Book Explores AI, Theology

A St. Bonaventure University faculty member’s research on religious and ethical questions about artificial intelligence is the subject of a new book by a Spanish priest and educator.

“Anne Foerst: The Religious Dimension of the Search for Artificial Intelligence,” by Francisco José Génova Omedes, has been published in Spain.

The intersection of theology and artificial intelligence has been a lifelong research interest of Dr. Anne Foerst, an associate professor of computer science and director of the Individualized Major program at St. Bonaventure. Foerst, who’s also a theologian and an internationally known expert on human-robot interaction, is the author of “God in the Machine: What Robots Teach Us About God and Humanity,” a book that examines what robots can teach us about being human.

During a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Foerst was a researcher at the institution’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and director of MIT’s God and Computers project, where she served as theological adviser to scientists who tried to build robots with social skills.

Génova’s analysis and book, based on Foerst’s time spent at MIT, looks at what challenges developments in artificial and robotic intelligence mean for theology.

He places technology in the center of what it means to be human from a philosophical and theological perspective and, in doing so, writes how AI and robotics were not born in the 20th century but are rooted in the origin itself of humankind. Génova also explores how many of the challenges theologians face today converge in the fields of AI and robotics.

“We are confronted with the fact that robots can have social skills,” said Foerst. “My research has focused on the question: Can robots be persons?”

Foerst hopes that readers of Génova's book will be “encouraged to think more profoundly about the relationship between us and the beings that share our life — especially the artificial ones.” She believes there is a need for theology that explains the realities that unfold in the boundary between faith and science.

When Génova began studying theology he had an engineering degree and was teaching electronics and electricity in a technical institute in Spain. As his theological studies progressed, he began connecting the fields of technology and theology. He was working on his master’s thesis about the relationship between theology and technology when he found references about Foerst and her theological approach to robotics and AI.

Later, when he was considering subjects for his doctoral thesis, he recalled Foerst’s work.

“Gradually I was forming the thought that … the fields of AI and robotics were a very important challenge to the future of humankind, and I was perceiving, too, the profound religious grounds that were present in all that… I could see the challenge to the idea of what means to be human,” Génova said.

He has since completed his doctorate at Facultat de Teologia de Catalunya (Catalunya Divinity School), and his thesis was published in July. Génova is now a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Zaragoza and chaplain of San Valero Foundation, a vocational institute and high school. In addition to his pastoral activities, he teaches electronics at San Valero Vocational Institute and religion at San Valero High School. He is also a professor of ecumenical theology at the Catholic Seminary of Zaragoza.

Thanks to Foerst, Génova said he “dared to introduce myself to the study of the challenges of AI and robotics so I could study their theological implications. Now I continue working on that, and I try to transmit the importance of all this for the future of humankind and religion, especially for the future of Christianity.”

“What I do appreciate about Francisco’s work is that he criticized me – in particular that my understanding of ‘personhood’ is too vague.’ There is nothing better than for a researcher to be challenged, that’s what we live for,” Foerst said.

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