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Welcome to AAR Artificial Intelligence and Religion Research Seminar

This is the Home Page for the AI and Religion Research Seminar. We are a seminar conducted through the American Academy of Religion and meet yearly at their Annual Meeting. The Seminar is co-chaired by Drs. Randall Reed and Tracy Trothen. If you have questions or interest in the work of the seminar please feel free to contact the co-chairs at reedrw at appstate.edu. As news about the seminar or papers from the seminar become available we will publish them here. Keep an eye on the site for further updates. 

A New Peer Review System

One of the struggles that the seminar has taken up is the problem of publication. The question of whether we should use this blog to launch a journal, or encourage publication of seminar papers in more traditional venues, or both perhaps in steps, is an issue the steering committee has struggled with. Part of the problem, as we all know, is that the process of publication is often lengthy and for material like A.I. oriented work which can quickly become stale because of advances in algorithms or methodologies this is a problem. This doesn’t take into account the problem of the barrier to reading that publishers monopolies on knowledge often create. Yann LeCun, who is one of the founders of the field of Artificial Intelligence, likewise recognizes there needs to be a new model of publication, particularly in Computer Science where this problem is even more pressing. He has proposed a new model which focuses not on credit when something is published, but rather when it is reviewed and that reviews themselves should be public and seen as publications. It is an interesting attempt at a new model. Read the full description here: http://yann.lecun.com/ex/pamphlets/publishing-models.html

Chinese Professor Opposes Facial Recognition in the Beijing Metro

I post this for two reasons. 1) there is a theological argument contained in it as part of its reasoning. But also 2) the debates about surveillance and ethics is one which has important implications for A.I. and Religion. Originally posted by Andrew Alexander, a grad student at Shanghai University (link below)

Greetings all,
For those who aren’t subscribed to Jeff Ding and the ChinAI newsletter, here is a translation of a Tsinghua University (Beijing) Professor’s opinion article opposing the installation of facial recognition systems in Beijing’s metro stations. 

Link to full translation:https://docs.google.com/document/d/18L4FuiUjGN5Y2j_4-VnYi2U116KWEIaG4pxVp78x-ss/edit

All the best,Andrew

Feature Translation: Tsinghua Professor Lao Dongyan: The hidden worries of facial recognition technology

THE CONTEXT: Last month, after learning that the Beijing Subway will apply facial recognition technology to carry out screening security checks on passengers, Tsinghua Professor Lao Dongyan (劳东燕) posted an article on her public Wechat account expressing her worries about facial recognition technology. She has called for stricter regulations on facial recognition and was one of nearly 300 faculty and students at Tsinghua who signed a letter in support of Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun (suspended for criticisms of the Communist Party).


  • The essay is structured into four arguments against the use of facial recognition in the Beijing Subway as well as rebuttals to four possible counterarguments. The four arguments: 
  1. The relevant organizations and institutions have not proven the legitimacy of their collection method for sensitive personal information
  2. The legitimacy of the new facial recognition measure is undercut without a hearing of the public’s views (e.g. the Beijing subway undertook a broad solicitation of the public’s views on a fare adjustment a few years earlier)
  3. The standards for how the Beijing subway will conduct screenings are not transparent, could be arbitrarily set, and could be discriminatory.
  4. There is not enough evidence to show that the use of facial recognition in subways can improve transport efficiency; even if there is evidence to prove this, efficiency itself is not a sufficient basis for implementation.
  • She also rebuts four counterarguments that others have brought up in the context of this case:
  1. Re: the counterargument that “some people may think that I am overthinking it, and I cannot appreciate and thank the government, as a father figure, for its protection and kindness,” Professor Law writes, “I can only say: forgive me, but I cannot accept this type of kindness…We must know that in our society, any personal data, as long as it is controlled by enterprises or other institutions, is also controlled by the government. Because this huge organization is run by specific people, this is equivalent to saying that all personal data, including highly recognizable biometric data, are controlled by a few people in that group…The people who control our data are obviously not God. They have their own selfish desires and weak points. Therefore, it is unknown how they will use our personal data and how they will manipulate our lives. Not to mention, such data may be leaked or hacked due to improper storage, leading to harmful results that may be exploited by criminals.
  2. In response to some people who say that as long as you don’t do bad things, you don’t have to worry about the government controlling your personal data, Lao writes, “In a normal society, individuals should have the right to oppose any organization’s arbitrary access to their personal biometric data. The law’s protection of an individual’s privacy and property rights and freedoms gives individuals a space for self-government, which cannot be infringed upon by others…If the biometric data of an individual can be obtained without consent in the name of security, do the legal protections of privacy and freedom of residence mean anything? Without privacy there is no freedom.
  3. While some people point out that they are not important people which means that others presumably have no interest in learning about our personal information, Lao argues, “I can only say that when you put your personal safety issue on the neglect of others, you basically live like a dead gambler. And, you are not only betting on your luck, but you are also betting that the person who controls the data is an angel. To those who wishfully think they can win this bet, while I admire your ostrich-like character, I secretly think you probably need to pay some intelligence tax.”
  4. Lastly, she calls out people who argue that even if this type of technology promotion has some issues, opposing it does not have any use, and they are too lazy to spend energy opposing it. “For issues that concern our own important rights and interests, I can only say that if we do not stand up and express our opposition and make our due efforts, it is naturally impossible to expect others to help call this out. How do you know that opposition is ineffective before you make the minimum effort? Even if opposition is ultimately invalid, it is better than tamely putting on your own shackles. At least we put in the work and struggled.
    As those who have had their rights violated, if we just endure this in silence and do not even dare to express our opposition, it is tantamount to helping the other party to scheme and hurts yourself…Because this is not a problem that can be solved simply by stubbornly tolerating it. Watching us go step by step towards the abyss, this was at least partly caused by our own stubborn forbearance.”
  • She also shares her own personal experience living in an increasingly securitized China: “You need to show your ID when entering or leaving the university campus, have your ID card checked when you mail something, scan your face to check in at a hotel…Living in this society, I often feel that I am not trusted. Whether it is reimbursement for scientific research expenses, or constantly escalating security, what I can sense is an atmosphere of unlimited alert.” 
  • Her conclusion sticks the landing: “If this society has not yet fallen into a state of persecution and paranoia, it is time to say enough on security issues. The hysterical pursuit of security has brought to society not security at all, but complete suppression and panic.
    In the end, I solemnly recommend that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee conduct a fundamental legitimacy review for the Beijing Metro’s measure to employ facial recognition for security screening. At the same time, it should consider initiating corresponding legislative procedures for a legal approach to regulating the arbitrary use of facial recognition technology.”

AI and Religion at IAHR

Dr. Takeshi Kimura invites members to join panels at IAHR on AI and Religion for the conference in Otago, New Zealand, August 2020.

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Dr. Kimura has four Japanese members including himself who are planning to prepare 150
words summary by the end of this month

The due date of submitting panel proposals is the end of this year, 31 of

Dr. Kimura would appreciate any of our colleagues who prepare 150 words summary
around the end of this month.

Read The Full Papers from the AI and Religion Seminar Here

AAR Members – You can read the full papers from the AI and Religion Seminar. The Seminar posts the papers ahead of time so that we can spend the majority of time in discussion. You can find them here:

A25-340 – Artificial Intelligence and Religion: Surveying the Landscape

A25-443 – Experiments in Artificial Intelligence and Religion

New A.I. Oriented Podcast From the Religious Studies Project – When Archive Meets A.I.

The Religious Studies Project occasionally dips into Artificial Intelligence. The October 7th Podcast is another example of that. Entitled “When Archive Meets A.I. — Computational Humanities Research on a Danish Secular Saint” An interesting use of A.I. to resurrect a personality from the past.  Listen here

AI and Grundtvig

Justin Lane has a response to the podcast on the religious studies project page about the attempt to analyze and in some sense resurrect a Danish theologian Grundtvig through A.I. Lane argues that perhaps what A.I. could really resurrect is Religious Studies in general, noting the discrepancy between interest in A.I. and Religious Studies as charted on Google N-grams. Certainly, we applaud this impulse, and the Grundtvig project represents an interesting approach.  In 2018 I watched Mark Graves demonstrate a chatbot trained on the writings of Thomas Aquinas (in translation) that could reproduce Aquinas-like language. Though at that point the chatbot quickly degenerated into Aquinas-sounding nonsense.  Still, with the immense progress made by GPT-2, it is only a matter of time until we see more credible versions of these sorts of chatbots.

Artificial Intelligence and Religion Seminar Sessions at AAR 2019

The Artificial Intelligence and Religion Seminar has two sessions at AAR 2019 in San Diego. They are back-to-back sessions. So mark your calendar/programs:

Artificial Intelligence and Religion Seminar Theme: Surveying the Landscape
Monday, 3:30 PM–5:00 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Aqua E (Third Level)
Randy Reed, Appalachian State University, Presiding

Joshua Urich, Trinity University-San Antonio
“He Was Only a God:” Sherlock Holmes and the Origins of an ASI Church

David Zvi Kalman, University of Pennsylvania
Artificial Intelligence and Jewish Thought:A Roadmap

Justin Hawkins, Yale University
“The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time:” Roko’s Basilisk, Antinatalism, and the Pascal’s Wager of Creating the Singularity

Beth Singler, University of Cambridge
“Blessed by the Algorithm”: Theistic Conceptions of Artificial Intelligence as Entanglements of AI and Religion

Pamela Eisenbaum, Iliff School of Theology, and Theodore Vial, Iliff School of Theology
Autonomy, Automatons, and AI

Takeshi Kimura, University of Tsukuba
Artificial Other and Natural Other: When a Human Meets A.I.

Artificial Intelligence and Religion Seminar Theme: Experiments in Artificial Intelligence and Religion
Monday, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Aqua E (Third Level)
Philip Butler, Loyola Marymount University, Presiding

F. LeRon Shults, University of Agder, and Wesley J. Wildman, Boston University
Simulating Secularities: Studying Religion and Nonreligion in Artificial Societies

Emanuelle Burton, University of Illinois, Chicago, and Thomas Arnold, Tufts University
Strangers in a Strange Land: A Field Report from Two Religion Scholars Working in AI

Randy Reed, Appalachian State University
A.I. and Religion, A.I. in Religion, A.I. for Religion: A.I. as a Tool for Religious Studies

Nathan R. B. Loewen, University of Alabama
Analyzing Philosophy of Religion Journals via Digital Humanities: Plotting Futures for the Field