I am intrigued by the development of artificial intelligence (AI).  I am glad to be living at a time in human history when technological progress has made it possible for us to imagine and build thinking machines.  Or maybe we should think of AI’s as thinking beings.  Could they really achieve consciousness – the self-awareness we have? To what degree will future AI’s be like us?  Will they have a soul?

I recently ran across this long and engaging article online: “What would it mean for AI to have a soul?”, Brandon Ambrosino, 6/16/18 http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180615-can-artificial-intelligence-have-a-soul-and-religion.  Ambrosino writes: “[S]ome futurists and tech experts predict a not-so-distant future in which AI, having achieved a certain indistinguishability from humans, will be truly intelligent. At that point, they claim, AI will experience the world in ways not too unlike the ways that we experience it – emotionally, intelligently, and spiritually.”

As with most theological questions, asking whether AI will have a soul requires that we first examine ourselves, our own experience.  Do we homo sapiens have souls?  What do we mean by “soul”?

Ambrosino says: “Most Christians throughout the world believe they have a soul created by God, and that this soul is more important than their body and will outlive it, perhaps into eternity.”  “But this way of thinking about the soul, as a thing, ‘has to go’, says Phillip Clayton at Claremont School of Theology. He notes that while ‘talk of the functions that were once ascribed to the soul is valuable’, those functions can now be studied by scientists.”  “According to this perspective, ‘the soul’ is unnecessary to explain why humans function the way they do.”  “‘As a neuroscientist and psychologist, I have no use for the soul,’ writes George Paxinos of the non-profit research institute Neuroscience Research Australia. ‘On the contrary, all functions attributable to this kind of soul can be explained by the workings of the brain.”

If Clayton is right that we should stop thinking about “soul” as a thing, we might start thinking of it as a verb rather than a noun.  So “soul” would not be something we have, but something we do.  And many of us believe there is something about us that is more than the functions of our brains, our cognition.

“Samuel Kimbriel [is the] editor of The Resounding Soul: Reflections on the Metaphysics and Vivacity of the Human Person.  [He writes:] ‘To say that a being has a soul is to say that it is not simply moved from outside but is also capable of moving itself. A being can move itself because it wants something and these wants make sense, they have structure.’”

Putting these ideas together, Ambrosino “formulate[s] a definition. To ‘soul’ [verb] is to understand that we share certain desires with our fellow humans; that it’s in our best interests to work collectively to satisfy those desires in ways that promote the maximal amount of human flourishing; that there is a mysterious and unnameable source to these desires; and that this source is, in some way, luring us on collectively to fulfillment.”

I like this new way of thinking about “soul” – (1) our collective work; (2) to meet the desires shared by everyone; (3) by maximizing everyone’s ability to flourish and find fulfillment in life.  Not a thing, but actions.  Not installed in our physical bodies at birth, but developed in community throughout a life.  Again A. Powell Davies words come back to me: “Life is just a chance to grow a soul.”  I hope that as human technology advances, AI’s will meet this definition of “soul” – becoming aware of themselves, pursuing their own desires, and working with humans to allow all beings, human and AI, to flourish and find fulfillment.