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God In the Machine: What Robots Teach Us About Humanity and God Hardcover – December 22, 2004

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Between the World and Me
2015 National Book Awards - Nonfiction Winner
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Foerst, a theologian associated with MIT's artificial intelligence lab in the 1990s, writes not so much about robotics or AI as about what it means to be a person, in technological and theological perspective. As a German theologian transplanted into an unlikely environment, Foerst was received with both hospitality and skepticism by MIT colleagues. But the robots, rather than the roboticists, are the stars—especially Cog, a model of hand-eye coordination and learning, and Kismet, an example of emotional mirroring through voice and facial expression. Foerst effectively narrates the delight—and at times, confusion—she feels from her robotic encounters, although some readers will wish for more concrete descriptions of the science and technology involved. Foerst's thoughts on AI and theology can be grouped into two main themes: the importance of embodiedness and the flexibility of personhood. The first theme is developed quite effectively, integrating insights from the Bible with the idea of AI in the 1990s: making progress by modeling embodied systems—even simple ones—instead of abstract computational tasks. The second theme, relying heavily on Paul Tillich's concepts of sin and justification, and focusing on audience perceptions of Cog and Kismet, is generally less persuasive. Overall, Foerst relates an inherently interesting story, supplemented by parallels in Judeo-Christian traditions, but hampered at times by academic jargon.
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About the Author

Dr. Anne Foerst is a former research scientist at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, where she also founded and directed the God and Computers Project. The only robotics theologian in the country, her work has captured much media attention, including coverage in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Science. She is currently a visiting professor of theology and computer science at St. Bonaventure University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult (December 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525947663
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525947660
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #649,817 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Lee D. Carlson HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on May 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Those readers who have no religious beliefs but yet are interested in or working in the field of artificial intelligence may think that this book would not be very interesting or important, or possibly an apology for a particular religious worldview. When beginning the book this attitude will be reinforced somewhat, since it takes a while for the author to develop her main themes. Once she does however the book is fascinating, and her discussion of some of the issues in artificial intelligence is highly original and insightful. Considering the environment in which she worked it is refreshing to learn that the author was taken seriously, in spite of her overt expression of her religious beliefs. The only minus to the book is that the author concentrates her attention on robotics, which is a very narrow field of artificial intelligence at the present time. Machines can be intelligent to various degrees without looking like humanoids and without interacting with the environment in the manner that the author describes in great detail in the book. Indeed, these machines are more than just the "machines that sit on the desk" to quote the author. No, they cannot move in the world as humans do, but their abilities to perform tasks in a way that cannot be done by humans attests to their cognitive abilities.

Along with those who work in the field, the author has developed a deep appreciation of the magnificence of the human machine. She encapsulates her view of humanity not according to the usual classification, but according to human capabilities. Humans can tell stories ("homo narrans"), can stand upright ("homo erectus"), can use technology to change the world ("homo faber"), can engage in creativity ("homo ludens"), and can hold to religious beliefs ("homo religiosus").
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A. V. Kirk on July 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The title of Ms. Foerst's book brings together two of humankind's greatest fears and desires: God and artificial intelligence. But despite such lofty goals, the text is mostly a rather mundane recollection of her days in the MIT AI lab during the 90s. These stories, such as accounts of the way humans emotionally responded to the faces of machines, are only occasionally marginally interesting. However, to her credit, she provides a more humanist perspective on human/robot interactions than a more technically focused writer would have.

The real problem with the book is when it actually tries to fulfill the lofty goals towards the end. This has the unfortunate result of taking the reader on a mixed up journey into human/robot and human/human interactions culminating in the conclusion that the path to world peace is for everyone to treat everyone else with the same friendly curiosity with which they treat robots. No joke...if you would just be nice to everyone, and everyone else would do the same, then we'd have world peace. It's that simple! And luckily, because of robots, we now understand this fact.

Clearly the argument has slightly more depth than my above characterization, but that is the general conclusion. And the reader is just left wondering at the end if there was something more valuable we could learn from robots.

Also, if you're curious, she is theologically quite liberal. So within the context of the book, God is more clockmaker than the God of the Bible.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on September 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
Ask yourselves a question: what makes a being a person? If you don't like that question, consider another: what defines life and how do we know that it is present in creatures other than ourselves? These are just two of many questions theologian and computer scientist Anne Foerst ponders in this interesting and provocative book. "God in the Machine" considers what it means to be human, to have a soul, and to connect to God. Foerst is one of several scholars seeking to explore possibilities for a trans-human future in which robots and humans co-exist, or perhaps robots and humans merge into a new species of cyborgs. With a background in theology she is less interested in questions of what defines a legal person than what defines a new form of life. And what is the connection of that life to God. She notes that building these new life forms--robots--make us co-creators with God in what could be the advance of a new species. She suggests building robots may be best perceived as a type of prayer.

"God in the Machine" offers a breathless consideration of five major themes in cybernetics and theology. The first is the age-old quest to create life. From Golems to Frankenstein's creature this has been a dream of humanity. Second, Foerst explores the idea of embodied science, and then moves on to embodied intelligence, the fundamental attribute of robotic research. From there she investigates the nature of community and what it means to be a person within the context of larger systems. Finally, she seeks to link these ideas into a final chapter on the relationship of humans and robots in community.

This is an interesting, provocative, and sometimes frustrating work. Foerst writes well, but her illustrations are sometimes poorly drawn and not as fully explained as I would like. She also dispensed with notes in favor of a bibliography for each chapter, which meant that the sources for quotes are sometimes difficult to discern.
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