Does Artificial Intelligence (AI) possess the Image of God? A Theological Musing

Eyingbeni Humtsoe-Nienu

Christians believe that human beings are created in the image of God or imago dei (Gen 1: 26-27). This image of God in human is classically interpreted in three ways: substantive (we are God-like in essence), functional (we are God-like in will), and relational (we are God-like in relating with God and each other). These three are not to be understood in isolation. All three form an integral part of our humanity. No one possesses the three in exclusivity. To be a human is to possess godlikeness in substance, in will, and in relationality. 

The question we may ask is, “Can God endow His image on an AI?” The answer could be, “Why not?” But, “Would God do it?” “No, he would not; why would he?” “Is AI not a fulfilment of divine command to be ‘fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:28)?” “No, it is not; the sense of responsibility is not inherent in it."  “What about the humanoids like Sophia, Nadine, make-believe twin Geminoid DK, and Jia Jia; don’t they look and behave exactly like a human person?” “They look more like dolls and less like a person.” “How should a living person look like?” “One with flesh and blood, soul, and spirit; elements that separates us from machines.”

AI is a byproduct of God’s creation – of humans made in his image. God created humanity with a definitive purpose – to be responsible for the self, others, and rest of creation (Gen 1 & 2; 8 & 9) apart from rendering worship to the Creator. This purpose cannot be negotiated or transferred; although human rebellion can cause God to act contrary. An attempt to duplicate that image, without considering its ontological and functional dimensions, in an artificial entity (no matter how sophisticated) is to shirk from the original purpose of God for creating humanity. To think that one could simply design and pass on a divinely assigned obligation on a robot is comparable to the ancient Israelites who “did what was right in their own eyes” (NRSV, Judges 17:6; 21:25). 

Also, the God-factor is not for human to impart on anyone or anything. It is God’s prerogative to freely confer. An essence with which we are created – namely the immortal spirit – is not in our human capacity to implant. Likewise, the functional will of the AI is not absolute. The threat is real when its actions go against the designer’s will. Furthermore, relationality suffers due to a one-way emotional connection. The human may rely on AI but it does not have the same response from the other end. 

Most of all, AI lacks creativity that is original to itself. Increasingly, theologians attribute the creative dimension in human as one of the features of the imago dei. AI’s abilities are limited to the algorithms that are already set. And, even if it operates smoothly based deep learning, it has limited ability to improve, critic, and evolve on its own, not to mention its inability to voluntarily seek for a greater power beyond itself, who is God. Thus, the AI is only as good as its human creator/s. A replication of human capabilities does not equal human potentiality. Within itself it has no creative power, even the superintelligent variants. Hollywood movies like Bicentennial Man and Terminator are not reliable reference to defend AI’s creative or independent prowess. 

If we begin to equate human with AI, the human-creation passages in the Bible must be re-written as, “Let us make robots in our own image.” The problem is that we will neither hear God say that nor entrusting stewardship of the entire cosmos to a piece of machine – no matter how fast, efficient, and presumed to be superior to human. I also do not think that AIs would reach that level of perfection where its human creator could say, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called human” (Cf., Gen 2:23). The attempt to digitally clone human being is a lost cause. The elements that make a human – spirit, soul, and body – remains a divine specialty.  

There may be few good uses of AI to improve the service industry (although the question of a workforce takeover is an ethical question that merits discussion). However, it cannot and must never be treated as equal or superior to humans who are created with divine image for a divinely sanctioned purpose. At the bottom lies the fact that AI is created in the fallen image of human, with a tendency to deceive one another and to usurp the place of God. It can never possess the imago dei. This implies that AI – in whatever form – should not become a substitute for human. Likewise, human should not glorify AIs to the point of idolizing them, which would be an abomination to the Lord (Isaiah 42:8). Even an ultimate pursuit in AI research of a self-aware AI with its own emotions, intellect, and desire can be easily disposed of by God if it contradicts his sovereignty (Proverbs 19: 21).