AI and the Essentialness of Embodiment: An Interview with Noreen Herzfeld

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As I described last week, Artificial intelligence (AI) is a prominent theme in the discussion of technology and faith. This week, I am excited to share my interview with Noreen Herzfeld, a theologian and computer scientist, who has been researching and writing on the interface between Christian faith and technology for many years. The St. John’s University Professor of Science and Religion recently published, The Artifice of Intelligence: Divine and Human Relationship in a Robotic Age, which is where we began our interview.


What motivated you to write this book?

Previously, in my book, In Our Image, I had considered the different ways that we, as Christians, understood what it meant for us to be created in God’s image. I was curious how those ways we image God paralleled the ways we were trying to create artificial intelligence in our own image. That book drew out the parallels and argued that both theologians and computer scientists had landed on relationship as a key thing, and specifically that we were looking for a way to have more of a full relationship with our computers. A relational God created relational beings who were now trying to create relational technologies.

In that book, I never really asked: What makes good relationships? Or, can we have authentic relationships with our machines? I wasn’t planning on writing a second book, but that changed when a bishop in the Anglican Church, who was in charge of their committee looking at AI, asked me, “What book would you recommend for my priests and parishioners that would talk about AI on a level that they could understand, get them up to date on where AI is at, and consider the questions AI raises for Christians?” I stood there for some time, and I could not think of one book that would do those things. That was a call to produce my latest book.

I talk in more depth about AI in The Artifice of Intelligence, but I also consider two key questions AI raises not just for the church but for everyone: first, can we have an authentic relationship with an artificial intelligence? And second, what is AI doing to our human relationships?

Human beings make AI. How do its human creators insert, whether intentional or not, evil and sin?

AI will carry all sides of our human image, both good and bad. As we have found with a variety of chatbots scraping up information off the Internet, they’ll scrape up the bad with the good. They are as likely to spew hate speech as they are to write sonnets.

In that way, all technologies are amplifiers. They work like a hammer that amplifies the torque of your arm and the power that you can put into hitting a nail. AI is going to amplify our abilities in many areas, which will be good, but it will also carry the possibility of amplifying or extending the reach of our sinfulness as well.


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Science for the Church is interested in how we bring the insights from science and technology into our churches. What would you want churches and other Christian communities to know about AI and the explosion of it that we’re seeing today?

First, approach it with caution and with a clear head. We need to recognize that an awful lot of what we’re reading right now is hype about AI that can result in good or be used for evil.

Second, and this comes from the last chapter of my book, is to pay a little more attention the emphasis on embodiment in the world’s religions.

As Christians, we just finished Christmas where we emphasize incarnation. What is that about? It’s about embodiment. It says that if God was going to have a completely full relationship with us as humans, God had to become embodied as well.

And as we move forward in the church calendar towards Lent and Easter, we have the resurrection. What does that say? Well, we say in our Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body, even though we don’t always act like it. We’ll talk as if we believe that we are completely detachable souls, and at death a soul flies off to heaven without a body. But that isn’t what Christian doctrine teaches. No, it says that we will be resurrected on the last day in embodied form. We will be unique individuals; we will be the individuals that we were. Our bodies will be changed, but we will still be embodied.

Let’s consider the sacraments. What are they all about? “This is my body and my blood.” It’s about embodiment and physicality. In the 21st century, we sometimes dismiss our physicality and image that we’re mostly brains that are carried around in our bodies. That is where you get the idea that maybe someday, we can upload our brains to a computer or something. But we are not just brains; we are embodied creatures.

Sorry to pause, but this strikes me as critical. In the book, you develop Karl Barth’s criteria for human relationships to analyze our relationship with AI. You stress that embodiment is central to Christian faith. How else might the Christian emphasis on embodiment affect how we relate to AI?

The first of Barth’s criteria is to “look the other in the eye,” which is about embodiment. But a lot of AI is in the background, and we can’t see it. And in many ways, the technological world separates us from our embodiment. Many of us sit in front of a computer screen all day. We try to project our minds into cyberspace and not live in real space. We fail to appreciate that Christianity implores us to remember that we are embodied creatures. To have fully authentic relationships with each other, face to face, we need to put our phones down.

We must also appreciate the material world around us and recognize how badly we’ve treated the natural world. We need to turn that around, and we don’t have a lot of time to do that. Not only are we embodied creatures, but our bodies are living within an environment. So, it is urgent that we attend to the environment God has provided for us.

Well, that’s a great place to end. We are excited about your book, Noreen. It is a timely contribution to help the church join this conversation around AI. Thank you for taking time to talk about it.

My pleasure, Greg.

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