Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, left, and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk disagree over the possible threat of artificial intelligence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, Stephan Savoia)

As artificial intelligence grows, so do perceived threats to human uniqueness

(RNS) — SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk got into a spat recently on Twitter with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg over the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Musk urged a group of governors to proactively regulate AI, which he views as a "fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization."

“Until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” Musk said.

Zuckerberg shot back, saying fearmongering about AI is “irresponsible.”

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The two divergent views on AI reflect the existential questions humans face about their uniqueness in the universe.

Today, robots are quickly populating our cultural landscape. Engineers are building robots that can converse, perform dangerous tasks and even have sex.

Like Musk, people may see robots as a threat, especially as some become increasingly humanlike.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responds to a question by Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval during the closing plenary session, titled "Introducing the New Chairs Initiative - Ahead," on the third day of the National Governors Association's meeting on July 15, 2017, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Even the appearance of humanlike robots causes many people discomfort. This phenomenon, called “the uncanny valley,” is a hypothesis proposed in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, and according to researchers, this discomfort stems from some existential questions about the nature of humanity.

This hypothesis says that the more humanlike something is, the more comfortable we feel with it. But this comfort level suddenly dips when the object closely resembles a human.

Researchers have corroborated this hypothesis, and many factors contribute to it. For one, these humanlike robots remind us of our own mortality.

“They contain both life and the appearance of life,” said Karl MacDorman, associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction program of Indiana University. “It reminds us that at some point, we could be inanimate after death.”

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What’s more, the idea that robots may have a consciousness and become almost indistinguishable from humans disturbs some, as recent movies such as “Ex Machina” and “Her” attest. The possibility that humans are not unique opens up questions about the nature of humanity.

Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett describe humans as nothing but complicated robots made of flesh. But Jews, Christians and Muslims believe humans are made in God’s image, the apex of God’s created order.

“I think particularly in the Christian tradition and Jewish tradition there’s this concept of Imago Dei, which means we are created in the image and likeness of God,” said Brent Waters, Christian ethics professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. “To try to create something unique that God created may also be a form of idolatry.”

People from cultures that attach spiritual significance to trees or stones may have an easier time with robots.

Karl MacDorman. Photo courtesy of Indiana University

MacDorman points out that Japanese society, which is both Shinto and Buddhist, has a general tendency to be more accepting of robots, including humanlike ones. For example, robots interact with customers in department stores, and engineers have built companion robots for families and the elderly.

On the other hand, followers of Abrahamic religions tend to be more disturbed by robots that bridge the gap between the human and inanimate.

Christopher Benek, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the discomfort people may have with robots can encourage them to think about what makes them unique.

As a techno-theologian and futurist, he believes God gave humans the ability and privilege to co-create, but humans have not yet advanced their co-creation skills enough.

Robots, he said "make us uncomfortable because they’re different,” Benek said. “They’re creepy. They’re off somehow. But from a theological standpoint, we are special because we are loved by God. I think it’s really important for us to continue to wrestle with it. We’re challenged by something that might be able to have more power than we have.”

The human sense of self is also grounded in biology. Even newborns show signs they distinguish their bodies as unique, said Philippe Rochat, psychology professor at Emory University who recently worked on a study verifying the uncanny valley.

“Identity in being unique is a necessary ingredient for us to move forward in the world and adapt to the world,” Rochat said. “This is how the mind works. It works to create meaning. ... We have to fundamentally distinguish ourselves as other entities in the world.”

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And while people might get used to humanlike robots, the uncanny valley is still a perceptual instinct.

“People can have a very uncanny feeling even if they’re exposed for a 10th of a second,” MacDorman said. “There is a conflict, and our brain is immediately detecting the problem and the error signal.”

This instinct comes from the conflict between us imagining emotions in robots and knowing these robots are inanimate objects, said Catrin Misselhorn, director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. Humans empathize when they perceive that another human is about to produce an emotion.

“If we see a real person as opposed to a robot, we infer that this face has thoughts, emotions, feelings and physically has a mental state,” Rochat said. “We have an automatic inference of mental state. You dehumanize someone when you reduce this inference or eliminate this inference of mental state in this humanlike entity.”

Although robots cannot produce or even show emotions, humans involuntarily imagine that robots can experience emotions or pain.

The fact that humans can feel empathy for humanlike robots raises ethical implications, Misselhorn said. For example, service robots may try to persuade people to buy things, but the fact that robots can be almost humanlike may be manipulated in more malicious ways.

While artificial intelligence may benefit human’s lives in many ways, setting limits for robots and drawing the line between humans and machines has increasingly become relevant in government meetings. In the future, governments may have to clearly define robot rights.

“The fact that we feel empathy with inanimate objects makes us prone to some types of manipulation so we should think about where we want humanlike robots and where we don’t want them,” Misselhorn said.

Still, artificial intelligence can be used for the good of humanity, said Benek. If AI gains a humanlike intelligence, robots may even be able to practice religion.

“I don’t see anywhere biblically where it prohibits us from creating, as long as it’s in accordance with God’s will,” Benek said. “I think if they’re truly autonomous and significantly more intelligent than we are currently, to me, it makes us want to advocate for the good of humanity and the Earth and creation.”

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These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS logo, John Templeton Foundation logo}


  1. Every advance in technology comes as a double edged sword. Shortcutting tools especially exemplify this fact. However, as humans are indeed made in the express image of God, I have no fear of being supplanted in His eyes by robots or constructions of AI. Still, humanity needs to tread carefully in this area lest we create a Frankensteinian entity with the ability to do us harm if it so chooses as a function of relentless if skewed logic.

  2. Too late and the wrong way round – we already have those made-in-the-image-of-men Frankensteinian entities; we call them god(s).

  3. “The Elon Musk-Mark Zuckerberg tussle over artificial intelligence reflects broader questions about the centrality of God-given humanity.”

    Is this another attempt by those with religious belief to start a rational debate without basing it in rationality?

    First: prove the existence of your god.
    Second: demonstrate that your god “gave” us “humanity”
    Third: debate in the knowledge of the certainties gained from successfully achieving the first and second stages.

    If the first and second cannot be achieved debating wishful thinking/beliefs/imaginings is merely to hijack a serious question and neutralise it by diverting it into an irrelevant dead-end.

  4. AI makes for interesting science fiction. (We all love a good Terminator, no?)

    But when the movie’s over, we all gotta go back to doing life (and doing science) in the real world.

    The Bible, God’s Word, tells us the truth about the real world, and the real origin and nature of all humans.

    “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God made he him; male and female created he them.” (Gen.1:27)

    “I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” (Ps 139:14)

  5. For people not averse to anime, an adorable take on artificial intelligence and sentience is seen in the series “Ghost in the Shell-Standalone Complex”.

    Throughout the series there are a group of overly talky robot tanks which accidentally gain self awareness collectively. Far more “college freshman trying weed for the first time” than “kill all humans”

  6. We’ve already created those frankesteinian entities.

    Humanity itself, political leaders who “lead” for life, people with their stubby little fingers on nuclear buttons, televangelists, and a host of others.

  7. I don’t understand those who think things like what one of the sources quoted in this article said, referring to robots and other AI machines: ““They contain both life and the appearance of life”. IMHO, anyone who can say something like this doesn’t understand a fundamental characteristic of life forms that we observe, and from which we, through induction, can arrive at an essential aspect of life: what is natural (both organic and inorganic) comes into being apart from the activities of mind. Something produced via human intention is a piece of culture. If people aren’t willing to accept a fundamental distinction between things that come into being through the power of nature without human mediation and things that come into being via human intentionality—what can one say if people refuse this most fundamental ontological distinction? As for human uniqueness, clearly we are unique among animals—sure haven’t seen any other species capable of transforming the whole global habitant—and if anyone thinks that artifacts like computer and robots could ever threaten human uniqueness (which in my view doesn’t depend on religious metaphysics) that’s because they possess a prior (and ‘faith-based’) presupposition that something imitating life is life. I’m curious what such proponents of a brave new world think the end goal is and why it requires the undermining of obvious ontological distinctions that are not dependent on particular theological formations.

  8. “I don’t see anywhere biblically where it prohibits us from creating, as long as it’s in accordance with God’s will…”

    The devout are encouraged to come up with a consensus on the specifics of what God does and does not want. Settle it any way you wish (I’d implore you to consider a colossal cage match of some sort), but unless and until you can all agree on what His will might be, you’ll understand if the rest of us suspect you might not really be qualified to speak on behalf OF Him…

  9. Yes. What I was thinking while reading this piece was “doesn’t being able to build a human-like, or animal-like, contraption that has power exceeding humans speak to the ‘uniqueness’ of humans?” And as far as the creation of such a thing as a progress toward idolatry, we have no lack of idols with lesser capabilities: We can set a soccer ball on a rock, slap a bloody handprint on it, and call it Wilson.

  10. ““I would say they make us uncomfortable because they’re different,” said techno-theologian and futurist Christopher Benek, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “They’re creepy. They’re off somehow. But from a theological standpoint, we are special because we are loved by God. I think it’s really important for us to continue to wrestle with it. We’re challenged by something that might be able to have more power than we have.”

    Gee, ya think?!

    So, “they’re creepy . . . and off somehow,” yet “we’re challenged by some (entity) that . . . may have more power than we have?” And . . . (the idea that) humans can feel empathy for humanlike robots, raises ethical implications,”

    With all the pain and suffering going on in the world today,we humans would really be bereft of anyone or ANYTHING to empathize with!

  11. First: Your eyeball for starters. A solar system demonstrating intelligent design rather than chaotic randomness, for another.
    Second: The fact that a woman never has to fret whether her pregnancy will result in her giving birth to a turnip, a watermelon, a canary, or a chimpanzee. And such is an absolute principle throughout time. Luck? Chance? Act of a divine? Take your pick.
    Third: “. . . debating wishful thinking/beliefs/imaginings is merely to hijack a serious question and neutralise it by diverting it into an irrelevant dead-end” sounds really unassailable. So turn it around on your own unproven “wishful thinking/beliefs/imaginings” and “certainties.”

    First: Prove the non existence of my God.
    Second: Demonstrate that my God did not give us “humanity.”
    Third: “debate in the knowledge of the certainties gained from successfully achieving the first and second stages.”

  12. You have to admit that AI adds a twist to the toxic martini. %)

  13. Not the same thing at all in my opinion. Human peccadillos are a bad enough thing to confront, potential inanimate objects with their own curious and arcane reasoning skills present an entirely different problem, especially if they manage to become entirely independent.

  14. I like the mission statement, but only time will tell if their efforts prove worthwhile, and by whose criteria.

  15. Intelligent design is glorified begging the question. One declared something designed without showing why one has to make the assumptions. It is especially erroneous because humankind has no experience designing living things or planets.

    Your examples are more of a demonstration of intellectual laziness on your part than proof. The human eye has a major design flaw at its center. The squid has a more effective one. Our planet is covered 3/4 of its surface with a Iiquid which is hostile to terrestrial life.

    Your argument shows a fundamental misunderstanding or misstatement of evolution. Evolution isn’t wholesale creation by random chance. It is a cumulative process. Building upon prior forms. There is too much messiness and inefficiency in living systems to claim it resembles any conception of design as we understand it.

    Your second reiterates the flaws of the first. Third argument shows a lack of patience with forward thinking.

    1. Nobody has to disprove God as no evidence exists for his existence.
    2. No evidence of God means no evidence of things derived from God
    3. Arguments for the existence of god rely entirely in faith. Belief in the lack of evidence. Therefore no certainties will ever exist because they are not being sought.

  16. Ah yes — trust the “experts.” Surely they will lead us through the morass of conflicting visions to the fields of Elysium beyond.

  17. Forget the squid, Spuddie. Their eyes only work well in the water, otherwise all bets are off. So forget about trying to say that theirs are better than ours.

    As for the human “blind spot”, you yourself have *never* noticed a dark central spot with your own eyes, AND you have never noticed any loss of vision in your own eyes even though the blind spot is there 24/7.

    You know why? Because (long story short), your two eyes have been intelligently, brilliantly engineered and coordinated in such an amazing way, that you receive full vision ALL the time, no matter what.

    That’s just another reason why Intelligent Design has put Evolution out to pasture. Evolution cannot account for YOUR existence.

  18. Unfortunately, you (and me) do not really know what our vision would be like without a blind spot. I recall the story of a friend of my parents who upon having corrective eye surgery was astounded to find that one could see individually shaped leaves. I have a blind spot caused by amblyiosis that my vision currently compensates for but if the good eye was damaged, I would become legally blind.

  19. If by “experts” you mean people who have studied and worked in that field, gained recognised qualifications and the respect of their peers then yup – they’re more likely, particularly when pooling their knowledge and experience, to get it right than people who are ignorant but opinionated, not every time but the odds are massively in their favour.

    The Elysium bit is no more than a ten-year-old’s playground attempt to ridicule that which they know they can’t defeat.

  20. Unfortunately the problem is not, despite our accord, that god is a human peccadillo – it’s the harm that is done to humanity at all levels – personal, familial, local, tribal, national and global, by the self-serving promotion and maintenance of those peccadilloes.

  21. Experts are always the last to notice anything that falls outside of their agreed-upon assumptions. If you can’t recognize that vulnerability of “expertise,” you’ve still got some psychological sophistication to acquire.

  22. First – The eyeball’s evolution is clear and understood. If you want to claim that the human eye is the product of a designer you have to explain why said designer gave the octopus the better version and imposed the second-rate on humanity.
    The human eye is a classic example of the imperfect-but-adequate which characterises evolution by random modification moderated by natural selection and buries the concept of design by someone cleverer than the average four-year-old (see also human sinuses, vas deferens, larangeal nerve etc – and koalas – don’t forget the koala’s pouch which opens in just the worst place for the security of it’s content). If it were design it sure wasn’t intelligent.

    Second – Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) – look it up. DNA occurs in lifeforms around smokers at 8000ft below the ocean surface, in bacteria trapped in ice a million years ago and in every living thing.

    Third – what “your own unproven “wishful thinking/beliefs/imaginings” and “certainties.”” do you think you’ve detected.

    First – You make the claim so it’s up to you to provide the evidence. I make no claim about god(s) other than that the apparent lack of either evidence or need is all that a rational mind needs to ignore the possibility that they exist. Having said that – tell me about your God and I’m sure I can point out logical reasons why it’s impossible – they always are.

    Second – Easy – because it’s an irrational request. If God doesn’t exist it can’t give anything – back to you having to prove the existence of your god.

    Third – nothing to debate because your inability to validate the first and second stages precludes it.

    You clearly have (or are pretending to have) no knowledge of the scientific theory of evolution. That, presumably, is either because you aren’t aware of the evidence or because you don’t understand it. There are many excellent resources that are available to you if you wish to understand the brick wall you are currently smashing your head against.

  23. But Spuddie was talking about the blind spot that **everybody** is born with, as a result of the inverted retina design.

    For the evolutionist gang, this is supposed to disprove that the eye was intelligently designed. But that evo-falsehood don’t work anymore.

    Physicists A.M. Labin and E.N. Ribak, “Retinal Glial Cells Enhance Human Vision Acuity” (Phys. Rev. Lett. Vol 104, 158102 – Published 16 April 2010), said,

    “The retina is revealed as an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images.”
    Optimal = the best. Go figure.


  24. Nonsense – long story wrong. We learn, in our earliest months, to make sense of the inputs we have. We make up stories which we think to be true, what you call “full vision” is mainly memory with the brain actually perceiving only a fraction of that which we imagine we are seeing. Thus, if we lose the use of one eye we believe we overcome the loss of the binocular effect – but the brain is still receiving a potentially dangerous lack of data. We also have to learn to delay the awareness of the sounds we hear by c. half a second in order to synchronise our hearing with our “sight”. Fortunately we have evolved brains clever enough to be able to facilitate the limitations of our sensory systems – clumsy but better than being left with the results of an incompetent designer – until the inevitable failure built into our capacities start to fail.

    Memory is also largely a story; crafted to link and explain a few “bullet points” (we have insufficient processing power to enable us to retain more). This can be seen in the ramblings which sometimes result from the cruelty (were it down to a designer) of dementia when our cost/benefit driven evolved brains attempt to create stories from unrelated “bullet points”.

  25. Did you read my comment? I accept that experts are not always right – just right, by a factor of many, more times than those who know little or nothing. Assuming experts are following the scientific method it is that method which will expose any flaws in their expertise – not the ramblings of ill-informed guesswork.

  26. Irrelevant.

    “Optimal” does not preclude either design or evolution.

    “Optimal” describes (rightly or wrongly) the result, not the process by which the result occurred.

  27. The fact that you accept the Bible as God’s word doesn’t make it so.

    Quoting from it as though it were authoritative may make you happy but is irrelevant to those who don’t share your unsupported conviction.

  28. Our eyes only work well in a dry environment. Otherwise all bets are off. The squids eye lacks the blind spot terrestrial animals have. As for the human blind spot, it makes our eyes inferior when compared to other animals. The rest of your proof is simple exclamation. There is nothing brilliant about the numerous problems we face due to evolutionary leftovers. As bipeds, gravity creates strain on our limbs and backs quadrupeds do not face. we have an entire weight loss Industry because our metabolisms evolved from ice age environmental conditions which favor weight accumulation

    You can’t claim our eyes are designed at all since we have no benchmark for the creation of biological systems. We don’t create such things, so we have no concept of designing them. Biological systems do not function like machines nor have the simple efficiency of them. There are useless redundancies, damaging flaws, and inefficiencies coming from living things which make analogies of design hopelesslessly naive. Engineering and design is clean, life is messy.

    Intelligent design is not a theory. It is laziness of thought. Rather than bother to find out about how things came about, one simply says god did it and walks away. Evolution gives you answers, but you don’t want to hear them. Better still, it leads to more questions and more study. Intelligent design can’t account for anything. Evolution tells me where I came from and how certain thins came to be.

  29. You may think it is irrelevant but you are wrong there.

  30. If I may revert back to the discussion as to whether humans are categorically different from anything we create and that technology can never be truly comparable to life or anything more than an imitation of mental functions: I think this needs to be argued independently of religious claims. For such an argument, to check out this recent article by Jeffery Pugh in the online journal “Religions” (open-access at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/religions/special_issues/new_technologies) entitled “The Disappearing Human: Gnostic Dreams in a Transhumanist World.” Arguments about this question, if they are to have any currency outside Bible-believing communities, need to be based on observable facts and commonly held argumentative principles. Otherwise one is just blowing off steam and going nowhere.

  31. actually, you don’t. there IS a blind spot in the eye.

  32. Youre wrong, Spuddie.
    Intelligent design does account for something: money deposited into the accounts of creationists.

  33. Quotations from the Bible are irrelevant to those who cannot regard them as divinely inspired.

    Those of us who cannot accept the existence of the divine are precluded from considering biblical extracts to be divinely inspired.

    Therefore scriptural quotations are irrelevant to us.

    The Bible is not, unfortunately, irrelevant – it impacts on many peoples’ lives. The world would, IMO, be a better place if the Bible were irrelevant but its baleful influence is too useful to con-men, manipulators and temporal power-seekers for such an ideal state to be reached in the near future.

  34. Bond servant of Jesus Christ – now more free than you can imagine or ever hope to be outside of Christ. Joy unspeakable and full of glory.

  35. If your posts reflect joy and glory you can have my portion as well.

  36. Your prog lib worldview is humorless and joyless. You wouldn’t know real joy if it kicked you in the shins. Thanks for your offer – but no thanks.

  37. When you put forth a
    claim it is incumbent upon you to prove the claim with evidence.

  38. You’re welcome – Have a nice day.

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