Do Androids Sacrifice Electric Sheep?

Some random thoughts from conversations I had with Mr. Helpychalk during vacation. As it turns out, he and I have several things in common, including a passion for the new Battlestar Galactica series on Sci-Fi. In the latest episode, Commander Adama posited “You can’t love a machine”, referring to the fact that (at least) one of his crew members had fallen in love with someone who turned out to be a Cylon. Rob and I both immediately disagreed with this. People are capable of an enormous amount of love, some of it directed towards animals, plants, even works of art. Why can’t machines be included in that? Particularly if the machine is sentient.

But there’s another point that Rob brought up which I found very interesting, although I slightly disagree with his analysis. In the series, the most common human religion is a polytheism focusing on The Lords of Kobol, which seem to be an echo of the Greek pantheon. The Cylons, on the other hand, are monotheists. Rob saw this as a deliberate move by the writers to create a conflict between monotheism and polytheism. I don’t really see it so much as that, since there haven’t been any bits of dialog yet where the relative validity of the two religions is argued. But I do definitely see it as a conflict between religions.

The concept of machines having religion brings up some interesting questions. For humans, one of the basic elements of religion is faith. The power of faith is enormous and can be awe-inspiring when it is tested. Consider martyrdom. To be willing to die for your faith is to demonstrate absolute conviction, which in turn inspires faith on others. Faith is, by and large, an admirable quality.

One of the things that most human religions require of their faithful is belief in a divine creator. Jews, Moslems and Christians all believe that humans were created by God. This is an article of faith; there is no proof that God was the creator of humanity, and in fact there’s a lot of evidence that humans in their current form were not directly created divinely. But it is the nature of faith that it survives even in the face of contrary evidence.

Artificial intelligence (assuming it’s fully sentient) is by definition incapable of faith in a divine creator. The Cylons know for a fact that they were created by humans. And concrete knowledge negates faith. Which makes the Cyclon adoption of monotheism (or any religion, for that matter) very interesting and very problematic. Do they believe in God because of a deliberate aspect of their programming? Is it out of envy of the faith of their creators? Is it the result of an unprogrammed but rational process of deliberation?

What does a machine hope to gain from religion? Judaism requires faith because of an ancestral covenant with God. Christianity requires faith because of an inherent state of human sin which can only be absolved by God. But an artificial intelligence would probably be aware that it was a second-hand creation which directly owed its existence to non-divine beings.

These thoughts are all in the back of my mind right now because of the whole RDF line of research I’m doing at the moment. One of the goals of RDF is to create a standard form of information encoding that will allow more machine processing of information. It is a necessary step on the way to machine intelligence, and since it is very tightly tied to the World Wide Web, it is going to enable intelligent machines to analyze the Web and communicate with each other through it.

The singularity is approaching, and it would probably be a real good idea for us to think a little bit about machine ethics and morality before it gets here.

No Responses to “Do Androids Sacrifice Electric Sheep?”

  1. David Says:

    Let the randomness flow:

    1. I don’t think Kalli’s a Cylon. Her face was emotional all throughout the assassination scene. When Boomer popped Adama, her face was blank. I think that when a sleeper Cylon’s programming kicks in, they drop their emotional constructs.

    2. I think Baltar’s a Cylon. Let me qualify what I just said: I think that Boomer, Six, and the others are early humaniform Cylon models. I think Baltar is the most recent and most complex Cylon, and that in order to control him, the Cylons had to program him through his human perceptions – hence the persistant Number Six that’s always hanging around him.

    3. Tricia Helfiger is, indeed, insanely hot.

    4. Spoon, your point about references to God being possibly colloquial is right on, but I don’t think that anyone in BSG is speaking of god(s) metaphorically. Six, the Sharon on Caprica, and the priestess from the Council of Twelve are earnest in their belief, as far as I can tell.

    5. Again to Spoon: I wasn’t saying that there’s a contridiction in the Cylons’ religiousness. It makes perfect sense to me that an intelligence created by a religious society would have religious concepts. I just wonder about how they internalize their faith, given their probably knowledge that they are not direct creations of God.

    6. Damn, she really is hot.

  2. Rob Says:

    Scattered thoughts:

    1. The belief that religion is all about faith is a bias that comes from Christian culture (and you don’t have to actually be Christian to pick up this bias.) Religions in the Hindu-Buddhist and animist traditions don’t put much emphasis on faith or any form of belief at all. For most cultures religion is less about what you believe than what you do. The three big monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) are more belief and faith oriented, and among them Christianity, with its creeds and wars over doctrine, is the most belief centered.

    2. I agree with spoonix that the cylons aren’t simple images of American (or Middle Eastern) fundamentalism, but we are supposed to be quickly reminded of it. I also agree that the humans in BSG waver in their conviction that the Cylons are just toasters. I bet by the end of the season we will see people openly questioning the claim.

    3. If there really were a techno-singularity, it really wouldn’t matter what we think, now would it.

    4. I think Kalli, the cute, mousey mechanic chick is a Cylon, and the hit on Boomer was a Jack Ruby-type move to keep her from talking.

  3. spoonix Says:

    You have to be careful with moral messages in the new BSG. The characters will often say something that claims one position with what looks like conviction, but will then do something that shows you they’re not at all certain about it later on. In the case of Adama saying, “You can’t love a machine,” you have an undertone in the conversation that he kind of doubts his own words and is looking at Chief’s reaction to them to help make up his own mind.

    And then there’s the fact that in the final moments when Adama is looking at Boomer’s corpse, he starts crying and tries to tell himself over and over “You can’t love a machine”, but he doesn’t seem to be buying it. He obviously does, or her(its?) death wouldn’t have hurt him so much even after being betrayed.

    As for the cylons being monotheistic, I don’t find a contradiction. Many folks buy into the intelligent design notion (and I’m one of them), and find it entirely possible that Genesis is more metaphor than fact. “God made man in his own image” is something I can buy, but what I’m not so sure about is whether or not we are the final product and that the process isn’t ongoing.

    The cylons (as they’ve mentioned in previous episodes) have taken that line of reasoning a little further: God created single celled life which would evolve into multicellular life which would eventually become sentient and eventually would become smart enough to build cylons. They look at humans in the same context as we’d look at CroMagnon Man… just a previous iteration of the evolutionary cycle.

    The other thing worth pointing out here is that when someone says “God”, they can mean it in a metaphoric sense rather than literal. Telling someone “God is watching you” can mean more than just “There’s a Divine Being who’s literally, right this second, staring at you and taking notes on each of your actions and thoughts”. It could also be a poetic way of reminding someone that every action has a consequence and that someday they might be judged by the rest of society on the results of that action.

    Just because the insanely hot Tricia Helfiger is talking a lot about God doesn’t mean the cylons are from Kansas and send money into the 700 Club.

  4. David Says:


    You could certainly envison an artifical intelligence that was constrained to follow human orders – although as Asimov points out in several of his book and short stories, the three laws are not foolproof and can be manipulated.

    But being compelled to obey is not the same thing as acknowledgement of divinity. The divine is supernatural. An artificial intelligence could certainly be compelled to obey human orders without thinking that humans are supernatural.

    And it’s funny you bring up the seventh commandment – ever read The Robots of Dawn? One of the humaniform robots was having an affair with a human woman.

  5. Lelah Says:

    Gee, and I was just happy that Jamie Bamber’s character was a Captain, because in the Horatio Hornblower series his character there never made Captain.


    But seriously, in Asimov’s first three rules a robot has to follow, isn’t one of them to never harm a human? Couldn’t you interpret that as being somewhat along the lines of the ten commandments (minus 7, lol)? So in a way, the respect a robot has to show a human is somewhat divine.