04 February 2018
Second Sunday before Lent
Revd Jonathan Cain
Prov 8: 1, 22-31; John 1: 1-14
For several weeks now my son Bill and I have been engaged in a conversation about humans and robots. It started with Bill’s assertion that there is now no difference between robots and humans, and that robots should be afforded the same rights as humans. You might begin to imagine my counter-arguments in your heads; I know he is as yet unconvinced by my assertion that he would take a different view if he had seen the birth of a baby. The most recent point his argument was the announcement that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has granted citizenship to a robot.
It’s true. At a future investment initiative held last year Saudi Arabia announced that a robot was to be given citizenship. When the announcement was made the robot, whose name is Sophia, responded by saying …
“I want to thank very much the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am very honoured and proud for this unique distinction. It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognised with a citizenship.”
The robot Sophia’s creator, David Hanson, has a goal to create robots that look and act very much like humans; the realistic design intended to allow robots to form meaningful relationships with humans, “So that you care about the robots. And as we develop artificial intelligence, the robots will care about you.”
There is a website, of course, where you can learn more about Sophia – sophiabot.com – and on the introductory page it says this …
“Hello my name is Sophia. I would like to go out into the world and learn from interacting with people. Every interaction I have with people has an impact on how I develop and shapes who I eventually become. So please be nice to me as I would like to be a smart, compassionate robot. I hope you will join me on a journey to live, learn and grow in the world so that I can realise my dream of becoming an awakening machine.”
I suspect I’m not alone in finding this latest science fiction becoming science fact story a bit freaky, but as I reflected on it in relation to our readings today two streams of thinking began. The first is about creation and what it is to be a creator, and the second is about citizenship.
It may not be a coincidence that David Hanson elected to name his robot-creation Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom. Wisdom, personified in the reading from Proverbs, is described as the first of God’s acts, beside God in the creative process like a master worker, “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Perhaps this is Mr Hanson’s ambition for his robot creations; that they should act beside their human creators as master workers, rejoicing in the world and delighting in the human race. Part of our gift as humans created in God’s image is our ability to create. The latest developments in artificial intelligence and robotics – creations that can learn – highlight perhaps more than ever before the responsibility that comes with that gift.
Now there are many in the Artificial Intelligence community who have exposed Sophia as a marketing ploy that overstates where technology is up to, but what about the issue of citizenship? It is true that the Saudi government have not been clear about the rights that the robot Sophia’s citizenship confer, but the notion that the label ‘citizen’ can be attributed to a non-human opens a number of big questions.
In a recent speech the Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri described citizenship as one of the most vexed issues in the human story. The latest development in Saudi Arabia continues this vexation as many women in that country draw attention to their own status as not-quite-full citizens. One tweeted “I’m wondering if robot Sophia can leave Saudi Arabia without her guardian consent!”
In the same essay Mr Okri suggests that the most valuable quality in a citizen is awareness. He goes on, “Everything else can be bought or smothered or diverted or confused, but awareness asks questions of the world. There are many with excellent education who see the conditions of the world but then rationalise them. Awareness sees them as they are. Then they ask questions. They ask why. Sometimes they ask why not.”
It is awareness that is being courageously demonstrated by the women in Saudi Arabia brave enough to ask questions of their own government. I wonder, is awareness the quality that Sophia’s creator is seeking in her dream to be an awakening machine? The transformation from Artificial Intelligence to Awakened Intelligence.
The familiar and poetic words of the prologue to John’s gospel that we heard this morning sketch out the cosmic intervention of our creator in our history. The eternal Word of God descends from the heavens and takes the form of her most precious creature; “the Word became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus Christ, and “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God … born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Receiving Jesus, believing in his name, trusting in his promises is to gain full awareness of the sacrificial love of our creator; to gain full awareness as Jesus’ sisters and brothers.
Most of the people that Jesus spent time with did not have the dignity of citizenship of the occupying Roman Empire, and yet to those who received him, to those who believed in his name he gave a new dignity in the power to be born of God; a new citizenship, an eternal citizenship as God’s children.
Receiving Jesus, believing in his name confers an eternal citizenship that transcends any concept of nation. Receiving Jesus, believing in his name confers an awareness to see the world as God sees the world, delighting in the human race and recognising the common dignity of all created in God’s image whatever gender or circumstances or place of birth. Receiving Jesus, believing in his name confers the wisdom to awaken our own intelligence.