It is needless to mention how technology has entered many spheres of our lives, changing the lens through which we look at the world. The swift growth in technological advancements has made it hard for us to take a pause for comprehending its implications and to wonder where it all will lead.
Humans should, however, ponder on whether it just a set of commands given to a system in the form of a program, or could the system have its own intelligence, the so-called “artificial intelligence”? Would a robot then be considered equivalent to human beings? Should Muslims believe in something like this?
Let’s try to answer some such questions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science concerned with building machines that can think like humans and mimic their behaviour. Notable examples are the social humanoid robots like Sophia and Pepper which have become popular in the last few years. It is important to understand that one of the major goals of AI is to develop Strong AI or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), centred on the idea that machines or robots would possess “consciousness”. In other words, not only would robots have the capability of seeing, hearing, and responding digitally, they would actually have a conception of an inner self. They would be independent, conscious, self-aware creatures like we, humans. For Muslims and many other religions, human nature and consciousness is all linked to a metaphysical (something that comes from perception beyond the physical level) reality which is the Soul.
So, it is equivalent to asking whether robots could have a soul? A scientific approach to answering this question does not allow for belief in something which is thought to come from a transcendent reality: that which is beyond observable or is immaterial. For people who know a bit of computer science, it is easy to understand that even the most complex algorithms fed to the computer boil down to a machine language which is of binary digits: 0s and 1s which in turn are symbolic equivalents of electrical signals. Also, Weak AI is different from Strong AI in that it lacks consciousness. It has the potential to benefit society by automating time-consuming tasks, but it doesn’t attach meaning to the tasks that it does. Also, for the development of Strong AI, the challenge would be to design and integrate algorithms that would impart consciousness to machines. To accomplish this, scientists need to figure out what consciousness is.
Much of the debate over what would make machines conscious comes down to what of ourselves we want to incorporate into algorithms. Do we ourselves understand what that something is? The truth is that it is called the hard problem of consciousness that researchers are working to resolve. It is the problem of explaining the relationship between physical phenomena such as brain processes and the auditory or visual experience/mental image that gets associated with it. After encountering a physical process, the brain develops a sense which contains images, sounds, etc, of that process. David Chalmers argues that there is an inherent limitation to empirical explanations of phenomenal consciousness. Even neuroscientists struggle to define why we are conscious and how best to define it in terms of neural activity. As a result of this, scientists can’t claim to have infused consciousness into machines or robots when they can’t define consciousness itself. Having said this, it’s important for people, especially Muslims, to bear in mind that a good chunk of scientists do believe that they would be able to create human-like creatures having consciousness, if not now then soon in the future.
The idea of the Soul is fundamental to our belief as Muslims. But this field of work does not seem to differentiate between natural-born humans and artificially-created conscious robots. Muslims need to keep in mind that no matter how powerful a robot can become, it can never be considered equal to the creation of Allah. As is mentioned in the Quran, “And they ask you [O Muhammad] concerning the rooh [the spirit], Say: ‘The rooh is one of the things the knowledge of which is only with my Lord. And of knowledge, you (mankind) have been given only a little.” [Quran, Surah al-Israa 17:85]. Therefore, the nature of Soul is a mystery that Allah reserves to himself. Also, in a hadith mentioned in Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 77, Number 593: “Abdullah narrated: Allah’s apostle (PBUH), the truthful and truly-inspired, said, “Each one of you is collected in the womb of his mother for forty days, and then turns into a clot for an equal period (of forty days) …Then the soul is breathed into him”. From this it can be understood that the Soul is from the “unseen”: a metaphysical occurrence which is beyond human comprehension.
In another verse Allah said: “Then He fashioned him (man) in due proportion and breathed into him His Rooh and He gave you hearings (ear) sights (eyes) and hearts. Little is the thanks you give” (32: 9). Soul does not merely imply life because of which a living thing moves, but the essential human characteristic which imbues man with consciousness, by virtue of which he is distinguished from all other earthly creations and becomes possessor of a personality, and that this characteristic can in no way be equal to the cognitive powers possessed by machines. Therefore, Muslims should uphold this belief and be convinced that Strong AI can in no way undermine religion.
There is another reason for Muslims to be cautious of technology. As many Muslims believe that we are living in the end times, since many of the predictions made by Prophet Mohd (PBUH) have become true, one of which said that the end of the world will not come until the appearance of Ad-Dajjal which means the liar, the deceiver who will misguide the world. Many of Dajjal’s characteristics have been narrated by the Prophet (PBUH). In Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 88, Number 245: “Anas narrated: The Prophet said, “No prophet was sent but that he warned his followers against the one-eyed liar (Ad-Dajjal).”
Many Islamic scholars have linked technology with the tools used by Dajjal to misguide people. Now, the question is whether technology could be the tool that Dajjal uses for trickery. Indeed, the answer to that lies with Al-ALEEM (The All-Knowing, The Omniscient, Allah’s name). For Muslims, it is important to consider these ideas since they are bound to be cautious of whatever could possibly appear as a misleading sign no matter how inviting it may seem in the worldly sense. In another narration in Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 88, Number 246, it is mentioned that Ad-Dajjal will kill a man and then make him alive. Many scholars believe that this would be possible by future advancement in artificial intelligence technology. None of us knows how it would be possible. However, one might ask if there could be any such technology in the future. That brings us to a hypothetical futuristic process of “Mind Uploading” (futuristic process of scanning a physical structure of the brain accurately enough to create an emulation of the mental state) for which mainstream research is active. Now why this process is of concern is because among some futurists, Mind Uploading is a proposed life extension technology. It is discussed in AI research publications as an approach to Strong AI.
A considerable portion of transhumanists place great hope in the belief that they may become immortal by creating one or many non-biological functional copies of their brains, thereby leaving their “biological shell”. Scientists might store this information in a chip which could be inserted in robots which would then behave and respond like the original person. However, the philosopher Susan Schneider claims that at best, Mind Uploading would create a copy of the original person’s mind while only outside observers can maintain the illusion of the original person still being alive. It’s implausible to think that one’s consciousness would leave one’s brain and travel to a remote location; ordinary physical objects do not behave this way. This should be an eye-opener for Muslims as this idea has the actual essence of being deceptive. Computers do not possess intentionality which means they can’t attach meaning to symbols. On the other hand, humans have a unique conception about every object that they conceive. Therefore, Muslims should strengthen their conscience and reject any notion of immortality as is mentioned in the Quran, Surah Al-Imran, Verse 185: “Every soul has to taste death. It is on the Day of Judgement that you shall be paid your rewards in full. So, whoever has been kept away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise has really succeeded. The worldly life is nothing but an illusionary enjoyment.”
—The writer is a computer science & engineering graduate