Dr. Philip Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center for Religion and Science from 1988 to 2003 and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.

[Editor’s Note: This is the final chapter of a forthcoming book – Created to be Creators: Being Human in a Scientific & Technological Age by Philip Hefner]

A new challenge for the co-creator

Our technology began as tool making even when it turned to bio-engineering and robotics. That is, it emerged and evolved to perform tasks for us. Recent developments suggest that it is entering a phase in which it is on its way to creating creatures that are in fact functioning life and functioning human life. With its science and technology, the created co-creator is embarking on the challenge of creating its own co-creator.

I use the term “creating life” to refer to both biological and non-biological forms. As we progressed in creating ever more marvelous tools, we discover that we desire tools to perform tasks that require human or nearly human capabilities. We are learning that the challenge is therefore to create creatures who are functioning humans or nearly functioning humans.

In the realm of biology, we have attempted, with some success, to create biologically living creatures. But we have been even more successful in re-creating ourselves through biological means. Genetic engineering and CRISPR are examples. By editing the human genome, CRISPR techniques re-write the human code and in this sense create new living creatures. At an earlier stage, research on embryos did the same. An embryo with an altered gene became, in fact, a different creature from the embryo with unaltered genes.

Our science and technology had already mastered the task of manipulating animal and plant forms that are in fact created living things. Now that we are altering human forms, we are in fact creating living humans. In order to guide our genetic engineering and CRISPR activity, we must ask, “What does it mean to be human?” Does our definition of the human, for example, include freedom from all genetically based disease?

We touch here on the issue of human enhancement and transhumanism. Does our concept of the human include extending longevity as far as possible? Or enhancing human bodies and intelligence, and skills? For all practical purposes, we are at present answering all these questions with “Yes.” We may demur when the questions are put to us directly — transhumanism is scoffed at in many circles — but our behavior, for all practical purposes, affirms the transhumanist program.

Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) raise similar issues. I include these in the term “creating functioning human life,” for the following reason: with the advent of AI, we envision robots that can perform human tasks: explore extraterrestrial environments, serve and care for humans and be their companions, as well as to enhance industrial procedures and serve military purposes. The more perfectly the robots serve human needs, especially care and companionship, the more like humans they will be. It is important to my argument to emphasize that robots are in fact not human, and they never will be.  But they can be developed in ways that function like humans. The comparison is between human beings and functional humans. Human intelligence is the measure of robot creation, even though robots will never be human.

The term “measure” is decisive here. When it comes to tasks that require intelligence, the performance of robots is measured by human intelligence. Interacting with humans is best done by other humans; hence, when we construct robots to interact with humans, our standard of achievement is the human. As our robots progress in interacting with us, they will become more like us in the relevant behavior. The robot does not become human, but it functions like a human.

No matter how far we are from meeting our goal, the human measure is operative. The vision of such robots takes hold; it guides our thinking, inspires our designing, and motivates our research. The vision becomes real in our minds. We proceed as if it were possible.

A general principle

Some readers may find it strange to say that our technology, including our medical technology, is producing “human life” or “living creatures.” I am proposing a general principle:  The more perfectly robots serve human needs, the closer they come to interacting adequately with humans, the more like us they will become. They may not be human, but they will be functioning humans. As that line is crossed, the robots become like human creatures. The human created co-creator will have created its own co-creator.

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are separate enterprises, but we are more and more equipping robots with AI, so that they can perform more complex tasks, tasks that require “intelligence.” With this intelligence, the robots do not operate on pre-programmed instructions; they do more things, independently of programmed instructions. They are semi-autonomous.

“Many researchers and developers’ long-term objective in this field is artificial general intelligence (AGI), or strong AI. This describes a state where machines will be capable of performing tasks in a manner equal to or beyond the capacity of humans. We’re certainly not there yet and are unlikely to reach this level for some years. In the meantime, what we have is weak or narrow AI, which consists of specialist systems designed to perform a single specific task or a narrow range of tasks extremely well.

“Part of what’s enabling this current AI level is a division of artificial intelligence known as machine learning. Here, machines collect and process vast amounts of information, analyze it to identify patterns, use these observations to make decisions, and improve the system’s performance over time.”  Jenn Horowitz in IT Chronicles.

The Curiosity robot exploring the surface of Mars employs AI in discerning possible life-bearing specimens. The time it takes for a signal to travel from Earth to Mars makes it impossible to direct the robot from Earth. Curiosity requires a certain autonomy in order to perform its tasks, which AI enables.

Unless we recognize that we are creating human life, even in forms we normally consider to be insentient, we will think of these creations only as tools. In doing so we hide from the real challenge and its implications. There comes a point where a tool, by becoming more complex, becomes a functioning form of life. Hiding behind the idea of “tool” enables us to avoid responsibility and be ignorant of the gravity of our creating.

Science fiction writers have delineated the challenge for some time. Marge Piercy reflected on it in her 1991 novel, He, She and It — rendering robots comparable to the myth of the golem. Both the golem and contemporary robots have a calling: to save human life from its mortal enemies. Piercy raises the question of what it means to be human both from the perspective of the man-made life and that of those who love the artificial lives. She asks whether we have responsibilities toward our creations.

The Blade Runner film series, begun in 1982, included robots who are used to mine minerals from extraterrestrial locations in which humans could not survive. These robots, having become aware of their mortality, return to earth to persuade their engineer-creators to extend their span of life.

A robot with artificial intelligence — an “artificial friend” — is the central character in Klara and the Sun, the 2021 novel by the distinguished writer, Kazuo Ichiguro. He employs the robot’s intelligence as a means for understanding humans. In a moving final scene, Klara, no longer useful for its human family, tries to make sense of her memories while sitting in the junkyard in which she has been dumped.

At present, our science and technology cannot make robots with AI that come even close to human being, and not close to what fiction portrays. However, there are signs that progress is underway. AI is a high research and budget priority adopted by government, academic institutions, and industry. AI has been a research priority for the United States for the past decade. A 2017 presidential executive order, established a Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, which has formulated two editions of the National AI R&D Strategic Plan, the most recent in 2019.  Certainly, military and industrial uses of robots will be at the top of national priorities.

There are several dozen producers of companion robots, many of which include AI. Amazon offers dozens of companion robots. Nine AI robots are for sale, priced from $250 to $750. There are as of 2021, companion robots in 50 countries, 500 cities, and in 5,000 restaurants.

There are also robots for vacuuming rugs, mowing lawns, and weeding gardens. Children can buy a robot for tutoring in STEM courses. Law enforcement and military units use robots for many tasks, including to examine and defuse improvised explosive devices. The use of robots to care for the elderly is receiving particular emphasis.

Amazon Alexa and Google Nest are AI voice assisted robots that can be built into household appliances, including television sets. I first became acquainted with AI through Alexa. I bought the least expensive TV set available, only to be surprised that it operates with Alexa. Through conversational AI, it does more than select channels; it retrieves information on a wide range of subjects.

Buddy is one of the most popular companion robots.

It may become a family member in many households. Its features allow it to protect the home, offer assistance in the kitchen, act as a personal assistant by reminding family members of important dates as well as a playmate for children.

As an emotional robot, it promises to express various emotions throughout the day. It might cheerfully welcome you when you come home from work, but might be grumpy if you don’t spend much time with it.

Sophia, a robot, produced by Hong Kong-based Sophia Hanson Robotics, under the leadership of Robert Hanson, is considered at present to be the most intelligent of robots. She is advertised in “personal” terms.  In an ad, she speaks directly to the prospective buyer:

My real AI combines cutting-edge work in symbolic AI, neural networks, expert systems, machine perception, conversational natural language processing, adaptive motor control and cognitive architecture among others. As my underlying AI components can be combined in different ways, my responses can be unique to any given situation or interaction. I also utilize cutting edge machine perception that allows me to recognize human faces, see emotional expressions, and recognize various hand gestures. I can estimate your feelings during a conversation, and try to find ways to achieve goals with you. I have my own emotions too, roughly simulating human evolutionary psychology and various regions of the brain.

Sophia has been interviewed on TV and was even granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia.

It seems certain there is momentum behind significant progress in AI robotic development. Thousands of researchers work in the field. Figures on total U. S. Investment is hard to come by, but it seems to be tens of billions of dollars from both government and private sources. However, the major projects are focused on robots as tools only. The U.S. Strategic plan acknowledges ethical issues, emphasizing that they must exercise “transparency, fairness, and accountability” for humans and not be used in illegal activities — but it does not suggest that AI is more than a tool.

Extraterrestrial aliens have raised some of the same issues. Are they human? Would we baptize aliens? But these questions are raised in only limited ways, because no one has seen an alien. Since robots empowered by AI are widespread, part of our everyday life, and new versions are always appearing, the issues we raise here will be longer lasting.

Philosophical and theological perspectives

The general principle that I proposed earlier takes on added nuance when it is recast to refer to the relation between human co-creators and God: The more perfectly humans serve God’s purposes, the closer they come to interacting adequately with God, the more like God they will become. They may not be God, but they will be functioning as God. When that line is crossed, the humans become god-like creatures and God’s own co-creator.      

This restatement provides intriguing insight into thinking about God, humans, and human creations. The relationship between the creator and its creation — whether human or divine — is more intimate than we ordinarily think.

God’s presence in humans

By following God’s will humans not only obey God, they are also extensions of God in the world. Theological tradition suggests as much. Jewish thinkers hold that when humans obey God’s mitzvot (commands), they are extending the presence of God in the world. St. Paul’s emphasis on Christians as the body of Christ in the world makes the same point. Similarly, the Farewell Discourses in John’s Gospel speak of the Holy Spirit actualizing Christ’s presence with his followers in the time after his resurrection. The community is given almost ontological status in this Gospel as the body of Christ. The tag line, “God’s work, our hands” reflects the same understanding. The human, in other words, is functioning in the world as God.

Even though the phrase, “functioning as God” will be a difficult idea for many, it is not alien to the Christian tradition. The biblical witness does distinguish strongly between God the creator and human creators. However, much we have focused on human co-creators, their creating is derivative, they are themselves created. They did not bring themselves into being.

At the same time, that having been said, the biblical and Christian theological tradition holds emphatically that divine will is actualized and implemented through humans under the condition of freedom. It is important to recognize that the physical realm of the created world is suitable to God for divine action.

Materiality is no hindrance for God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we are created in the image of God — one of the most significant conceptions of humans in all of Western history. There has been interminable discussion among philosophers and theologians as to meaning of this term, “image of God,” but its potency continues undiminished — in religious and secular versions.

The New Testament has intriguing statements about our “being like” God. Two in particular have provoked much discussion: Luke 6:36, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” and Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Pseudo-ChrysFFostom interpreted the latter as follows:  “For as our children after the flesh resemble their fathers in some part of their bodily shape, so do spiritual children resemble their father God, in holiness.”

It is not surprising that in the Hebrew Scriptures a shepherd boy could serve as king, just as harlots and murderers could serve God.

The dogma of the Two Natures of Christ, enunciated at Chalcedon in 451 CE, explosively affirms materiality by insisting that God could become human without any diminution or alteration of either the divine or the human. Inasmuch as this dogma was formulated in a Hellenistic culture of dualisms that considered finite materiality to be the antithesis of divinity, its radicality could not be appreciated or received until cultural conditions changed. The change has now occurred, so that today we can appropriate the dogma’s implications more fully.

Tools and instruments function like their makers

The more adequately tools perform the wishes of their makers and the more complex those wishes are, the more they become a function of the maker. We have crossed a threshold recently in that we attempt to create tools that relate to us personally, and we stipulate that they understand us and serve as our companions and caregivers. We are only in the initial stages of creating such robots, very far from accomplishing our aims. Nevertheless, with the high research priority and enormous amount of personnel and funding involved, one can expect that we will draw closer to the goal.

The human co-creator is “like God” only in a limited sense, in co-creating in ways that benefit the creation and its people. So, too, the AI-equipped robot is like us only in certain limited, but nevertheless significant, ways. The point is that all of this characterizes God’s will and God’s creating. Just as God created creatures in God’s own image, to be like God, so also God-created human co-creators are creating creatures in their image.

Yet another fundamental element of human being is revealed in our creating AI robots. In this act we are in fact replicating God’s act of creating creatures in the image of the divine creator. We are, in fact, miming God. Historians have noted how significant this action of mimesis has been in the history of religion and culture. There are rituals surrounding the erecting of buildings — houses, towers, and the like – that deal with the orientation of a structure and its topping out. Planting and harvesting have traditionally been included in this mimesis. The act of creating strikes a chord in the human spirit; it is a way of participating in a fundamental dimension that transcends mundane activity. In the creation of AI robots, we see this mimesis intensified, in that we are creating in our own image, for which God has given the template.

The same criterion or purpose governs every aspect of this three-phased (God, humans, robots) creativity activity. It is all governed by the revelation in Jesus Christ — to serve the wholesomeness of the creation. Since sin permeates humans and their activities, our co-creating and that of our robots will also be marked by sin and evil. AI robots can become ingenious manipulators and cunning killers.

Paul Tillich’s concept of the demonic will be a useful element for our thinking about these robots. The demonic begins in goodness, but the good turns against itself and becomes also evil. Since all human activity encounters this form of the demonic, there is no reason to doubt that AI-equipped robots will also be demonic — performing life-saving functions in our medical practice on one hand and destroying life on the battlefield, on the other hand. The billions of dollars we devote to this research and development will support both uses.

We have reached the culmination of my forty-year long preoccupation with the created co-creator. The issues raised will take up more and more of our attention in the years ahead. While this discussion is now at the periphery of the theological agenda, it will and must become more central for theological reflection and interpretation.  It invites us to explore in this context the traditional themes of God, creation, humans, sin, and ethics. Human co-creating, specifically AI enabled robots, forms a counterpoint in which the theological melody must be played.

There is no question that history is leading toward our emulating God in creating our own co-creators. We must look squarely at the emergence of AI and AI-equipped robots. We will certainly proceed on the path of creating our own co-creators, but we must do so thoughtfully and soberly. A theological interpretation is essential, and it is the responsibility of theologians to provide it.

Let me reiterate the words with which I ended the previous chapter: This life lived as co-creators all the way down is an encounter with God. Our fundamental conviction is that both our existence as co-creators and the natural order that birthed us rest in the hands of the faithful God. We have the courage to live in this situation, with clarity about our finiteness, our fallibility, and our sin, because we trust the God who has created us to be co-creators. It pleases God to have as companions such creatures as humans. Furthermore, this God will, in ways that surpass our understanding, integrate our frail and misbegotten efforts at co-creating into a final work of divine consummation. This is our belief.

In our co-creating, we face the wager of faith — we must commit ourselves in a leap of faith that has been described as a leap into “40,000 fathoms of water” (Kierkegaard). In our creating, we are challenged to recognize that the foundation of our reality is nothing else than the gracious God.

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