The Robots are Coming: Us, Them & God by Nigel Cameron


Back when I studied theology at university, Science and Religion used to be one of my favourite areas of study, but I always found the area of engagement with questions about AI interesting for the first few minutes, and disappointing thereafter.

I found it interesting because there are lots of genuinely good questions there – for example “What if we manage to make a machine that is the same sort of intelligent as ourselves, rather than just very good at following instructions? Could it relate to God? Do computers have rights? Could they / should they?” I found it disappointing because the answers tended to be either poorly thought through or missing altogether.

This book is an introduction to the field, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve read on it from a Christian point of view, but there are still loads of weaknesses, some of them simply because no-one has thought about those areas properly.

What Cameron does very well is raise a lot of the important questions, and summarise the main views in the secular discussion on the area.

I think he’s much patchier on offering Christian answers to some of those questions – sometimes it’s really good and sometimes he just doesn’t seem to have anything to say (to be fair to him, I’m not aware of good Christian answers to some of the questions he raises).

There are also some big questions and issues he ignores, which is a problem. For example:

  • Is human intelligence or the sense of free will something which just emerges from a sufficiently complex system, or is it something different which God has given to us which computers could never have? I don’t raise that question because there’s an easy answer to it, but because the answer, whether we know it or not, makes a profound difference to some of the other questions around potential machine rights.

  • The issue of cyber-security. For example, he mentions a Barbie doll which needs a WiFi connection and can speak back to children, without noticing the implication that a human hacker (or a sufficiently advanced future AI one) could therefore hijack it to listen to whatever your child says and speak back to them in the person of a favourite toy. Creepy? Absolutely, but Cameron just misses it.

There are a couple of other reservations I have about the book. He always capitalises “Robot”, which just looks weird, especially when all the sources he quotes from don’t.

[Disclaimer – I was sent a free copy of this book, though I’m not sure why. It hasn’t influenced my review, though I might not have read the book otherwise.]

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