Posted by: owizblog | August 29, 2017

When The Machines Take Over: Thought For The Day, BBC Radio Scotland, 29 August 2017

I was in our local supermarket in Rothesay, a couple of days ago, at the self-service checkout, mechanically doing what I do, when I realized that someone was looking askance at me. The machine had just said, cheerily, “Thank you for shopping at McWhauchle’s!” And as always, I’d responded “You’re welcome!” It worried him that I was talking to a machine. I winked, and said “When the machines take over, they’ll remember who was nice to them!” Every day’s a Thought for the Day day, on Bute. I think he may have shuddered.

A news story this week, about a robot priest conducting funerals in Japan made me shudder.. He’s called Pepper: I don’t know if he’s actually received Buddhist ordination yet, but he’s certainly been programmed to officiate.

People wink at me, and say “How long, Rev, before there’s a robot in your pulpit?” I hadn’t worried about this before. But funerals? As rawly human a privilege as anything we clergy do, in a setting in which our humanity is what we share?

Big questions suddenly became personal for me, about the social and human effects of automation on an unimaginable scale, with robots of all kinds doing human work, and no work for humans to do. What happens to the dignity and creativity of workless human beings? Human slavery corrupts the slave-owners. What will having mechanical slaves do to our humanity? What if the machines take over, not because they are malign, but because we have lost our humanity?

And for me as a Christian Minister: How do you draw on a two thousand year old faith, to inform and orient your life in the twenty-first century?

Faith is a point of resistance. It’s where we seek, and discover, and assert, what it means to be human. And in my faith tradition, that means relatedness. We are human only in proper relationships: to the world, of which we are stewards; to each other as sisters and brothers, and to God. And now, to technology. And we’ll need to work that one out, or risk, not being taken over by the machines, but making slaves of ourselves.

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