Here’s My Pitch: “PrayerBot 3000™,” a Psuedo-Spiritual Art Installation

As a culture, we write a lot of science fiction about Artificial Intelligence. But what about an Artificial Soul? What if you created a computer program that was a simulation of the soul, in the same way that Chess computers are a simulation of the mind?

Background

I’ve been reading Think, by Simon Blackburn. I just got to the discussion of the ghost in the machine—a term I’m more familiar with from science fiction than philosophy.

The idea, for those who (like me 24 hours ago) are unfamiliar, seems to be this: Our bodies are the machine. Our soul/mind/spirit is the ghost. There is a relationship between the two that can’t be explained, and we can’t find or prove the existence or the nature of the ghost.

Disclaimer: For you professional/armchair philosophers out there, please sound off and let me know if and how I’m explaining this wrong. I assume I am. Still just dipping my toe into the idea from a formal standpoint, although I’ve given body/soul duality plenty of thought in the past.

Okay. So that’s where this is coming from. Now, on to the idea.

The Object

Imagine a small room with high ceilings and good light. In the center, ideally illuminated by natural sunlight, is a small machine about the size of a microwave—the PrayerBot 3000™. It’s printing out a narrow strip of paper, ticker-tape style. On the paper is printed something like the following:

PLEASE BLESS SARAH PARKER. GIVE HER STRENGTH AND WISDOM TODAY • THANK YOU FOR DONALD EASUM AND HIS WORK AS THE 
US AMBASSADOR TO NIGERIA, 1975–77
• PLEASE HELP ALL THOSE INVOLVED IN THIS SITUATION: SWISS PROBE OF MALAYSIA FUND SEES $4 BILLION POSSIBLE MISUSE • [Etc.]

How It Works

The idea here is that the PrayerBot 3000 is randomly combining a database of the following kinds of information:

  • White pages listings of private individuals and generic human needs/common prayer requests
  • Databases of famous people and their contributions to society
  • General situational prayers and Google News headlines

When printed out, this ticker-tape reads like the prayer of a supplicant with an extremely wide range of concerns. Ideally, the machine would run 24 hours a day as long as it was installed in a gallery. To carry the idea a step further, the gallery staff could trim the ticker-tape once per day, possibly even shipping segments of it to randomly selected religious organizations for “inspection,” or “confirmation.”

Artist’s Statement

Why make something like this? To make fun of religion? To make light of prayer? No—no more than artificial intelligence is “making fun” of human intellect. I myself am spiritually-minded, and consider prayer one of the most important parts of my life and humanity.

PrayerBot 3000™, for me, would be an exploration of this idea of the soul. What makes a payer so distinctly human? If the words are parroted by a machine in a way that seems, at a glance, even slightly authentic, what does that make the viewer think about times when they’ve prayed in a rote manner? (No judgment, I legitimately want to know what that makes the viewer feel.)

And also, if you accept the idea of an omniscient Judeo-Christian God, wouldn’t He be the only one who could possibly read or be aware of all the “prayers” generated by the machine? Could he possibly even hear them? What do we think about the relationship between our faith/sincerity in prayer and God’s understanding/acceptance of them?

Will the PrayerBot 3000™ ever be a real art piece?

If you know anyone who wants to help me program and fund its construction, then YES. Until then, no, it’s just a thought experiment.

I’m okay if you think it’s banal or heretical or sophomoric and if you hate it and hate me for suggesting it. All I can say in my defense is that this is all offered in the spirit of sincere artistic inquiry. I’m not trying to prove any point with this, religious or otherwise.

What do you think?