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Book review: Robot Souls: Programming in humanity by Eve Poole

01 September 2023

Robin Gill reads sharp thoughts about AI

WITH two theology degrees and an MBA, Dr Eve Poole has had a remarkable career in business management, working in Hult University’s Business School and Deloitte Consulting, before becoming a very young Third Church Estates Commissioner for three years.

Her earlier book, Buying God: Consumerism and theology (SCM Press, 2018), was reviewed positively in Theology (January 2020) by Peter Sedgwick as a “book to be deeply welcomed, and above all acted upon”, but less so by Mark Clavier in the Church Times (Books, 5 October 2018) as a “helpful audit” but “a rather futile exercise in the face of relentless marketing and advertising”. Intelligence mixed with some idealism/whimsy — a verdict also reached within business journalism.

Her new book ventures into a fresh and very topical area — artificial intelligence (AI) or artificial general intelligence (AGI) — and shows a similar mix, although, I would add, “very sharp” intelligence. Experts in the complex intellectual areas that she covers — AI history and development, philosophy of mind, political governance, algorithms, and Bayesian statistics — may well dispute details, but her overview displays admirable intelligence, precision, and clarity. It is a dazzling performance.

Poole notes early that “Some would argue that the Artificial General Intelligence that so alarmed Stephen Hawking is now not so very far away. AGI is the apex of AI because it would allow one artificial system to replicate not only our own ability to deploy the full range of existing human competences — rather than needing one robot for surgery and another to play Go — but also to become better than humans at them, and indeed to develop as-yet undreamt-of new competencies in the future. In that way, it achieves the goal of evolution, to make us perfect.”

As we all know, a computer was able to crack the Nazi war code and can now: beat the best chess players in the world; dominate attempts to contact utilities when we try to phone them (lamentably failing to pass the Turing test of convincing us that we are addressing a human, not a machine); match our faces to passports more reliably than humans; and enable driverless cars, trains, and the drones currently devastating poor Ukrainians.

This book is a plea for better knowledge and creative governance, in the knowledge that “the prevailing public ethic, which governs decisions about public resources . . . in government, business or in computer programming . . . is largely based on Enlightenment thinking and ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. . . This means that there are honourable exceptions to a purely rational scientific calculation of benefit, to recognise a legacy commitment to the dignity of the human person.

“This currently prevents things like the commercial harvesting of human organs and body parts, general euthanizing of the old and weak, and the sterilisation of the disabled or unwanted. But the intrinsic value of a human is not a logic that can be readily coded into computer programs.”

And, even if computers could be so coded, there is no philosophical agreement about what is distinctive about “human values” or what constitutes “humanness”. At this point, Poole turns to theology, exploring the notion of “the soul”, and noting that, unlike the human soul, computers are good mainly at left-brain (logical) functions, but not at right-brain (imaginative/creative) functions.

In short, as the film Ex Machina memorably portrayed, robots/androids are decidedly lacking in virtues. My solution (following the late Ian Barbour) is to acknowledge that technology can be used for good or ill and that it is up to us to use and control its power virtuously. Poole’s more whimsical solution is to programme virtues or “souls” into robots.

She also deploys whimsy to tease readers, with an initial assurance that a robot did not write her book, and with this concluding advice: “So if a robot ever staggers into your arms asking ‘are you my mummy?’, you must say ‘yes’ and hug it back”!

This splendid book is well worth buying.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Ethics at the University of Kent and Editor of Theology.


Robot Souls: Programming in humanity
Eve Poole
Routledge £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.69

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