Pepper, the robot – and theology

By Gábor Ambrus

With the development of artificial intelligence and robotics, there might emerge a new species of God-talk, a new voice, something strange, eerie, mysterious. And this eeriness and mystery would perhaps continue to evolve as machine intelligence resembles human beings ever more closely. The more humanoid, amicable and “emotional” behaviour a robot is capable of, the more powerful and perplexing it may turn out to be as a witness to God. But how much is such a claim grounded in reality? Is there more in it than a theological foray into the realm of science fiction? To what extent does the present state of artificial intelligence allow a machine to carry on a meaningful conversation with a human being, and why and how would God drop into such human-machine chat? And even if a machine were able to talk about God, why would such a conversation be more than a mere illusion, a result of sophisticated gear, silicon, plastic, and an enormous amount of coding – in short, technological tricks?

The Financial Times has recently published an article about Pepper, a cutting-edge humanoid companion robot designed by Aldebaran, a French robotics firm, for its parent company, the Japanese SoftBank. When Pepper visited the headquarters of the newspaper, it charmed and enchanted everyone. Its lovely appearance and childlike, loquacious behaviour caused an apparent sensation, with people listening, laughing, posing for selfies. Clearly, they must have been aware that Pepper is only a robot, only a toy to play with, albeit a novel and very special one equipped with a refined sensorium and A.I.; still, their attitude towards it looked more like being part of a game with an equal, a playmate. The author of the article, Robert Shrimsley, is understandably baffled. “Deep down, of course, I know that Pepper cannot do anything that has not been determined by humans. Its jokes are preprogrammed; and what seems like conversation is effectively just lines of computer code. I know all this and, yet, somehow I don’t. (…) Pepper is designed to win you over, to make you believe you are in the presence of more than plastic, processing chips and sensors.” No wonder that the majority of those thousands of Peppers sold in Japan have found a home as valued companions in families (while the others are employed as charming, obliging shop assistants in businesses).

As a matter of fact, the fallacy we may call the “anthropomorphic illusion” has always been with us human beings. We have always anthropomorphised animals; then we invented increasingly complex machines, mills, weaving machines (like the spinning Jenny), various applications of the steam engine, aircrafts, cars, and we have tended to anthropomorphise them ever since. But Pepper is different. Pepper is in fact humanoid, a robot who is, first of all, capable of conversation, even if it has still a long way to develop in nuance and sophistication. Pepper makes us wonder whether it is still an “illusion” we face here. As Pepper and a human being relate to one another, there is the game of a conversation between them with the objective power of the spoken word, and there is nothing illusory about it. Who is to say that all this is but the doing of a deluded human consciousness? And Pepper’s own coded consciousness and silicon soul — who cares what technological processes take place “within” when Pepper talks and entertains? Why are these processes relevant when, for instance, Pepper tells a well-timed joke which brings a release of tension in a company of its human fellows? And, in a similar vein, there is more to think about. Will a long-term relationship between Pepper and humans be less real than their initial conversations? Is there any reason for us not to expect it to develop loving relationships in those families where it is going to live? Apart from being an “emotional” robot with abilities to respond to face expressions, to recognise various voice intonations and to adjust to its companions’ manners of speech, what is truly remarkable about Pepper is its capacity to learn and change and thereby become a kind of individual, pliable and responsive to the personalities of those around it. Despite our awareness that it is a machine incapable of emotions, we cannot deny that there is an objective mutuality which applies to “love” between Pepper and humans the same way as it does to “conversation” between them. In the same way as the great game of love between human beings overarches their individual emotions, so the respective game between Pepper and humans is not to be assigned to the “human side” and to be called “one-sided”. As a hypothesis, it makes sense to expect love between human beings and sophisticated robots whereby the word “love” describes the overarching game of their relationship rather than what is inside the individual players.

Now, given the advanced character that Pepper’s technology already has, it is not difficult to imagine a twist in its design (or in the design of a similar model in the near future) by a roboticist and computer scientist with a flair for faith and theology. Designers with such interest could combine the robot’s remarkable emotional capacity with a moderate tendency to make occasional references to God and the divine. Moderation is crucial here: it would be a mistake to turn Pepper or its fellow robots into preachers. Quite the contrary, they may become witnesses who, within those “humane” and emotional bonds between them and their human companions, are able to utter some occasional, unexpected, mysterious remarks on God. One might, however, raise the objection that such a quirk in the robot’s nature would be just a preprogrammed, fake, and, for that matter, sacrilegious scheme, nothing more. And yet, Pepper’s actual God-talk would be preprogrammed as little as its conversation with human beings. Moreover, a robot’s possible theological quirks may give rise to the question of whether, for the possible benefit of human beings, any alliance is possible between the machine and the divine? With its eerie God-talk, to what extent would a humanoid robot be “humanoid”, and to what extent a “machine”? Indeed, what would be its theological status?

Link to Robert Shrimsley’s article in the Financial Times:

Links to YouTube videos about Pepper:


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