applications, these technologies are changing how humans think about themselves, their futures, and how their societies are organized. Such an unstoppable and global force requires scrutiny through a new interdisciplinary theological lens. Some researchers have made tentative theological responses, but this work is missing cohesion and leaves open many crucial questions. Insights from contextual and ecological theologies make significant contributions in addressing gaps in interdisciplinary theological discourse about robots and AI.

This thesis applies a postfoundationalist approach, especially as expressed by Wentzel van Huyssteen, to the transversal intersection between robots, AI, and theological reasoning. Contextual analysis complements this methodology. Study of four key roboticists and AI researchers—Hans Moravec, Rodney Brooks, Cynthia Breazeal, and Heather Knight—illustrate the complexity of this field, including important methodological differences within the robotics and AI community. Diverse and disparate theological literature on robots and AI is collated into two broad types of responses. The first has Anne Foerst’s work as its hub, the second Noreen Herzfeld’s. Critical engagement with these theological contributions makes clear the way to a third theological approach, one that is yet-undeveloped in theological writing. The fourth chapter details this approach through the application of insights from ecological theology to the vision of the human found in robotics research, detailing the kind of contextual analysis required to radically enhance interdisciplinary discourse in this area, and through further consideration of the historical and methodological issues that will shape these questions in the years to come.

This process of collating and analyzing both scientific and theological literature on humanoid robots and AI spurs growth in a to-date disorganized area of theological enquiry. It identifies and provides a first analysis of some of the most pressing ethical aspects of robotics and AI research, and develops a structure for further debate about and engagement with these issues. Importantly this thesis emphasizes the practical way theologians, churches, and civil society can respond to these unprecedented historical forces.