NC seminary unveils humanoid robot for students’ ethical studies

The NAO robot. Photo courtesy of Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College

The NAO robot. Photo courtesy of Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College

What ultimately defines a person? Could a person fall in love with a robot or a computer operating system, as in the popular movie Her?

Could a robot tend patients in hospitals or nursing homes?

Or could a robot, say, teach an ethics or Christian apologetics class?

These seminal questions of existence are what Kevin Staley, associate professor of theology at Southern Evangelical Seminary & Bible College in Matthews, N.C., hopes the Christian school can explore with the help of a humanoid NAO robot (pronounced ‘now’).

Claiming the 22-year-old Christian apologetics school is the first seminary in the world to use a robot to study the ethics of emerging technologies in artificial intelligence, transhumanism and nanotechnology, Southern plans to unveil its NAO robot at a ceremony on Friday (Feb. 14). The robot usually retails for $16,000 but cost Southern $9,300.

The white robot with an orange cap from the French company Aldebaran Robotics stands 23 inches high and includes voice and facial recognition, full mobility and translates text-to-speech in seven languages. Individuals and schools such as MIT, Tokyo University, and Carnegie Mellon and are experimenting with NAO robots as personal assistants, to feed pets, for dance competitions and to help children with autism.

For the last two weeks, Staley said the NAO robot has been living at his home and regularly freaking out his cat as he tested its mobility and programming capabilities.

“If a machine interacts with us on a higher level, what are we going to see happen in society in our homes when we use or deploy them,” Staley questioned. “I want students to think about human-to-machine relationships, attachments we form that may cause us to dehumanize other human beings.”

As to whether Southern’s NAO robot will get a biblical name, Staley said the school’s hosting a contest to find the right name.

For Southern Evangelical, incorporating a NAO robot in classes was about being on the cutting edge of ethical arguments, according to Richard Land, the school’s new president and former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It is in this way that we can influence church leadership, and thereby impact what messages are being delivered to equip Christians to defend their faith at all costs,” he said in a press release.

Human-robot relationships is a current hot topic of conversation in IT circles, especially surrounding David Levy’s book “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships.” The Danish Council of Ethics also has explored recommendations on what ethical concerns would follow “when social robots pretend to have an inner life.”

The Council decided that interactions with social robots should be evaluated  “all the time whether the user’s dignity is suffering; how the user’s identity is affected and, not least, how are social relations around the user being affected?”

Staley said the NAO robot will open up conversations his students haven’t had access to before. It might even teach a portion of a class, especially since it can read articles from the Internet or your email.

“We’ve already developed relationships with the devices we use, and we need to be talking about it. It’s already shaped our culture, and we need to take a look at things and be wise instead of carte blanche approval and acceptance to every new technology that comes out, he said. “Those who are developing these technologies need to know what religious communities have to say and where lines can be drawn in adopting this. We all get concerned when we see someone totally absorbed in a virtual game that they spend all their waking moments doing that and not interacting with people. We ought to be concerned about that.”

Here is a link to watch the robot unveiling live at 11 a.m. EST Friday (Feb. 14).

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