It might not be the first place you imagine when you think about robots. But in the Renaissance splendour of the Vatican, thousands of miles from Silicon Valley, scientists, ethicists and theologians gather to discuss the future of robotics.
The ideas go to the heart of what it means to be human and could define future generations on the planet. The workshop, Roboethics: Humans, Machines and Health was hosted by The Pontifical Academy for Life.
The Academy was created 25 years ago by Pope John Paul II in response to rapid changes in biomedicine. It studies issues including advances in human genome editing techniques. These techniques were controversially claimed to have been used by Chinese scientist He Jiankui, to alter the genes of twin girls so they could not get HIV.
For the opening of the meeting, Pope Francis presented a letter to the Human Community, where he outlines the paradox of “progress” and cautions against developing technologies without first thinking of the possible costs to society.
In the letter, the Pope emphasises the need to study new technologies: communication technologies, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies and robotics. “There is a pressing need, then, to understand these epochal changes and new frontiers in order to determine how to place them at the service of the human person, while respecting and promoting the intrinsic dignity of all,” Pope Francis writes.
In stark contrast to this message came a hypothesis from Japanese Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, who says we will no longer be recognized as flesh and blood humans, in 10,000 years time. Famous for creating extremely human-like robots at his lab in Osaka University, including one of himself, Prof Ishiguro spoke about the need to evolve our bodies away from their current materials to something more enduring.
“Our ultimate aim of human evolution is immortality by replacing the flesh and bones with inorganic material,” he said. “The question is what happens if something happens in the planet, or something happens on the Sun, so we cannot live in the planet, we need to live in space.” “In this case, which is better? Organic materials or inorganic materials?”
For Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, there is a clear answer. “This dream is a terrible dream,” adding that it was “impossible” to divide the body and soul. “The flesh is the body with the soul and the soul is a spirit with flesh,” he asserted. “The body is very important for human beings, through the body we love, through the body we embrace and communicate with one another,” he said.
Creating robots that can do tasks humans can do, even intimate tasks like caring for elderly people or having a relationship, is a fundamental aspect of Prof Ishiguro’s work. “We have a serious problem, the Japanese population is going down to half the number of the current population within 50 years.”
Instead of relying on human immigrants or a baby boom to solve the decline, Prof Ishiguro points to the possibility of utilising robots instead. “We don’t have enough annual immigrations, Japan is an isolated country, it’s an island, our culture is quite different from other countries,”
“It is not so easy for the foreigners to survive in Japan in some sense,’ Prof Ishiguro said. “That is the main reason why we are so crazy for creating robots.” The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) released a report last year emphasising the “urgent and complex moral questions” raised by advances in AI and robotics.
It emphasized a need to for a collective and collaborative way of working to establish a set of values around which to organise society and the role these new technologies play. “We are aware on one side this is unbelievable progress, but on the other side, we felt that are risks that this development can give the world. “The risk is we forget we are creatures, not creators.”