What Robot Theology Can Tell Us About Ourselves

Still of Joaquin Phoenix from Spike Jonze’s Her, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

There are places you never expect to be in life. For me, this was certainly one of them: in a conference room in suburban Charlotte on the campus of Southern Evangelical Seminary, with an enormous old Bible on a side table, shelves of Great Books lining the walls, and, on the conference table itself, a 23-inch-tall robot doing yoga.

Meet the Digitally Advanced Viritual Intelligence Device, a NAO (now) robot known as “D.A.V.I.D.”

Weighing at a little over 11 pounds and costing $16,000 (the seminary was given a discount from Aldebaran, NAO’s French manufacturer, and a donor covered the cost), D.A.V.I.D. evokes a certain sculpture by Michelangelo—human artifice reaching for a kind of material perfection.


D.A.V.I.D. does yoga.

Its eyes flicker purple and green. It can recognize faces, respond to vocal cues, read emails out loud, play MP3 files, and trace a sound to its source with a swivel of its football-shaped head. Tiny motors drive the flexion of its joints. Download a certain program, and the robot will begin to play soothing New Age music as it stretches toward the ceiling and then lowers itself, gradually but with surprising grace, into a perfect downward dog.

D.A.V.I.D. may be cute, and robotic yoga may be goofy, but the intentions of SES and Dr. Kevin Staley, an associate professor of theology and the robot’s handler, could not be more serious. Through those 23 inches of silicon and plastic, they hope to tackle questions about what it means to be human; about how we should interact with the non-human entities in our lives; and about what a uniquely Christian response might be to a world in which humans start to seem more like computers, and computers start to seem more and more like human beings.

Welcome to the future of theology. Or, more accurately, welcome to the theological past. While SES, an independent evangelical school in Matthews, N.C., claims to be the world’s only seminary to own a robot (and I can’t find any reason to doubt them, unless you count Siri on all those theological iPhones), the entanglement of robotics and Christianity has a longer history than you might think.

How machinelike are we humans?

For centuries, the Catholic Church was the main patron of automata—elaborate mechanisms, often driven by springs, that were the precursors to present-day robots. “Not only did automata appear first and most commonly in churches and cathedrals, the idea as well as the technology of human-machinery was indigenously Catholic,” writes Stanford’s Jessica Riskin in her marvelous essay, “Machines in the Garden.”

Automata, according to Riskin, “peopled the landscape of late medieval and early modern Europe,” which was “positively humming with mechanical vitality.” Church-commissioned clockmakers built mechanical angels and demons to decorate altars; “automaton Christs—muttering, grimacing, blinking on the cross—were especially popular.” Some churches even had automatic heretics. A mechanical moor’s head once hung in the cathedral in Barcelona, the expression on its face changing with the intensity of the organ music.

Automata entertained churchgoers. They also helped philosophers and theologians sharpen their thinking about the relationship between physical motion and an immaterial soul. When Leibniz and Descartes meditated on the nature of life, Riskin explained to me, “these were the machines they looked at.”

Descartes famously compared the living body to an automaton, while nineteenth century polymath Charles Babbage, a father of modern computing, was so fascinated by automata as a boy that he wrote a treatise in which he compared the outcomes of God’s natural laws to “the results afforded by the Calculating Engine.” Babbage, in other words, conceived of God as a kind of computer programmer.

Is it ethical for people to have sex with robots? How should we treat anthropomorphic computers? Should there be a limit on how human-like, or how pervasive, a particular digital technology can become?

Giving the impression of life, automata and robots push us to ask what it is about living beings that may be machinelike—and what, if anything, about life is distinct from a material mechanism. In the sense that SES is using a robot to explore deep questions, says Riskin, “there’s some continuity here.”

In a technical sense, too, D.A.V.I.D.’s lineage goes straight back to the church. Those Catholic automata gave rise to machines used purely for pleasure and amusement; from this broader automated tradition, craftsmen developed methods that would be adopted into industrial machinery and, later, the earliest computers. They may be distant relatives, but the mechanized Christs of medieval churches and the motherboards of a NAO robot share a family tree.

In an interview with RD earlier this year, Mary-Jane Rubenstein discussed how advances in physics are blurring the line between science and theology as physicists come to terms with cosmological concepts that were once the domain of theological speculation, like multiple universes. Something similar can be said of digital technology today: that, having left behind their religious roots, computers are raising issues that circle back into religious territory.

At the extreme end of this phenomenon, we have the concept of artificial intelligence, which strikes immediately at questions about the extent of human power, and whether intelligence is distinct from a soul. Meanwhile, some transhumanists foresee a period when the human mind will be uploaded onto a deathless computer. As religion scholar Robert Geraci has argued, this vision of people shedding their imperfect bodies and achieving immortality sounds an awful lot like the Rapture.

Technologies don’t need to seem futuristic, though, in order to spur a bit of philosophical reflection. IBM’s Watson is now a Jeopardy! champion, and, with Siri, Apple has arguably offered the first mass-market robot. It’s easy to imagine a time when we have regular, substantial interactions (some of them, perhaps, romantic or sexual, as in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-nominated Her) with objects that act a lot like human beings.

Meanwhile, budding technologies like Google Glass merge the personal and the digital in novel ways. All of which brings us back to 21st century iterations of that same old question—the same one, really, that Descartes recognized long ago, meditating on automata: how do we distinguish between the human and the mechanical?

These are the kinds of questions that Kevin Staley, an IT specialist-turned-theologian, spends his days musing over. Is it ethical for people to have sex with robots? How should we treat anthropomorphic computers? Should there be a limit on how human-like, or how pervasive, a particular digital technology can become?

And, at least in principle, these are the kinds of questions that D.A.V.I.D. is best equipped to provoke.

A huge dream to put on technology

When I visited SES, Staley replayed for me the robotic routine—also called, in NAO-user lingo, a “behavior”—that he designed for the robot’s unveiling. Staley has the patient, low-key attitude of an engineer, though he programmed the robot to open with some banter and corny jokes before getting suddenly, almost chillingly, serious. “I know that together we will be studying the ethical questions about my very existence in human society,” the robot intoned with the flat poignancy of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL.

Click to listen to D.A.V.I.D.’s voice: 

D.A.V.I.D.’s eyes glowed purple.“Dr. Staley,” the robot continued, “are you concerned that one day your kind will treat my kind as if we were the same?”

Despite being encased in plastic, it’s easy to treat it like a living thing. “My younger son,” said Staley, “calls it his younger brother, just jokingly.” It terrifies Staley’s cat. Whenever D.A.V.I.D. looked toward me, I instinctively stared straight back into its painted plastic orbs. One little girl told Staley’s wife that the robot was almost certainly female, though Staley and Eric Gustafson, SES’s Director of Development, tend to refer to the robot (which, at the time of my visit, had not been named) as “it.” From time to time, though, both of them slip and call it “he.”

It’s this tangle of uncanniness, fascination, personification, and occasional repulsion that Staley wishes to explore. “What I’m trying to get at, too,” he explained, “is what in a person’s response [to D.A.V.I.D.] is shaping that response. Is their initial acceptance or initial rejection of it based on some underlying theological, philosophical reason for why they don’t, or is it just kind of a gut response?”

He plans to take the robot to visit classes and church groups, and then to quiz people about their expectations and reactions. In his own classes, Staley would like to upload sections of his lectures to D.A.V.I.D. That way, the robot can deliver content for him—at once the subject of the lecture and the lecturer itself.

But the robot’s biggest role may be in helping to thaw the long silence among evangelicals, and among religious groups of all kinds, on issues related to personal technology. I first noticed this silence last summer, while trying to find some kind of religious reaction to the NSA scandal. What I found instead was that, on issues of internet privacy and the growing role of personal technology in everyday life, religious groups were remarkably silent.

“For the most part, for most people, I don’t know how much critical thought goes into asking, ‘what are the consequences of us introducing this technology into our lives?’” says Staley, referring to a range of digital tools. “Typically, and especially in the Christian community, I think the response to these sorts of things has been very minimal.”

He suggests that, quite simply, most people don’t connect faith to the seemingly commercial details of, say, iPhones, or robots that care for the elderly, or the dynamics of personal relationships conducted over Skype, even though these changes have a bearing on the way we relate to other human beings.

As an alternative to this silence, Staley’s work touches on two possible modes of religious response to technology, which I’ll call—because sci-fi topics deserve sci-fi names—the Strong and Weak Theories of Theorobotics.

The Strong Theory, which occupies the balance of Staley’s dissertation, deals with more futuristic questions. It acts as a kind of direct rebuke to those transhumanists and futurists who wish to merge human and machine, asserting instead the sanctity of the human form (created “in Our image,” says Genesis, and later taken on by a Son of God, according to the Gospels) endowed with a soul that cannot be translated into ones and zeroes.

Auto-monk commissioned by King Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. Image: Radiolab.

Auto-monk commissioned by King Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. Image: Radiolab.

This approach sounds abstract, but it touches on serious questions about what we want from the tools we build. For many, “technology is viewed as a way of saving us,” argues Staley, drawing a direct contrast between this view of technological salvation and his own evangelical faith. “If you eradicate God from the picture, you have no other means to achieve that end. There’s no other way to achieve victory over death other than by some hope that you have the technological means to make it possible. And it’s a huge dream to put on technology.”

Plenty of us, of course, aren’t looking for immortality anywhere—not through technology, and not through religion. Here, the Weak Theory of Theorobotics applies. This kind of reaction holds that religious groups, with their widespread emphasis on building personal communities of living, breathing human beings, have a unique platform from which to critique certain technologies.

Plenty of religious communities are trying to put services online, though (at least thus far) it’s probably easier to telecommute than to teleworship. Whether you appreciate religious voices in the public sphere or not, it’s clear that faith-based movements could make some distinctive cases for the power of human proximity and non-digital interactions—the kinds of cases that might make techno-critics like Sherry Turkle and Evgeny Morozov proud.

D.A.V.I.D.’s main role, then, may be as an easy-to-publicize provocateur. SES  took the robot to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention this summer, and D.A.V.I.D. will be making an appearance at SES’s National Conference on Apologetics this October, where it’s delivering part of Staley’s talk—and where it’ll receive billing as a speaker.

In this role, D.A.V.I.D. has a lot in common with Samantha, the digital protagonist of Her, or the androids at the heart of Blade Runner. All are constructs intended to entertain, even as they provoke us to think critically about the tools we use—and to link that reflection to the broader ways, religious and not, in which we think about the world.

When I asked Jessica Riskin whether the predmodern Church used automata primarily to entertain parishioners or to instruct them, she rejected the premise of my question. The two roles, she explained—to amaze and to demonstrate—were so entangled as to be inseparable.

Watching D.A.V.I.D. do yoga, it was hard not feel some kinship with those medieval parishioners, all of us standing at the foot of the altar, amused but also rapt before a machine unlike any we’d seen before; and all of us wondering, in that moment of encounter with the mechanical other, what it might tell us about ourselves.