Sophia speaking at the AI for GOOD Global Summit in Geneva in June 2017. The humanoid robot is developed by Hong Kong-based company, Hanson Robotics. On Oct. 2017 she became a Saudi Arabian citizen, the first robot to do so. Courtesy of International Telecommunication Union

Cathy Majtenyi: Robot ‘care’ can’t replace love of the Body of Christ

  • November 30, 2017
United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed interviews the life-size social robot Sophia (created by Hanson Robotics Limited) at the UN General Assembly Second Committee and the Economic and Social Council joint meeting in Oct. 2017 on "The future of everything – sustainable development in the age of rapid technological change." United Nations/Youtube
A pivotal moment in human history occurred Oct. 25 at the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Sophia took the podium to thank Saudi Arabia for granting her citizenship. Funny, warm and engaging, Sophia expressed her gratitude and a desire to understand and trust people.

Admirable qualities for this new citizen and not unsurprising, except for one small detail: Sophia is a robot, which makes “her” the first machine on Earth to be granted human citizenship.

It’s tempting to brush this off as a public relations stunt by Hanson Robotics, the Hong Kong-based technology company that has created more than a half-dozen robots like Sophia. The company is part of the next-generation wave in the field of  artificial intelligence (AI), in which machines are being developed to not only think for themselves, but to have the potential to someday surpass human intelligence.

Researchers and investors claim these machines will solve problems, fill a wide variety of jobs and generally work with us to build a better world.

On the Hanson Robotics website, company founder David Hanson explains that his company has built a range of realistic facial expressions and a “framework for computational compassion” into their robots “intended to facilitate relationships so that you care about the robots, and as we develop (the technology), the robots will care about you.”

He writes that his robots will “live with us to teach, serve, entertain, delight and provide comforting companionship…. They will be smart, kind and wise.”

Hanson and others say robots will, in the not-too-distant future, work in the fields of health care, therapy, education and customer service, among others.

It’s hugely important that we not be seduced by this high-sounding rhetoric coming from the rapidly accelerating AI field, especially the depiction of loving, caring, helpful machines.

Rather, we must see the flipside of this utopian vision: the dystopian reality that the love of the Body of Christ has grown cold.

Love is foundational to our Christian faith. Our greatest commandment is to love God and others. Jesus humbly washed His disciples’ feet out of love. In Galatians, God calls us to serve each other in love.

Love is also at the heart of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine, as the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate states: “Charity is love received and given. It is ‘grace’ (cháris). Its source is the wellspring of the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Love comes down to us from the Son.”

Pope Francis touched on this recently when he expressed an appreciation for scientific breakthroughs but added that science does not have all the answers. Science and technology must be aligned with the humanities and religion, he said, and work together to build a future that is based on love and service, not “control and arrogance.”

He is right. Service to one another enables us to put love into practice. It’s the chance for God to transform our characters through the often messy and sometimes painful business of caring for people.

Love also provides an opportunity to use our God-given gifts and talents within the context of paid employment, the dignity and human value of which is described in the 1981 papal encyclical Laborem Exercens. When we serve in love, we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24-26), and, in the process, develop the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

But how do we follow these and other of Christ’s teachings when we can use machines to be a companion for our elderly, care for our children with autism, and generally be kind and caring? How do we resist the temptation to slough off our call to service and hence miss out on the growth and blessings that God intended through our service?

More importantly, what role did the Church play in failing to show the world that “they will know we are Christians by our love,” hence the need to turn to robots to get that love?

Perhaps we got too caught up in the world. Our overloaded schedules, multi-tasking, keeping up with our social media accounts, working overtime to pay for consumer lifestyles have all contributed to us being burned out and increasingly unable to give or receive love. Cold.

Creating robots to care for us will not bring more love into this world. Only Christ, working through us, can do that.

We are directly responsible to God for whether we did or did not follow His commandment to love. A robot is not love. A robot lacks what many humans take for granted: a soul, which only God can create.

(Majtenyi is a researcher and communications specialist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.)

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