Saskatchewan Center for Science and Religion Discusses Spirituality & A.I. at its First Annual Conference

Hongming Cheng, Executive Director for the Saskatchewan Centre for Science and Religion and sociology professor at the Univeristy of Saskatchewan. (Mel Pomerleau)

The Saskatchewan Center for Science and Religion hosted its first international conference at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel on Dec. 1 and 2.

Throughout the two-day event, a number of high-profile speakers took to the stage to discuss various aspects of artificial intelligence and how scientific enhancements may impact the human experience. Executive Director for The Saskatchewan Center for Science and Religion, Hongming Cheng, focused specifically on innovations in robotics.

“[Robots] can do calculations. They can even become a professor and do sociology. They can do quantitative or qualitative research,” says Cheng. “But [machines] are programmed. If they have consciousness in the future, with technological advancements, then how would you come back to define human beings?”

Spirituality—traditionally a human notion—encompasses a broad range of ideas, experiences, and literal thinking, something not yet attainable for robots.

“But now, with technological advancements, we are interested [in] whether or not artificial intelligence can also have the similar sense of spiritualities,” says Cheng.

Keynote speaker Tracey Trothen, a professor at Queen’s University in the School of Religion and the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, discussed the connection between spirituality, sports, and human enhancement.

Trothen examined how therapy relates to human enhancement by citing the famous “Tommy John” surgery. The surgery was once done only to repair torn or stretched ligaments in a player’s throwing arm, but is now a largely elective surgery that some pitchers believe will help them throw faster.

Trothen posed the question, “What does it mean to ‘enhance’ and how is that different than some types of therapy?”

Questions asked of Trothen focused on how and when technological enhancements may be used to enhance the human experience.

“It’s probably more important for us to define intelligence because, in the past, a calculator would be considered ‘smart’ because it could actually calculate large numbers for us,” says Cheng.

The ideas put forth during the conference encouraged attendees to examine human values and consider how technology, science, and human enhancement may alter human lives in the near future.

“We make decisions around what enhancement technologies to pursue and to use, and we’re making [those decisions] based on implicit values that we hold,” says Trothen. “If we believe that spirituality makes us better and is a valuable part of being human, then we’re going to be considering that in our enhancement technology.”

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