Southern Evangelical Seminary Unveils Robot for Student Ethical Research

The Southern Evangelical Seminary unveiled its new humanoid robot Friday, making the Christian apologetics school the first seminary in the country to use a robot to study the ethics of emerging technology in artificial intelligence.

The NAO, pronounced "now," robot is a 23-inch, programmable machine that will allow students and faculty to conduct research pertinent to bionics, human enhancement, transhumanism and nanotechnology.

"It is our desire to be on the leading edge of what is before our culture in all areas," said Dr. Richard Land, SES president, in a statement. "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."

The robot includes voice and facial recognition, full mobility and translates text-to-speech in seven languages. Although SES is the first seminary in the nation to use it, universities such as MIT, Tokyo University, and Carnegie Mellon are experimenting with similar NAO robots as personal assistants to feed pets and to help children with autism, among other uses.

With its help, SES school officials hope to answer questions that arise from ethical studies such as, "Should robots do our jobs?" "Should they care for humans in a hospital or nursing home setting?" and "Will care like this take away from human touch and ultimately become a violation of ethics on a human level?"

The school will soon set up experiments and research by gathering control groups from various ages and religious backgrounds to assess individuals about their attitudes toward robots.

Once they are exposed to the robot, individuals will be encouraged to interact with them and then they will be tested on whether the interaction makes them more receptive to the machine or not.

Land said the idea for the robot came from Kevin Staley, associate professor of theology at SES, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the theological reflection of man and machine. At the time, Staley was trying to get funding for a robot when an anonymous donor donated $10,000 for the school to do something "outside of the box" with, explained Land.

Staley will lead the research and through experiments, he wants to understand how robots might end up replacing human beings in the future.

Bringing on a robot at SES is the school's first step toward becoming a ground breaker in science and technology research as human-robot interaction is a current hot topic, said Land.

He noted that David Levy, a British researcher and author of Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, believes that by 2050, robots and humans will be able to marry legally in the United States. Furthermore, Levy also suggests robots could be produced to resemble children so pedophiles can molest them instead.

However, Land said these types of predictions and suggestions can have major consequences.

"Think about the possibilities of human life robots that can be programmed as the alter ego of their creator to meet their every need, it would destroy inter-human relationships and it would lead to isolation from society," said Land to The Christian Post.

"If men and women can create robots to take their place as partners, they're going to create them as mirror images of themselves, it's narcissism on steroids," he commented.

He also noted that researchers and scientists oftentimes do not think of the implications that can arise from using robots in research.

"Our first question when we are confronted with new technology is most often not whether it is right or wrong but 'does it work?' We also tend to make a fatal assumption that change and progress are synonyms. They often are not," said Land.

The new NAO robot will be a featured guest at the 2014 SES annual apologetics conference and the school will soon kick off a contest to name it.

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