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Southern Evangelicals Have Their Very Own Robot Now

So far, theology has had little to say about robots. Kevin Staley wants to change that.
February 16, 2014, 2:35pm
Image: NAO robot/Stephen Chin

The Southern Evangelical Seminary of Matthews, NC has purchased a NAO robot (pronounced “now”) to conduct a series of tests in order to figure out how such advanced, human-like technology will impact their faith. What exactly does God want the Christian researchers to do with such a fancy toy? I tracked down the Seminary's Kevin Staley for some answers.

Staley turned out to be far from the stereotypical God-fearing Southern Christian, that so often makes for compelling headlines. As we spoke—his accent a peculiar mix of South African and southern American drawl—it became apparent that the Seminary planned to take these tests seriously, pioneering a sort of research not often discussed in Sunday morning sermons.

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Overall, the $16,000 robot looks pretty cool. It’s about two feet tall, and can walk, talk, and listen to and recognize speech. There are a whole bunch of other neat features as well, highlighted in the video below:

Staley was uncomfortable with the “knee-jerk” reaction some Christians have had of robotic technology in the past, that human-like robots are an inherent aberration and have no place in the faith. Instead, Staley said that that he hopes his research will help pave the way for the faith’s understanding. “I’m starting the dialogue,” Staley said, “As I went looking for research and work by other institutes and people in academic arenas coming at it from a theological perspective, there were not too many voices at this point.”

But, it’s clear from past experiences with new technologies—especially medical technology—that the central question Staley’s research revolves around isn’t anything new for evangelicals. Debates over stem cell research, cloning, vaccines, and others have driven Christian leadership and theologians to examine the extent to which medical technologies break the “natural order of things,” Arthur Caplan of the NYU Langone Medical Center told New Scientist. And of course there are the well-documented arguments about the validity of evolutionary theory, and Earth’s geological history.

From what Staley told me, though, his concerns with human-like robots mostly revolve around the “sanctity” of human-to-human communication, which is only to say they’re trying to figure out what to do when robots get good enough to pass the duck test. “It’s an emerging issue, whether we’ll get to a certain level where we can’t distinguish between a robot and a human,” Staley said.

The rub for the Evangelicals is that they also see real value in technological advances—for example, providing care for the sick and elderly—but want to ensure that we don't end up in a world like Her, where everyone’s running around talking to Siri-like AIs all the time. “The greatest form of human interaction is human to human, face to face communication,” he said.

The SES has only had the NAO robot for seven days, which has been enough time to become familiar with how it operates. But that’s pretty much it. So far, Staley said, it’s been easy to setup and program to perform simple tasks, and he was pleasantly surprised to discover that there’s an app store, with a number of free options.

As much as I’d like to make fun of the evangelicals, and be snarky as hell about what they’re up to—even my editor likened this to a Futurama episode—the research sounds like it’s asking some interesting questions about AI. Granted, it’s coming from an unlikely source, and one that has made questionable, and sometimes downright wrong contributions to the scientific community over the years. But maybe, just maybe, this will generate some interesting discussion, even for those who don’t subscribe to organized religion. After all, possibilities revolving around AI made clear by Her are going to have to be dealt with one way or another—for everyone, not just the believers.