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Vol.25, No. 19 Apr. 7, 2000

'God and Robots' Lecture Series to Explore Bridging of Science and Religion

By Suzanne Trimel

What can laboratory experiments with computer-originated robots teach us about man's quest for meaning in the universe?

This provocative line of inquiry at the intersection of theology and computer science is the focus of a series of four Wednesday evening lectures titled "God and Robots" by theologian Anne Foerst, beginning April 5.

The spring 2000 lectures launch a planned annual series by the new Center for the Study of Science and Religion under the direction of Professor Robert Pollack, biologist and former dean of Columbia College.

The spring lectures on April 5, 19 and 26, and May 10 will take place from 5:00-7:00 p.m. in Davis Auditorium of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research.

During the series, Foerst, a leading thinker in this area, will discuss her work with "Cog" and "Kismet," robots in M.I.T.'s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where she serves as theological advisor. Foerst directs the "God and Computers" project at M.I.T. in which scientists talk about existential questions raised by their research. Foerst is also director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, which focuses on the relation between contemporary physics, cosmology, technology, environmental studies, evolutionary and molecular biology and Christian theology and ethics.

The German-born Foerst has published widely on the interaction between artificial intelligence and the consequences of it for society and culture.

The first lecture, titled "Stories We Tell: Where Robotics and Theology Meet," will examine how the creation of artificial intelligence in the laboratory has led scientists and theologians to probe the development of man's search for meaning through an understanding of the body, the soul and consciousness. She will use the robots in the Cog-group at M.I.T. as "thinking tools" to probe questions about embodiment, social interaction, culture and elements of Christian tradition, such as baptism, eucharist and a new understanding of ritual.

The topic on April 19 will be: "Are Our Bodies Our Selves?: Insights from Robotics"; on April 26: "Are Robots Images of God? Musings About Personhood," and on May 10: "Personhood, Embodiment, Interaction."

The Center for the Study of Science and Religion, whose faculty board of directors is drawn from the fields of medicine, the natural sciences, religion and philosophy, is an interdisciplinary forum founded in the summer of 1999 for the examination of issues at the boundary of the scientific and religious ways of comprehending the world and man's place in it. The Center is structuring lectures, courses, professional training and other programs based on its consideration of the question: Since science responds to the human need to understand the world and religion responds to the need for the world to have meaning, are these needs commensurate? The Center's programs will examine the social, medical and political implications of the current inability to reach a single answer to this question.

The Center's programs include a weekly forum for faculty and students on wide-ranging questions of religion and theology; informal discussions among faculty, students and administrators on how religion has guided their careers; the development of a secondary school curriculum on biology and religion, now taught in New York City Roman Catholic and Jewish institutions, and a faith and medicine series at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.