The lecture sponsored by the Honor’s Program took place on Feb. 10, 2016 and featured Dr. Allen Jones, Bible professor. He read a paper he had written on the interaction of robot science fiction and theology.
“A Terminator, a Transformer, and Job walk into a bar . . . sounds like a joke,” Jones said to begin his lecture. He went on to state that though it sounded like a joke, there was no punch line. The idea of robots and scripture was introduced to Jones by another professor—professor of humanities, Dr. Ryan Stark—when Stark asked the question “Are there robots in the Bible?” Jones’ initial reaction was to say ‘no,’ but after some research he began to change his mind.
According to Jones, there are two different ways that the robot is seen through robot science fiction in the cinematic context: the robot as ‘other’ and the robot as replacement. He gave examples from movies such as Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and Michael Crichton’s “West World” to illustrate the robot as ‘other’ phenomenon. In films such as these, the robot is seen merely as danger and destruction, not capable of its own reasoning—an inhuman thing following its programming by dispassionately killing.
Jones said that, in regards to the first category, there isn’t much interaction with theology. However, in the second category it’s found, in the way the creator and the created interact.
It was here that Jones brought up artificial intelligence (AI). He used such examples as “Transformers 4” and “Ex Machina” to establish what he meant by AI. Each example boiled down to the interaction of the created thing, AI, and the creator. Jones said that Optimus Prime declaring his independence from his creators was an integral part of that interaction. Optimus Prime is an example of how robot science fiction treats AI where the robot is a personification, complete with emotions, thoughts, and a sense of ethics. However, Jones is unsure if whether or not AI, if on this level of sophistication, would ever behave the way that Optimus Prime is behaving.
Jones used the example of “Ex Machina” to illustrate this point. Ava, the AI, has been taxed with getting out of the box she has been put in—and to do this she has to be convincingly human. As it turned out, this objective that Ava was given was the driving force of all of her actions. She was simply completing a task without any thought to the ethics of things. This was one of Jones’ driving points. If humanity was able to create a machine that could function seemingly as a normal human being, where does the sense of right and wrong come from? Who is responsible if that robot makes a mistake?
Jones looked to Job for his example of God as the creator of the world. Jones said that God in Job is being portrayed as a builder and as a parent. God has built the world as if He was building a house—and all of creation is that finely built mansion. It is because God was there from before the beginning that His authority is final; He has control over all things.
Though God is in control of everything and has created everything, Jones pointed out that Job’s questioning of God was not frowned upon. God wasn’t mad that Job was asking questions. Jones said that it was legitimate for the creation to question its role. It is not, however, ok for that creation to be in total rebellion.
In Job, God is also seen as the gentle parent. This is in contrast to all the examples that Jones brought up of creators in robot science fiction. In robot movies, the creators are often cruel and elitist and do not care about what happens to the creation as long as it does the creator’s bidding. God is the opposite. God actually loves His creation and cares for it.
After the lecture some students were asked what they thought about Jones’ topic. Student Morgan Schmidt said that the topic was “mind blowing” and something she was surprised a professor would talk about. She went on to say that the points Jones was making about AI were interesting: “I loved the picture that he [Jones] presented of AI in popular films and how they represent humans searching for self-actualization.” Another student, Caleb McLean, said that Jones’ lecture was “intelligent, thought-provoking, and humorous” and that he appreciated the evident research that went into Jones’ presentation. Like Schmidt, McLean found the AI section of the lecture particularly fascinating. He thought that Jones’ representation of the “ethical, natural, and biological state” of AI was backed-up and presented in a way that made sense and sparked a need to dig a little deeper.
Jones was challenging students to take a look at the way the world was turning in regards to robot science fiction and AI because, as Jones kept reminding attendees, AI of the magnitude seen in robot films could feasibly be achieved in their lifetimes. He was just trying to put things in the perspective of a Christian world view.
So, are there robots in the Bible? Maybe not. But it must be taken into account that we all have a responsibility for the things we create—including robots.