Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Machine: Marvel or Man?

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

May 15, 2008 - For years, science fiction writers have imagined the sorts of things that are increasingly becoming the stuff of ordinary life. Consider, for example, the symphony orchestra conducting debut of ASIMO – a robot designed by Honda Motor Co. Yes, you read that correctly – a robot conducting the Detroit Symphony in a live performance of “The Impossible Dream.”

The deep irony of an occasion such as this is that ASIMO lacks the capacity of self-reflective conscious thought. Thus, ASIMO fails to grasp magnitude of its own place in history as a technological marvel. And this is so despite the fact that ASIMO is reported to have “said” -- "It is absolutely thrilling to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This is a magnificent concert hall.” Moreover, in the tradition of all successful conductors, ASIMO ended its conducting debut with a bow to the sound of cheers and thunderous applause.

Apparently, ASIMO’s lack of consciousness was lost on the appreciative audience – unless, of course, one supposes that they were merely clapping for instrumentalists who followed the robotic directions with machine-like precision. Or perhaps it is more charitable to suppose that adulation was simply being expressed to ASIMO’s creators for what is obviously a triumph in technological engineering. Still, the concert hall seems an odd place to convey such gratitude, especially in a context where the one to whom the overtures of appreciation are immediately directed is not really a whom. One can imagine it being perfectly reasonable of an audience member in that setting to ask, “For whom are we applauding?”

In any case, perhaps we should set aside such esoteric conceptual concerns. After all, ASIMO’s designers openly admit that the robot is merely programmed to mimic human motions, and that it cannot respond to its external surroundings. Consequently, the success of its debut as a conductor depended upon the absolute conformity of the orchestra to ASIMO’s pre-programmed motions, since ASIMO could not make mid-course corrections if the orchestra, either inadvertently or maliciously, slowed down or speeded up. To be fair, no one is trying to pass off ASIMO as the next Leonard Bernstein.

Still, one might legitimately worry about the reductionistic view of human beings that underlies both the pursuit of such technologies and their application in such venues as this. For the unstated presumption is that the work of an orchestra conductor can be reduced to a mere functional role – one that a machine could fulfill, provided it had the requisite level of sophistication in its programming. Worse yet, the very effort to build a robot capable of mimicking human action and (eventually) response, implicitly presupposes that human beings are fundamentally, if not exclusively, mere causal cogs in the wheels of the universe – cogs that might easily be replaced by machines that can perform the requisite actions and responses more efficiently. That this is so is evident in the fact that Honda (among others working in this field) aims to build robots that can help “schoolchildren navigating crosswalks” and “be companions for the elderly.”

Technological achievements like ASIMO can be disconcerting. For they force us to come to terms with a question that while deeply felt is one upon which we rarely reflect. What does it mean to be human? Yet the existential anxiety we experience when confronted with apparent replicas of our own design, should not be occasions for Christians to retreat into intellectual irrelevance. Rather, they should be moments in which we reassert the grounds and mystery of human dignity. Humans were not made to do; they were made to be. Specifically, humans were made to be in an eternal relationship with the Triune Being. This is precisely why in Genesis 2, when God breathes into the nostrils of man the “breath of life” Adam becomes, not a living doer, but a “living being.”

Thus, whatever a robot may one day be capable of doing; it will never be in an eternal relationship with the Triune Being. This is because unlike the second person of the Trinity, who is “begotten, not made,” ASIMO is made, not begotten. And because the second person of the Trinity assumed our flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, humans were ultimately made to be begotten – “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13). Our being, as human beings, is rooted in the One in Whom all Being subsists – a Who that is worthy of all our praise!

Related Web Resource: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Gwk4vkyapc