Ch-Ch-Changes!

If you have a quick squiz at the title of this blog you might notice something has changed.  This is no longer my “PhD Diary + Blog”, but is now my “Post Doc Diary + Blog”.  That’s because in the seven months since the last post I wrote on here several good things happened (in fact they all happened around October/November 2015!)*:

  1. I signed a book deal for my thesis (Thank you Ashgate!!)
  2. I was offered a post doc job as a research associate
  3. I submitted my PhD thesis**

In finishing up my thesis my blogging got a little left behind, but now that I am settling into my new position as a research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (more on that below) I am returning to occasional posts… this time with a focus more on the AI and Robots project I am involved with (but with some NRMs things slipping in, as I am still working on an edited volume on NRMs, and my research into Transhumanism and Singularity theories drifts into NRM studies).

But I am getting ahead of myself.  What is my post doc and what am I doing?

I am now based at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, which sits in Benet House at St Edmunds College, Cambridge. So although I am coming to the end of my third degree at Pembroke College (thanks!), I am staying in Cambridge for at least the next 3 years***. My specific project, under the overall project on “Human Flourishing” is:

Human identity in an age of nearly-human machines – the impact of advances in robotics and AI technology on human identity and self-understanding

What does that mean? Well, we are considering:

“the theological, social and philosophical implications of recent developments in robotics and AI technology for secular and religious understandings of human nature and identity. Of particular interest and concern is the development of humanoid robots whose appearance, motor behaviour and responsiveness are becoming virtually indistinguishable from human beings. In addition, new technical developments provide increasingly realistic simulation by AIs of human compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence. These developments raise urgent and profound questions and challenges for human self-understanding.

To date there has been very little genuinely multidisciplinary and informed debate about these issues. The current sub-project aims to address the implications of these developments using an academically rigorous and structured approach. In particular we will investigate whether there is a genuine convergence and blurring of human/machine abilities and behaviour and if so whether this is likely to lead to fundamental changes in common social and religious understandings of what it means to be human.”

TLDR version: AI! Robots! The Future!

robot learning

As a social anthropologist of NRMs my particular interests lie in how people respond to new technological advances and weave them into their religious narratives.  But there are wider questions about how these developments will affect our understanding of what it means to be human, and a core element of the project is getting experts and academics together to start the conversation on this.  You may be aware of the boost in funding that projects considering AI and robots have received (the Centre for Studies in Existential Risk is a prime example, where the focus is mitigating the possibility of ‘unfriendly’ AI), and this generally agreed to be a key time for considering these issues, when we are on the cusp of some dramatic discoveries around intelligence (or not, depending on who you ask).

Posts in this blog will now reflect this new research focus, with occasional dips into NRM studies. I hope this is of interest!

Beth

 

* Some bad things happened in those seven months too, and the title of this post is in honour of David Bowie (1947-2016).

** No, I still dont have a viva date. I’ll let you know when I know…

*** Precluding a zombie apocalypse.

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