Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Robot paints picture at home, humanoid robot creating as artist, generative AI.
Robot paints picture at home, humanoid robot creating as artist, generative AI.

All We Need To Do To Give a Robot a Soul Is… (Error 404)

The author of Robot Souls argues that programmers have failed to put the “junk,” that is, the soul, into machines — but that they could do so

Academic publisher Taylor & Francis asks in TechXplore, “Should robots be given a conscience?” (June 11, 2023). I spoil no surprise by revealing that we are meant to think that that is both doable and desirable.

T & F is publishing Eve Poole’s Robot Souls later this year. Poole is a British writer and academic, and author of Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions, Buying God, and Leadersmithing.

Her thesis is that, in our quest for the most functional software, we left out the “junk,” which includes our “emotions, free will and a sense of purpose”:

Our junk code consists of human emotions, our propensity for mistakes, our inclination to tell stories, our uncanny sixth sense, our capacity to cope with uncertainty, an unshakeable sense of our own free will, and our ability to see meaning in the world around us.

She proposes “Giving them to all intents and purposes a soul.”

Very well. But how? T & F tells us

In the new book, Poole suggests a series of next steps to make this a reality, including agreeing a rigorous regulation process, and an immediate ban on autonomous weapons along with a licensing regime with rules that reserve any final decision over the life and death of a human to a fellow human.

She argues we should also agree the criteria for legal personhood and a road map for Al towards it.

Okay. Setting aside the fact that we live in a world where Russia, China, and North Korea would not likely heed any such demands, bans, or criteria, how exactly does all this get us toward a soul? In reality, programmers don’t leave souls out of robots because they don’t find them useful; they simply and obviously have no idea how to insert them.

Actually, we have only one way of producing new human souls (ahem) and those souls animate only humans. But then does Poole even believe in a “soul” in any meaningful traditional sense?

The traditional model of the soul is that it is the (immortal) rational and moral part of a human being. Yet the publisher’s comments make clear that we are talking about inserting irrational elements into machines: “But on considering why all these irrational properties are there, it seems that they emerge from the source code of soul. Because it is actually this ‘junk’ code that makes us human and promotes the kind of reciprocal altruism that keeps humanity alive and thriving.”

Reviewer David J. Gunkel of Northern Illinois University assesses Poole’s project as “an innovative conceptualization of soul as the messy but necessary ‘junk code’ of consciousness.”

So this proposal is part theory of consciousness and part blue-sky talk about what robots will be able to do one day. If there are specific formulas for making a robotic soul, we are given no hint so far.

There is already a large literature on the topic of conscious AI, bound by one common thread: We don’t have any idea what consciousness is but we are pretty sure we can endow robots with it anyway.

To take but one example of thousands, neuroscientist Ryota Kanai, founder and CEO of Tokyo-based startup Araya, has said, “If we consider introspection and imagination as two of the ingredients of consciousness, perhaps even the main ones, it is inevitable that we eventually conjure up a conscious AI, because those functions are so clearly useful to any machine.”

Yes, and it would be “clearly useful” for a dog to learn the pass codes by which humans operate his kennel doors. But it hardly follows that he can. He doesn’t and can’t know what he would need to learn. Perhaps we could say the same for the project of inserting human consciousness (a soul?) into a machine.

An article in The Economist back in 2017 meandered around in this Hard Problem of Consciousness for a while, eventually concluding that “The nub of the hard problem, then, is to make this ineffability effable.”

Um, okay… That’s as clear a prescription for giving a machine a soul as we are likely to get.

You may also wish to read: A reader asks: does neuroscience disprove free will? Materialists sometimes misrepresent the evidence for free will, especially Benjamin Libet’s work. Free will is real. It makes no sense (literally) to say otherwise. Neuroscience supports free will and it can be defended readily on a philosophical basis. Denial of free will logically denies the capacity to make any truth claim at all. (Michael Egnor)

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

All We Need To Do To Give a Robot a Soul Is… (Error 404)