Brainstorm: AI and the future of religion

As the world embraces greater technological evolution, what role will spirituality play?

Published by Brainstorm Magazine: https://brainstorm.itweb.co.za/content/GxwQDq1DVmnMlPVo


In the 1400s, Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press had a major effect on European society. Along with providing the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance, it was instrumental in igniting the scientific revolution.


Until then, written records were expensive, difficult to come by, and most people were illiterate. They had to rely on the learned minority – professors and priests – to hear the news and understand sacred truths.


Over time, more people learned to read and religious writings became more affordable and readily available. When the Bible was translated into the vernacular, people could read it for themselves and the reliance on the minority for interpretation decreased. The Church was losing its grip as the sole custodian of information.


Technology's relationship with religion hasn’t always been straightforward. Over time, the religious elite would reject innovations, seeing them as a threat to their hold on power and influence over the masses.


Religious authorities seem to confront technological innovation in three stages: rejection, adoption, and adaptation. From the condemned Nicolaus Copernicus, who published his heliocentric views in 1543, to Galileo Galilei – his chief defender – who, in 1633, was found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition, religious traditions (at least in the Western world) have struggled to accept and adapt to the metamorphosis caused by technology.


AI technology is transforming how people interact with practically every aspect of their reality in the modern day, and this transformation includes how people view and relate to religion. While it appears that contemporary religious leaders are more receptive to technology, do they truly understand the upheaval that will occur in how people approach spirituality and faith?


Various faiths have utilised technology advancements to enrich traditional religious practices, ranging from computerised texts to robot priests.


Last year, 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, the German town of Wittenberg dedicated the robot priest BlessU-2 to Martin Luther's religious revolution in Europe. Catholics can download the Confession Chatbot app to interact with a bot in a two-way conversation. Muslims worldwide can use Muslim Pro, which contains daily prayer schedules, sunrise and sunset notifications, and an electronic compass indicating the path to Mecca. Other apps adjust fasting periods automatically throughout Ramadan based on the device's location.


There is rising concern among religious leaders regarding the consequences of the creation of more humanlike machines. It's not just sexbots and social media addiction that they're worried about. As machines become more advanced, even achieving levels of consciousness in the coming years, what will that mean for humanity as spiritual beings?


Spiritual tradition

Will our importance as the pinnacle of God’s creation – as seen by many – be under threat? Will the very foundations of the great religious traditions be rendered irrelevant in a world where sentient, human-like technology is in no need of a saviour or redemption?


As AI advances with the use of augmented reality, brain-computer interface technology, nanotechnology, artificially generated babies, and lab-grown body parts, I wonder how the core of our humanity will be affected. Will AI make us cyborgs that no longer need a sense of the sacred, or will the spread of technology result in a world too horrible to imagine that may draw more people to pursue a spiritual tradition?


I think, in a world where information is more readily available than ever before, we will experience a tectonic Gutenberg-like shift in how most people perceive their humanness and those around them. I don’t think that the idea of God will ever go away, but the definition of faith and spirituality will transform in ways that will further redeem Copernicus and Galilei, and in ways that Luther could only dream about.


Writing in his personal capacity, Johan Steyn is a smart automation and AI thought leader and management consultant, working at PwC, and is chair of the IITPSA’s Special Interest Group on AI and Robotics.