Visit the Kodaiji Temple in Tokyo, Japan, and a six-feet-four, 132-pound robot priest named Mindar will give you a 25-minute sermon on Heart Sutra. Mindar’s ability to preach suggests a near future where artificial intelligence (AI) robots broadly replace human religious leaders.

Christian churches may soon be considering how AI and smart machines can shape their liturgies. One case in point is a Christian AI musician created by Marquis Boone Enterprises. Based on software algorithms, this AI musician recognizes different patterns of songs and composes new ones through replication of the patterns.

But does AI’s ability to replicate religious service elements mean that it is capable of worship or leading religious gatherings? Or does the relationship between our bodies and our consciousness give us a unique capability to praise the God who made us in psychosomatic unity?

Never independent

The hope for human-level AI and the concern about AI robot ministers are both largely rooted in the conviction that human consciousness can be reproduced through emulating the human brain. In the past several decades, AI researchers have developed artificial neural networks (ANNs), also known as simulated neural networks. These neural networks are silicon-based systems—contra the carbon-based human brain—and comprised of many interconnected nodes. The nodes mimic biological neurons and work together to perform functions of the human brain in AI systems.

Those endorsing conscious AI see ANNs and the human brain as computers. They more often than not blur the distinction between human consciousness and artificial consciousness. For example, some advocates of the computational model of the brain even argue that consciousness refers primarily to information processing in humans. Hence, if AI can have sufficient computational power to process information, the essential features of human consciousness can be actualized in silicon-based systems.

Indeed, ANNs present to us a simple simulated structure of the human neural networks, and advocates of the computational model rightly point us to the close connection between the brain and consciousness. Yet simulation in no way amounts to reproduction—that is, AI’s simulation of the human neural networks is not exactly the same as human neural networks, and the functions of the human brain are not completely repeated through ANNs.

Many aspects of human neurons remain to be explored, like multilevel interaction between neurons and the exact number of neural networks in the brain. Of course, one may hold fast to the conviction that the exponential advances in science and technology will ultimately help humans gain full-scale knowledge of the operation and system of biological neurons. Nonetheless, the proponents of the computational model of the human brain still need to address a fundamental question: Are silicon-based artificial neural nodes the same as human biological neurons?

Article continues below

Many scholars who develop interdisciplinary approaches to AI have suggested distinguishing between artificial neural nodes and biological neurons. For instance, AI can model but not instantiate metabolism in a silicon-based system because it lacks the “biochemical substances and energy exchanges” that maintain a living organism, argues cognitive science researcher Margaret A. Boden in AI: Its Nature and Future. Despite the energy storage in robots, she holds that such a use of energy is utterly different from “interlocking biochemical cycles” of metabolism that require biological bodies of carbon-based life. Inasmuch as consciousness and the mind need life—which, in turn, necessitates metabolism—human-level artificial consciousness or conscious AI is impossible.

A challenge to the distinction between the artificial and the natural is posed by Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari identifies organisms—including humans—as algorithms and defines algorithm as “a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions.” Harari’s argument for an algorithmic account of humanity suggests that what happens in human biological algorithms can be replicated in silicon-based algorithms (e.g., in AI systems).

Not everyone believes Harari is on the right track. In his work The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio, a leading expert in neuroscience, contends that the algorithmic account of humanity is misleading and even false.

“Algorithms are formulas, recipes, enumerations of steps in the construction of a particular result,” he says. “Living organisms, including human organisms, are constructed according to algorithms and use algorithms to operate their genetic machinery.” But, Damasio argues, living organisms “are not algorithms themselves.” Tissues, organs, cells, and other biological and physical elements, which cannot be reduced to mere algorithmic codes, are necessary and crucial for organisms.

Article continues below

Both Boden and Damasio emphasize the importance of human carbon-based physicality for human consciousness. Human conscious life is never independent of human biological conditions and physical bodies—this is the difference between human consciousness and artificial consciousness. Furthermore, their emphasis on human physicality resonates with the accent on the human body’s role in Christian worship found in many theological writings.

Body and spirit

Consider how human beings interact with the world that exists outside themselves. The human spirit cannot be divorced from the human body and interact directly with the physical world on its own. The human spirit is always in touch with the surrounding reality through the human body. In this way, the human being as a whole—including both the spiritual and the physical dimensions—interacts with the world.

As such, the human body should be considered “the real symbol of the human spirit” and the human being as an embodied spirit, suggests Roman Catholic liturgical theologian Edward Kilmartin in volume 1 of Christian Liturgy: Theology and Practice. As Kilmartin reminds us, this symbolism of human bodies is of importance to the church insofar as God is present in the liturgical assembly and the church’s communal response to God is made in a bodily manner.

Kilmartin’s Catholic account of the bodily symbolism in the Christian liturgy resonates with Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis on human bodily actions in worship in Our Worship (Onze Eeredienst):

Kneeling as such is nothing more than having your body assume a posture that symbolizes the soul bowing before the majesty of God. And this is not in the first place to make the body convey what lives in the soul, but rather to deepen and strengthen the action of the soul through the harmonious cooperation of body and soul.

It is apparent that we must keep an image of the holistic human being in mind while speaking of human action in the liturgy. The symbolism of the human body reflects how the human being as a united whole adores and honors God in worship. That is, human consciousness of liturgical actions rests in the unity of the nonphysical soul and its embodiment.

These conscious liturgical actions signify the reorientation of the whole human being to God himself. Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it well:

Article continues below

In worship we are face to face with God. When we worship God, our acknowledgment of God’s unsurpassable greatness is Godward in its orientation. We position our bodies accordingly: we kneel, we bow, we stand with face and hands upraised. There is no creature before whom we are kneeling or bowing; we are kneeling or bowing before God.

In worship, we consciously reorient ourselves to God both spiritually and bodily. Every liturgical action, which represents the harmony between our spirits and bodies, counts in our worship of God.

So what does Boden and Damasio’s emphasis on human carbon-based physicality mean for understanding the significance of the whole human being in worship? Worship becomes a context where the distinction between AI robots and humans comes to the fore.

An AI robot like Mindar can, of course, preach a beautiful sermon and sing a heartwarming hymn in the enactment of the liturgy. But what we should note here is not the AI robot. We need instead to focus our attention on churchly public worship itself.

Above all, every agent in worship should be a worshiper who keeps reorienting to God by singing hymns, praying, or listening to God’s Word. An AI robot that claims to have consciousness, then, should be able to reorient to God in worship in the same sense that the whole human being can.

This is where carbon-based human bodies matter.

In worship, human neurons and bodily elements cooperate with the human spirit so that the whole human person consciously praises and adores God. The fundamental differences between carbon-based humans and silicon-based AI, as Boden and Damasio describe, suggest that AI robots cannot respond consciously to God’s grace and glory in the same way that humans do, nor can AI robots guide humans to worship God in the manner that humans should.

It should be noted here that we need to refrain from reducing nonphysical properties of human consciousness to physical particulars and properties in worship. The difference between human worshipers and AI worshipers does not rest merely with human carbon-based biological conditions. Rather, both the body and the spirit play their roles in worshiping God.

Underlying our consciousness of worship are not only bodily actions, including neurobiological processes in our brains, but also our spirits inspired by the Holy Spirit’s work. We are conscious, for example, of singing “Amazing Grace” because our mouths are singing the song, our brains are generating and controlling relevant neural activities, and our spirits are being ignited by the Spirit. All these together underpin conscious worshipers.

Article continues below

Are we on the verge of creating conscious AI robots now? Yes. AI technology produces robots that are capable of performing some functions of human consciousness in a simulated way. In many instances, AI can even perform more powerful functions than humans.

However, we will perpetually be “on the verge,” never wholly substituting artificial consciousness for human consciousness. Christian worship is a good context for illustrating this, bringing to light how our carbon-based bodies, together with our human nonphysical particulars, distinguish humans worshipers from silicon-based AI “worshipers.”

It is in this sense that AI “teaches” us how and why we should be attentive to our bodily actions in worship, offering our carbon-based bodies in truth and spirit to our God.

Simeon Ximian Xu is the Kenneth and Isabel Morrison Post-doctoral Research Fellow in theology and ethics of artificial intelligence at the University of Edinburgh.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]