Monday, May 07, 2018

Do RoboDogs Have Souls?

Anyone who has tried to keep a car going past the time when the manufacturer quits supporting it with spare parts knows about cannibalizing—taking parts from a junked car to keep another one running for a while.  But what if the culture you’re in regards the piece of machinery in question as having a soul?  Then you get into the situation described recently in Japan, where Sony made a robotic dog named Aibo for a few years, but ended production in 2006.  Since then, a repair company called A-Fun tries to keep Aibos running by salvaging parts from other Aibos.  But bowing to popular demand from former owners, A-Fun recently conducted a funeral ceremony for over a hundred soon-to-be-scrapped Aibos at a Buddhist temple, before disassembling them for parts.  An NPR report recently summarized this news from the Japan Times. 

As anyone who has studied the Japanese culture realizes, both Buddhism and the popular Japanese folk religion known as Shintoism assert that, in the words of the Buddhist priest conducting the ceremony, “All things have a bit of soul.”  This is in marked contrast to the prevailing Western cultural attitude toward souls, which says the idea of a soul is a defunct antique concept that doesn’t even apply to human beings, let alone robotic dogs. 

While the Japanese idea of the soul probably differs from the Western concept, both assert that there is something in a living (or apparently living) thing that is worthy of recognition, respect, and commemoration in the event that the physical embodiment of the soul ceases to be.  I recall reading somewhere that in one Japanese factory, workers bowed to and thanked their machines at the end of each work day.  And this behavior is consistent with the desire of former Aibo owners to know that their ex-pets will have some incense burned for them before becoming mere machine parts again. 

Aristotle defined the soul as the form of a living thing.  But he didn’t mean by “form” just the shape—he meant everything that makes it the kind of living thing that it is.  I think Aristotle might have some trouble with the idea of a man-made machine having a soul, because in his view only living things could have souls.  Apparently in Japan, people aren’t so picky.

This rather whimsical situation may be a forerunner of a much more serious issue we may find ourselves dealing with in the not too distant future:  the question of whether human-like artificial-intelligence (AI) robots have souls, or at least whether they deserve the kinds of rights we have historically bestowed on human beings.  In the subfield of ethics concerned with artificial intelligence, there is a movement called “robot rights,” and while no one has seriously taken action to claim such rights yet on the part of a particular robot, it is probably only a matter of time before somebody does.  With millions of people talking familiarly with Siri and Alexa every day, not to mention the computer programs that answer telephone calls with authentic-sounding voices, we are being trained to incorporate conversations with robots into our everyday existence. 

Lurking behind these developments is an ancient fear, the fear that our creations will turn like Frankenstein’s monster against us, and that we will aid and abet such a rebellion by granting robots rights that were historically reserved to humans.  How would you feel, for example, if you got a notice one day that a robot who used to work for you was suing you?  Or if you were arrested for violation of a robot’s right to—whatever?  Have three recharging sessions a day? 

It may sound silly, but imagining such a situation throws into sharp relief the intuition that anything we make—in the ordinary sense of fabrication—should be subject to our wills, and not the other way around.  This intuition is consistent with the Great Chain of Being, an ancient concept that is still very powerful in Western society, although many have consciously rejected it, at least in part. 

To quote Wikipedia, the Chain, supposedly decreed by God, goes like this:  The chain starts with God and progresses downward to angels, demons (fallen/renegade angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, commoners, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals and other minerals.”  The sequence of the old question that can start the “twenty questions” game—“animal, vegetable, or mineral?” observes the order of the Great Chain of Being. 

Now a person who doesn’t believe in God is probably going to start their own version of the Chain with humans at the top, but once you get rid of the Chain’s alleged originator, namely God, the order is pretty arbitrary.  I’m sure you can find someone who would put a turnip higher in the Chain than their mother-in-law, for example.  And once you start playing with it, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t put some future super-intelligent AI robot ahead of us in line.  But if we do that, we’ll pay a price, even if the worst nightmares of the dystopian future do not come to pass and robots or their machine descendants don’t enslave us, or just wipe us out as not worth keeping around.

Above all, the Great Chain of Being reflects the order that God instituted in the universe.  And trying to tamper with that order logically leads to disorder.  To give an extreme example, a person who puts possession of a beautiful diamond (a mineral) above his relationship to his wife (a human) is introducing disorder into his life, a disorder that will lead to trouble. 

Of course, too strict an adherence to the Great Chain of Being would justify the continued existence of exploitative regimes, the divine right of kings, and other anti-democratic ideas that we have rightly freed ourselves from.  But the distinction between human beings on the one hand, and all other parts of the physical realm on the other hand, is a vital one that we ignore at our peril. 

I just had to decommission a laptop computer that served me well for the last six years.  I now keep its brain (the hard drive) on my desk both as a memento and as a backup in case I need something that didn’t get transferred in the migration process to my new computer.  While I didn’t feel the need to hold a funeral ceremony for the old laptop, I can respect people who do such things, because I think seeing souls where they probably aren’t is a better thing than not seeing them at all.

Sources:  My wife drew my attention to the NPR online article “In Japan, Old Robot Dogs Get a Buddhist Send-Off,” at  I also referred to Aristotle’s definition of the soul at and the Wikipedia articles on the Great Chain of Being and the ethics of artificial intelligence.

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