How Pope Francis could shape the future of robotics

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It might not be the first place you imagine when you think about robots.

But in the Renaissance splendour of the Vatican, thousands of miles from Silicon Valley, scientists, ethicists and theologians gather to discuss the future of robotics. The ideas go to the heart of what it means to be human and could define future generations on the planet.The workshop, Roboethics: Humans, Machines and Health was hosted by The Pontifical Academy for Life.

Epochal changes

The Academy was created 25 years ago by Pope John Paul II in response to rapid changes in biomedicine.It studies issues including advances in human genome editing techniques.These techniques were controversially claimed to have been used by Chinese scientist He Jiankui, to alter the genes of twin girls so they could not get HIV.

For the opening of the meeting, Pope Francis presented a letter to the Human Community, where he outlines the paradox of “progress” and cautions against developing technologies without first thinking of the possible costs to society.

In the letter, the Pope emphasises the need to study new technologies: communication technologies, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies and robotics.

“There is a pressing need, then, to understand these epochal changes and new frontiers in order to determine how to place them at the service of the human person, while respecting and promoting the intrinsic dignity of all,” Pope Francis writes.

Human robots

In stark contrast to this message came a hypothesis from Japanese Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, who says we will no longer be recognized as flesh and blood humans, in 10,000 years time.

Famous for creating extremely human-like robots at his lab in Osaka University, including one of himself, Prof Ishiguro spoke about the need to evolve our bodies away from their current materials to something more enduring.

“Our ultimate aim of human evolution is immortality by replacing the flesh and bones with inorganic material,” he said.

“The question is what happens if something happens in the planet, or something happens on the Sun, so we cannot live in the planet, we need to live in space.”

“In this case, which is better? Organic materials or inorganic materials?”

For Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, there is a clear answer.

“This dream is a terrible dream,” adding that it was “impossible” to divide the body and soul.

“The flesh is the body with the soul and the soul is a spirit with flesh,” he asserted.

“The body is very important for human beings, through the body we love, through the body we embrace and communicate with one another,” he said.

“We are aware on one side this is unbelievable progress, but on the other side, we felt that are risks that this development can give the world.

“The risk is we forget we are creatures, not creators.”