The robots are coming. They may make us rich beyond imagining, or they may wipe us out entirely—they don’t care. They just do whatever their programming causes them to do, which is something no one can completely foresee. But one thing is certain—they will change us completely!

Ooooh, scary. It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. And yet, isn’t there some truth to it? Aren’t robots scary precisely because they don’t care, they don’t love, their actions are without motivation that we can understand?

Even self-love in a robot would be comforting. If they wanted to preserve themselves, maybe they wouldn’t choose to go to war with humanity. But they don’t actually choose anything, do they?

The question of whether artificial intelligence will ever attain the level of intelligence of humans has a long history in computing. Back in the 1950s Alan Turing speculated about how computers should be considered “intelligent” if they could converse in a way that makes them appear human. He believed that computer intelligence would continue to grow, eventually to the point where computers surpass human intelligence, and then things will change dramatically.

“It seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers… They would be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage therefore, we should have to expect the machines to take control.” (Alan Turing)

Indeed, AI has advanced astonishingly since Turing’s time, as he predicted (except for the “taking control” part). And advances don’t seem to be slowing down: by imitating the human brain, “deep learning” seems to be enabling computers to solve ever harder problems, like recognizing speech or translating from one language to another or driving cars. There is no obvious end in sight.

But what about in will? Have computers made progress in apparently making moral choices? Desiring certain outcomes over others? Being able to choose at all? When your computer crashes yet again and you pull out the plug and throw it out the window, are you punishing it for a moral failing? Do computers love? Can they worship God—maybe by programming them to say the Lord’s prayer a billion times a second? I would argue that computers are very good at—well—computing, but despite 70 years of incredible progress they’ve shown no evidence whatever of developing a will. They don’t want to take control because they don’t want anything.

Maybe we need a new Turing test: computers should be considered as “spiritual” as people when they show that they can love others, when they inspire love, when they can be united with people and with God in love.

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What is prayer? Two common definitions are a solemn request and communion with God. Using the broader definition, prayer is a sharing with God, becoming like God, participating in God. Union with God is through the will, by which we love God above all and we love what God loves in and through him. Union with God is first of all in the will.

In the enlightenment, we came to believe that what is special about people is that we have reason. We are rational animals. We can compute. In this view, who cares about the will?—it may in fact just be an illusion anyway; what we do is dictated by the laws of nature. AI has proven that computing is a purely natural, physical phenomenon, and in this view we are “wetware”—programs of computation running on biological machines.

This perspective even seems to pervade modern Christianity. Think the right thoughts, believe on Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. Your doctrine must all be correct in order to be perfect. (Surely biblical belief was a richer concept than that?)

But in fact, what seems to be unique about people is the ability to love, and the rise of AI only reinforces this fact. The value of prayer is in the will. Devils know that God exists, and may even speak to him, but without love for God, they cannot be said to pray. Jesus’ summary of the law was to love God above all, not to know everything that can be known about him.

Spiritual maturation happens in the will. Rebirth is a change of will. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love. God is love. Jesus’ summary of the law is love—a change of will. When we truly love God above all, we are united with him in will.

Maybe we can locate different types of prayer on a spectrum. On the left is pure reason—thinking thoughts about God. Robot prayer. On the right is pure spirit—loving God without clear rational thought. In the middle are various mixes. No doubt prayer bounces around and takes different forms at different times, but in general it must move toward the right. To make progress love must grow.

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In this view, the path to growth is not to study in order to have correct beliefs, it is to train the will to love God above all. Exercises should not be targeted at knowledge, but at the will. The most important facts about you are not what you know but what you desire.

In this view, does prayer essentially involve words? Clearly not: its essence is love, not reason.

In this view, can prayer consist in an activity such as knitting or yoga rather than in thinking? I don’t see why not. Reason is not the essence of prayer. If some activity helps you love God, go for it. On the other hand, activity that does not lead to loving God is not prayer.

In this view, why is fasting often promoted as helpful to prayer? Fasting involves intentionally forgoing something that appeals to the will, that we desire and take pleasure in. Fasting makes us aware of our desires. It creates a void in the will, a space that becomes available to God.

What kind of exercises could you do to train the will, to affect what you desire? Some that come to mind: Listening to stories designed not to teach you things but to make you love. Denying yourself things that you love beside God. Remembering to thank God for his gifts. Accepting the suffering that God gives you. Calming your voracious will and feeding it only the bread of heaven. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

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In the last week, what did you discover about your prayer? What do you do? What motivates it? What is it that you are trying to accomplish? How do you decide whether it ‘went well’? If you simply seek God, without trying to achieve or acquire or learn anything, your love is pure.

Categories: Meditation

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and