BBC Radio 4:Jasvir Singh - 30/09/2017

Good morning.

Imagine this. You enter a temple and are greeted by a group of devotees who lead you through the corridors into the inner sanctum. You’ve come to speak to their leader and living God, but you aren’t meeting a human. Instead, you’re about to have an audience with a self-aware robot with artificial intelligence.

Now you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m giving away spoilers to Bladerunner 2049, the much anticipated sequel to the seminal sci-fi film. I’m actually talking about a religious organisation called Way of the Future recently established in the US. According to media reports this week, its mission is “to develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.”

Whilst the creation of an AI deity may seem bizarre to many, the ethical issue regarding robots with intelligence indistinguishable from that of humans is something we’re likely to encounter in the not too distant future. However, if androids develop free thought and are able to communicate and reason, there’ll inevitably come a point where we have to question what it is that makes us human and them robots.

The Sikh concept of existence is based on the notion of a soul. Sikhs, as well as Hindus and Jains, believe that the soul has to go through a cycle of 8.4 million lives before it reaches the last and most precious one in that cycle, the human life. This idea of reincarnation includes any creatures that can be described as living and capable of free movement. As humans, we may find it challenging to include AI within that realm of existence, or believe that robots could have souls. But if we can create machines which come close to replicating humans, then theologically could it not be possible for them to have a soul and simply be another life in that cycle?

The Fifth Guru said that:

“The soul wanders in many births through doubt, but it remains the same and does not come to dwell in peace.”

Perhaps when Philip K Dick asked “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”, he should have added “Do robots pray to a Creator before bedtime?”

But exactly what consciousness is remains a mystery. That’s why many experts in AI believe that consciousness will never be recreated in a machine. That’s not to say that robots won’t play an important role in the future of humankind.

The original Bladerunner film highlights an interesting dilemma when the former police officer Deckard has to decide whether a replicant should be ‘retired’ and switched off, or allowed to live anonymously amongst humans.

The coming years are likely to be fraught with ethical arguments about the rights of robots and our responsibilities towards them, and we should be prepared to consider such issues very carefully.