Student Papers  |  ,   |  April 10, 2012

The Robot as Person: Robotic Futurism and A Theology of Human Ethical Responsibility Among Humanoid Machines

Doctoral Thesis by Amy Michelle DeBaets, Graduate Division of Religion Ethics and Society. Emory University.


A world in which humans and robots coexist is one with tremendous possibilities for good and ill. Futurist thought in robotics has contributed both positively and negatively to the development of humanoid robots to this point, offering ideas and values about what it means to be human and what it could be for a robot to be a moral person. Some of the more popular forms of robotic futurism have tended to overemphasize intellection and a disembodied mind as the ultimate form of existence, while the more constructive forms have looked at human emotional and social interactions and patterned their robots after them. Robots that are embodied, sociable, and situated in their environment and history are ones that begin to mirror humanity and the beings that we consider to be morally valuable in themselves. But robotics and related psychology do not offer a complete picture into the possibilities for robotic personhood in interaction with human beings. It is here that theology can provide a useful history of reflection and understanding of personhood beyond the human that can begin to develop creative possibilities for the future direction of robotic personhood as well. Fully humanoid robots, then, could embody the qualities of freedom and constraint, goodness and fallenness, finitude and transcendence, and embodied spirituality that characterize human personal life. These qualities can be considered in the development of robustly humanoid robots in a number of different application areas and the ethical effects of those developments can be better understood using these criteria. Humanoid robots can perform jobs that humans cannot or would not do, they can change the ethical calculus of war, and they may even be able to provide genuine companionship and friendship to human beings, but they need to be designed in such a way as to facilitate human flourishing first, so that robotic flourishing can follow.