God and the Robots

I am writing a non-fiction book called God and the Robots. Here’s a first look at my early book proposal. 


In the summer of 2015, two stories were on the front page of the New York Times. The stories did not appear to be related. The first was an announcement that a group of technical luminaries – including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking – had signed a statement calling for governments to outlaw the building of autonomous killing weapons, or so-called “Terminator” machines.[1] The other was a story about a well-meaning robot called “hitchBot” being destroyed by vandals while hitchhiking across the United States.[2]

The first story was about how intelligent machines should treat us. The second story was about how we should treat intelligent machines. Both stories turn on an unanswered question – what is our ethical relationship to robots? How should we treat each other?

The proposed nonfiction book God and the Robots provides an answer to this important question, from an author with intimate knowledge of current and future machine intelligence, as well as a deep understanding of theological ethics and America’s long engagement with Judeo-Christian ethics. Intel futurist Ned Hayes is an expert in artificial intelligence; he also happens to be a published theologian who has worked on ethical questions for several decades. He thus has a uniquely informed perspective on ethical interactions with machines.

With strong endorsements from leading thinkers across the robotics spectrum, God and the Robots is an important and timely update on a topic that has a broad and actively engaged readership, but whose leading New York Times bestselling books are all five to ten years old. God and the Robots fills this market need with an original and deeply informed new book on robotics, ethics, and AI.

Why Theology  & Robots

In 2015, nearly 80% of Americans claim some affinity with Judeo-Christian conceptions of God; a strong majority of U.S. adults say they believe in God, heaven and the soul.[3]  What will happen to those baseline beliefs when self-aware robots begin to assert themselves? In fact, what is a robot in terms of theological understanding? Does a robot believe in God or have a soul?

Today, these questions may not seem to matter. But very soon, when your 90-year-old grandmother is being cared for by an always-on and seemingly highly compassionate near-sentient robot, people will begin to ask these questions every day. If your grandmother begins to believe that the robot prays for her, and she cares for the robot as a “person,” then these questions will have immediate resonance. And what if the robot does actually pray for her? What happens then? What will your family think of that robot, and of that grandmother?

These scenarios may come to life within the next five to ten years. Readers living in this generation of human beings will need to engage with robots on a daily basis. And they will need answers to critical questions of machine en-soulment, human differentiation and ethical behavior towards robots. This book sees the coming AI sea-change as a way to extend America’s Judeo-Christian ethic to embrace robotic beings.[4]

Finally, one of the few nonfiction categories still growing dramatically is the “Religious”[5] book category: another category still above water is “Technology.”[6] God and the Robots should appeal to both categories of readers. As an accessible explanation of critical issues and technological change, the book is designed to garner a mass market readership.

Timing: Current Events

It is an interesting time for intelligent machines on film and television. We’ve all experienced a variety of robots – from AI super-villains in Terminator Genisys and Avengers: Age of Ultron (both 2015), to positive figures such as Samantha in Her (2013) and Baymax in Big Hero 6 (2014). Alongside these one-sided roles have come morally ambivalent characters like Neil Blomkamp’s sympathetic android in Chappie (2015), David in Prometheus (2012), and Ava in Ex Machina (2015).

Film may soon become reality.

Recent developments in immensely faster computer processors, quantum-state computing, human-emulation animatronics and machine learning algorithms make it likely that within the next ten years the United States will see a machine that can claim – with a high degree of believability – to be self-aware and conscious in a human sense.[7] These claims may well be accompanied by animatronic simulacrums of human behavior.

God and the Robots focuses specifically on what these changes will mean in an ethical, spiritual, and theological sense. Currently, our society does not have an ethical framework to deal with interactions with machine intelligences, or robots who have authority to command or kill human beings or even with lowly android slaves. The rapidly converging technical developments make the present moment the right time for God and the Robots to be part of the cultural conversation.

Many smart technologists agree. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking and other tech luminaries signed an open letter in July 2015 warning against the dangers of starting a global arms race of artificial intelligence (AI) technology.[8]  The risks, the signatories say, could be far greater than those posed by nuclear weapons.

“The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting,” the letter states. “If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious… we believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity.” Long a staple of science fiction, the notion of autonomous robots that can kill is starting to take root in the U.S. military. According to many leading thinkers – including the ones who signed this letter – it is only a matter of time before “thinking” machines are unleashed on the battlefield — a prospect that leads to massive ethical and theological implications for people who are paying attention.

This isn’t the first time the science and tech luminaries have warned against the dangers of AI. In 2014, Hawking said the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Both Hawking and Musk signed a letter by the same organization in January of 2015 warning that AI holds great dangers unless humanity can ensure that AI systems “will do what we want them to.” In fact, this last demand raises a new host of ethical questions. If and when AI systems claim self-awareness and self-efficacy, yet they are allowed to do only what we want, then are they our slaves? And if so, what are the ongoing ethics of keeping sentient beings as slaves?

Author Ned Hayes is uniquely positioned to observe the coming wave of near-human machine intelligences and to make prognostications about how human beings would interact with “smart robots,” given his hands-on work in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as his interest and scholarship in ethics and theology.

Furthermore, with various church institutions – most notably the Catholic Church under Pope Francis – embracing the realities of technological progress and climate change, the atmosphere is ripe for an engaged discussion of the implications of technological sentience within Judeo-Christian understanding. Within the next few years, the millions of Americans who are members of churches and synagogues will find themselves struggling to understand how robots and machine intelligences fit into a belief system that includes a Biblical God.



[1] Ban Killer Robots Before They Take Over, Stephen Hawking & Elon Musk Say http://www.livescience.com/51664-stephen-hawking-elon-musk-ai-weapons.html

[2] Robot roadkill: Adorable hitchhiking Hitchbot found mutilated

[3] Harris Poll, 2013 – Between 75% and 80% of Americans believe in the “Christian” or “Jewish” God.

[4] Hayes plans a follow-up book entitled Buddha and the Bots, which discusses Hindu and Buddhist approaches to robotic life. An obvious final book would be Mohammed and Machines – about Islam and AI.

[5] “Religious books have grown by 43% since 2007.” The Changing Mix of What Sells in Print. Jonathan Nowell, Nielsen Bookscan, January 2015. http://bit.ly/1NiK6I4

[6] Ibid. The Changing Mix of What Sells in Print. Nowell, Nielsen Bookscan, January 2015.

[7] Note that early versions of this phenomenon will most likely be very fast machines capable of emulating a “human-like” state, rather than actually “conscious” machines. But the effect on human beings will be nearly identical, and the difference in real terms between an actually “conscious” system and a system that merely presents a simulacrum of consciousness is negligible in terms of ethical implications.

[8] The letter was presented at the “Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures” session at the International Joint Conference On Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The letter was released on July 27, 2015 and was issued by the Future of Life organization.