It used to be monks. Will machines now pray for you?

by
26 July 2019

Andi Bowsher considers the praying potential of our creations

PA

A “robot priest” wearing a Buddhist robe stands in front of a funeral altar during a demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017, in Tokyo

A “robot priest” wearing a Buddhist robe stands in front of a funeral altar during a demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017, in T...

THE film Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) dramatically portrays the question of the humanity of artificial humans. I think I would want to ask: Do Artificial Intelligences (AIs) pray to Jesus’s God? And, if they do, might we pray with them? Will they pray for us?

“Pray for us” could mean ”in our stead”, as if we could outsource the work of prayer to relieve us of the task: a religious version of AIs taking jobs. Already, prayers posted automatically by Islamic prayer apps constitute a significant portion of Arabic-language Twitter traffic.

It could, however, mean “intercede for us”: to ask them to hold us before God with concern for our well-being.

As we start to consider this, let’s notice that we tend to think of AI as a new issue — but maybe it is not. The theologian Amos Yong, following Walter Wink, interprets the powers and principalities of Colossians 1 as entities that emerge from social interactions between humans. These beings have their own mission in God’s economy, and their own intelligence.

If that is right, then we have had with us artificial — human-made — intelligences for a very long time. We collectively and unwittingly provide the substrate for these beings, which have purposes of their own and a share in the fallenness of humanity. They process information, affect the environment, and marshall human effort and allegiance.

Scripture, names them “angels” as well as “dominions”, “thrones”, and so on. So perhaps when we more purposefully make thinking artefacts, we already have a paradigm to consider their providential provenance.

 

PERHAPS, too, prayerful acts such as lighting candles might help us to think about AIs praying. Votive lights in some traditions symbolically ask something of God. Presumably, without a human-generated intent, these are merely flames fed by a human artefact.

But with a human desire motivating the lighting, they symbolically make that prayer. Do they, however, continue that prayer when the human has gone away and no longer focuses on it? Similarly, we might appraise prayers written and put on to a prayer wall.

Perhaps an AI praying might be like a candle or a slip of written-on paper. Either it is a mechanical and “soulless” remainder of a once-live (and human) prayer, or the prayer remains in some way alive and active through the burning candle or the script.

If there is some way it persists, then maybe that gives reason to think an AI could carry forward a human petition to God, even if it didn’t “think”.

If we believed that an AI could, indeed, think, and so, perhaps, pray, I hope that we wouldn’t think that it relieves us of having to pray. That suggests a disturbing view of prayer as simply onerous work. Certainly, sometimes, prayer might be hard work, but surely, more importantly, prayer is the joyous cultivation of relationship with God. Why should AIs have all the fun praying?

 

WHETHER they might intercede for us is a different question. This would imply that they could relate to God in such a way as to form a request, or to hold “in mind” a situation before God. How would we know? It would assume that a deity would listen: that is, in practice, seek to enlist it in God’s mission.

It would imply that the AI could seek to align itself with God’s purposes and become aware of what the divine agenda might be. Without these things, I do not think an AI would be capable of prayer in the fuller way we hope for ourselves.

We need also to consider that an AI may not be bodily like us — unless they really were like the replicants in Blade Runner. Without a human-ish body, an AI would sense and live in the world differently and have different priorities.

Would it, then, have the capacity to empathise with us to motivate intercession? Would it assess opportunities and threats to God’s reign differently or similarly to us? Would it “feel” that we humans were a problem, and seek to pray and work for our reform or conversion?

And what would that look like? Would we catch a glimpse of how an intelligent other might see us?

The Revd Andii Bowsher is Co-ordinating Faith Adviser and Anglican Chaplain at Northumbria University.

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