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How Will Robots Change Religion?
AI will throw a wrench into many of our theological foundations. How will we adapt?
hitchBOT had big dreams. The hitchhiking robot was able to catch rides across Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands with no issue. Then he — well, his Ontario-based makers — decided it was time to see the States. Launching in Salem, Massachusetts, en route to San Francisco, hitchBOT cruised to Philadelphia when someone destroyed him. Another murder for ‘Merica.
But is it murder? The obvious answer is no, being that hitchBOT is not sentient. Yet how long will we be able to reply this way when the promise of AI draws nearer? Would Joaquin Phoenix say his relationship with Scarlett Johansson’s voice wasn’t real? Caleb seemed rather fooled by (and smitten with) Ava as well.
During a recent Joe Rogan podcast, actor/comedian Duncan Trussell recalled bringing up the consequences of AI with a Tibetan Buddhist monk. How will artificial intelligence affect the Buddhist notion of karma and reincarnation? The monk replied that the "stuff" of consciousness, even when artificially created, would join the merry-go-round and go along for the ride, a seamless insert from an unexpected source.
This reply seems out of necessity: Once you declare you’ve "figured it out," as many religious and spiritual practitioners do, then you have to bend reality to fit the narrative you’ve subscribed to. Easier to slip a robot into the mix then question the nature of that belief to begin with. AI will throw a wrench into the notion of souls as well — does a robot need to surrender to Christ to reach heaven? While the notion sounds absurd, that’s more a function of the absurdity of metaphysics than the potential of AI.
Michael Schulson compares the closeness Phoenix felt in Her with the religious believer in his article on hitchBOT:
A believer might assume an intimacy with a god she can neither see nor hear, and whose essential nature she is unable to probe. You need not be an atheist to consider the anthropologically inflected perspective that believers project their ideas, desires, and expectations onto their objects of worship. And it is not foreign to theology, either, the idea that human beings might have created God in their own image.
It’s no surprise that programmers built hitchBOT to appear human-like; our vanity is not hidden, given that we think we "work" best. Most robots mimic us, and those that don’t often have "arm-like" or "leg-like" movements. We seek appendages in the clouds, craft sky origami with our biases. We believe the rotations of planets spin for us, therefore astrological occurrences must offer some level of significance.
We love ourselves to death, really.
Likewise, we constantly anthropomorphize our computers. Conversations on Facebook and Twitter are the equivalent of talking to ourselves, aloud. Not that that’s a bad thing; I’m fond of blurting out ideas and objections fully aware my cats aren’t understanding a word. Sure, they’ll get the emotional gist; content eludes them. It just offers the illusion of an audience.
The intimacy Schulson cited, once reserved for prayer, is also now public. Social media is wonderful for sharing information and witty puns worthy of Oscar Wilde. Over-sharing, however, is rampant: intimate love details (or lack thereof), daily personal struggles of affluence, dreams of contentment, the artless humblebrag. Our wrists rest on desk edges like our knees once leaned on pews.
AI, like religion, is a product of our brain. We use our imagination to create a mythology; if the mythology is taken seriously, it becomes a cult. The cult upsets a social balance and is either outcast or, in the span of generations if not centuries, convinces enough people that its story is valid. It becomes a religion, staring down at others like it was once gazed skeptically upon. The hunted becomes the hunter.
Darwin threw a cog in the religion of his time; incredibly he’s still debated today. AI will be the next wrench potentially destroying the underpinning of theologies. In fact, Christian fundamentalists appear to be more susceptible to feelings of disgust around robots due to uncanny valley sensitivity. An infinite regress will surely emerge as an explanation: God created humans created robots...
Consciousness is more difficult terrain to navigate than robotics, though. According to some faiths, it is our special gift. (Acknowledging that animals are conscious beings is still a relatively new fact many are grappling with.) What happens when we bestow that gift unto others? What will the man behind the curtain claim?
Hopefully, a saner, more rational approach to our "mission" here. As I was discussing with a friend regarding the merging of spiritual practice with science, even if Buddhism and quantum mechanics are related — who cares? Understanding meditation on a particle level might be fun head fodder, but the goals of meditation — learning how to not suffer and, hopefully, helping alleviate the suffering of others — are not going to be aided by this information.
Besides, we still have human nature to grapple with. If we can’t even help our toys hitchhike across a few states, what does that say about our moral dimension, the heart of religions throughout time? And if our toys do become conscious, will they help us out with our eternal predicament of bigotry, violence, and greed, or will they too fall victim to a belief in a great invisible hand in the sky tinkering with their software? Will we then be able to see we’ve been the ones inventing beliefs all along and finally take responsibility for what we’ve done with our time here?
Image: ChinaFotoPress / Contributor
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.