Friday, October 20, 2017

The Ethics of Automation: Poetry and Robot Priests

Philosophy professor Evan Selinger posted a question on Twitter yesterday about whether there are jobs that it would be unethical to automate.

As I am a Christian, an ethicist, and a philosopher of religion, this is something I’ve been pondering for a few years: is there a case to be made for automating the work of clergy?

A German company recently automated a confessional. On the one hand, this might have great therapeutic effects. On the other hand, it raises a number of ethical, legal, and theological questions. 

In terms of ethics and law: who has access to the information confessed, and what is the legal status of that confession?  Is there anything like the privilege of confidentiality enjoyed by clergy who hear private confessions from their parishioners? 
On the theological and ecclesiastical side: can a meaningful confession be heard by someone who cannot sin, or does confession depend on making a confession to a member of one’s own community and church?  Can a machine be a member of a church, or does it have something more like the status of a chalice or a chasuble – something the community uses liturgically but that does not have standing in the deliberations and practices of the community? Another important question: can a machine act as a vicar? That is, can a machine stand in as a representative of God and proclaim the forgiveness of God as we believe those who have been ordained may do?

Despite the many weaknesses of religion, one strength of religion is that it moves slowly. Yes, this too is a weakness at many times, but it is good to move slowly when declaring sainthood, for instance.  That’s a decision that we should make carefully. Think about it like this: if we are saying that person X is an example of good conduct, shouldn’t we consider that person very carefully, from as many points of view as possible, and do so after that person’s life has ended and all testimony has been heard?  Similarly, most religious traditions take time to consider carefully whether someone should be ordained as clergy. In my tradition, we speak of this as the “process of discernment,” and it is a process that can take years, and that involves the whole community.  The downside is that this process is slow.  The upside is that it keeps us from making rash decisions, or at least it helps us to make fewer rash decisions. We aren’t perfect.

My first, gut response to Selinger’s question was that we should not outsource the writing of poetry to machines.  My concerns here are twofold: one has to do with the danger of persuasion: not much moves us as powerfully as poetry does. My second concern is about the importance of having out arts be the expressions of the heart of our communities. But I could be wrong: maybe robots should be writing poetry – their own poetry, from one machine to another.  I do not wish to deprive anyone of the right to artistic expression, nor do I wish to deprive envy community of the right to have its own forms of beauty. Still, I worry about the way a machine could be used to produce arrangements of words, sounds, and images that would persuade us to act as we should not.

My second response to Selinger’s question is related to the first: poetry is at the heart of most religions, and I find myself with a hesitant uncertainty about whether we should allow robots to be priests.

It’s not that I think we should be unwilling to automate the tedious parts of clerical work.  In fact, that might be a real boon to the community.  We have allowed automation in many areas that has benefited us: bank tellers and airline pilots have given up portions of their work to reliable machines, and the result has been convenience and increased safety. Why could a robot not also tend the sick and the needy, read to those in hospice, visit those in prison, and so on?  As I've written before, my wife is an Episcopal priest, and her work can be very demanding. There might be some parts of it that could be automated, freeing her up for other work that only people can do.

My concern is not about the feasibility of having machines do this work. On the whole, I’m in favor of it. But I do worry that if we hand over caring for others to our machines, we might do so to our own detriment. We should use the technologies we have to serve those in need. Of this I have no doubt.  But we should not pretend that in so doing we have done all that we must do.  I agree with Dr. King and Gandhi on this: we ourselves need to care for those in need. Caring for those in need is not a one-way transaction that serves only the sick and the poor; it is something that the powerful and hale need as well.

I have more to say about all of this, so this post is a too-hasty start, but I want to risk continuing Evan Selinger’s conversation rather than risk neglecting it.  Evan has raised for us one of the more important questions the current generation will face, I think.

For right now, I will end this post by returning to poetry and mythology, which is, as I said, a powerful resource for thinking about how we will act. We need poetry, and we need to reflect on it together to sort out the good poems from the bad. I’ll mention it here for your reflection:  J.R.R. Tolkien reflected on the poems of Genesis by creating his own myth of creation in the Silmarillion. One element of that creation story that my co-author Matthew Dickerson and I often return to is the story in which one of God’s creations imitates God in making more sentient beings, without God’s explicit permission.  Here’s the passage I have in mind:
“The making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.”
Might it be possible for us also to make sentient life in imitation of God "without thought of mockery," and, if so, might it be that those lives we make could write poems and become priests? As anyone who has read Tolkien's myth knows, this raises a new set of ethical questions that now have to be resolved.


Update, 22 May 2018: Irina Raicu just published a very thoughtful reply to this, entitled "Parenting, Politeness, Poets, and Priests" at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Her article is very much worth the time it will take you to read it.  You may find it here.

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