In his TV series Edges, Christian communicator and broadcaster MAL FLETCHER examines some of the big issues of the day. Here, Mal looks at robotics, biotechnology and the need to stay human.
Biotechnology deals with the melding together of nature and human technology to create what some people claim will be a healthier and happier world. We already have corn that creates its own pesticide and genetically engineered bacteria that can mass-produce insulin. Before long, say some scientists, we'll be able to walk into the grocery store and buy things like 'prescription bananas', fruit that will automatically deliver doses of medicine into our bodies. Alongside advances with drugs and genetics, the modern biotech industry is driven by developments in the very sci-fi realm of robotics. Already, engineers have developed everything from robot pets, like Aibo the robot dog, to Pearl, the Nursebot, a kind of mechanised personal assistant.
One of the biggest fields of robotics research today is nanorobotics, which deals with building microscopic machines using components that are so small they can measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Using nanorobotics, doctors could create robots called nanites that travel through the human bloodstream, firing 'medicinetorpedoes' at diseased cells, while leaving healthy cells intact. Tiny implants could also be used to help paralysed people regain some of their movement and even to give sight to the blind. The potential breakthroughs in robotics and nanorobotics could be a major blessing. But, as with any still-evolving techniques, there are also some potential pitfalls.
Years ago, the esteemed French writer Jacques Ellul said that we've already invited technology into our factories and then into our homes, but we should be very wary of allowing it into our bodies. There are some huge questions yet to be answered. How far can we take biotech robotics before it interferes with our basic humanity? Are we in danger of turning ourselves - and future generations - into strange hybrids of man and machine? How much of this technology is open to abuse by unscrupulous medicos, or business and political leaders hungry for profits or power? Some respected writers and scientists suggest that we may end up with a world in which everybody falls into one of two groups: the 'natural', or 'unmodified', humans and a new species of 'beyond humans'. We may end up, say some, with a 'post-human' world.
According to the Bible, we are not the chance result of evolutionary processes. The human race is the result of conscious design by a benevolent and wise God, who made us very deliberately in his likeness. Though we've fallen a long way from God's original design, there are still strong traces of God-likeness in each one of us. These God-like traits make us uniquely human, setting us apart from all other creatures. One of those traits is our basic sense of morality. As human beings, we're able to rise above our circumstances and choose what is right, rather than simply responding to conditioning or the raw need for survival. This ability to make independent moral choices is beyond the capacity of machines. The Bible also defines human beings according to the level of needs we possess. All animals have the need of food, shelter and companionship, but human beings also have deep spiritual needs. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that God has 'placed eternity in the hearts of human beings'. We are touched by a taste for the divine, a desire to reach toward a transcendent God.
Spirituality can never be reproduced in a machine. Perhaps the best a robot could do would be to learn the concept of what we mean by the word 'God', from descriptions fed into its programming. No machine could ever cry out to God from the depths of an inner and immortal soul. So, the Bible places us apart from the machines we build. It also suggests that we must do everything we can to defend the sanctity - or 'separateness' - of our basic humanity, God's greatest gift to us. The Bible also issues stark warnings about the dangers of control. Throughout history, the strong have tried to manipulate the weak and the Bible's powerful prophetic books constantly place God on the side of the oppressed. God, they say, expects us to rush to the aid of the defenceless.
Recent developments in nanorobotics and genetics have brought back the old debate about eugenics, which traditionally called for the weeding out of the 'weaker' elements of our race. Today, some people are calling for the 'enhancement' of the human line using technologies like nanorobotics, even on the unborn. God, however, demands that we stand up for the weak, not use them for our own ends.
The Bible predicts that the issues of control and manipulation will become increasingly problematic as humankind nears the end of history. These are exciting times, but there are very definitely dangers ahead. We need to sanctify our science, to bring it in line with God's plan us and for this unique human race.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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