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

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.”

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 converseperform dangerous tasks and even have sex.

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

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.”

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.

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. Continue reading

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