The development of Artificial Intelligence is centred on the idea that we as humans can create devices and technologies that are capable of seeing, hearing and behaving like humans. The idea of the soul is fundamental to our beliefs as Muslims. But this field of work does not recognise the soul as an important differentiator as to what makes a human, human. So does AI go against Islamic beliefs?
It is now quite ordinary to speak to inanimate objects and more often than not, to expect an intelligible answer or some task to be carried out, like respond to a search query, schedule an appointment or make a phone call. How is this possible?
What is Artificial Intelligence?
Have you ever wondered what is happening behind the screen or within the plastic boxes with flashing lights?
And is there anything for Muslims to think about in relation to this new world of seemingly speaking, seeing, acting and thinking things?
All of this has become possible through advances in artificial intelligence, and in the above cases, through advances in language processing.
Being able to understand and produce human speech is just one of dozens of areas that have advanced rapidly in less than half a decade due to advances in artificial intelligence (AI).
The development of AI is the quest to design intelligent computer systems – systems that would be capable of the sophisticated array of behaviours and mental capacities that are associated with human intelligence such as learning, understanding language, reasoning, creativity and thought itself.
One of the major events that initiated this resurgence of interest in AI was when an AI system, named AlphaGo, developed by Google subsidiary DeepMind, defeated a leading human player in the board game Go, which is a game known to require high levels of intuitive thought and creativity.
Since then, there has been a huge amount of interest in AI from academics, technologists, investors, governments and policy makers, accompanied by billions of pounds in research funding and widespread public debates on the social, political and ethical implications of AI as its usage grows.
The ultimate aim of AI research is to create intelligence comparable to, or exceeding, our own, which is known as artificial general intelligence (AGI).
The development of AI and AGI is firmly connected with one of the biggest mysteries in philosophy and science, which is understanding the basis of our intelligence and consciousness and uncovering their origins.
Science and technology now lead the way in exploring ideas about human nature and human intelligence.
Does AI Go Against Islamic Teachings?
For Muslims, and most religious traditions, consciousness, intelligence and human nature are linked to the existence of the soul.
However, a scientific approach to these questions does not allow for belief in anything immaterial, like the soul.
AI should therefore be of interest to Muslims as key Islamic teachings are challenged by new scientific ideas emerging from AI research, and these scientific ideas gain credibility amongst people who don’t understand how the technology works and its limitations.
Like ancient people seeing pharaoh’s magician conjure up false serpents, every new and seemingly magical technology gradually deceives modern people into believing scientists have gained, or will soon gain, the power to create living, animate beings.
What Does the Quran Tell Us About Intelligence and Our Souls?
One of the key teachings, which we learn directly from the Qur’an, is that we have a unique form of intelligence, knowledge and understanding that differentiates us from animals, angels and jinns.
The Qur’an tells us that when God created Prophet Adam, عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ, and brought him to life by placing a soul in his body, God instructed the angels and Iblis (the devil) to bow to him after he demonstrated his unique form of knowledge.
As AI is infused with new devices and technologies, and hence into more aspects of our life, we are encountering new entities that seem to be capable of hearing, seeing, speaking, willing, knowing and intelligent, yet these new entities are not living and certainly don’t have anything like souls.
What is The Impact of AI on Islam?
The hidden impact of AI is that it makes us believe we are nothing more than soulless machines even with all of our thinking, seeing, speaking and acting.
Muslims should ask how this complicates key stories in the Qur’an that are taught to children, such as when Prophet Ibrahim, عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ, asked his people what they worship.
When his people replied that they worship idols and “remain constantly in attendance on them,” Ibrahim ,عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ , challenged them by asking, “Do they listen to you when ye call (on them)? Or do you good or harm?”.
Today, people remain constantly in attendance of their smart devices, which do seem to listen when called, and AI algorithms can push people in positive or negative directions.
In sum, Muslims need to think more carefully about how they use new AI-powered devices in daily life and how they might complicate Islamic teachings in the minds of future generations.
Written by Dr Yaqub Chaudhary
Dr Yaqub Chaudhary holds a PhD in Physics from Imperial College London, where he worked on the Physics of Plastic Electronic Materials and their potential use in future types of lasers. Prior to this he studied Electronic Engineering at the same institution. As Research Fellow in Science and Religion he is reprising his long-standing interest in Artificial Intelligence and his current research project will consider recent developments in the fields of AI, cognitive science and neuroscience in connection with Islamic conceptions of the mind, intelligence, human reasoning, cognition, knowledge, the nature of perception and consciousness.