The writer, Dr. Sibtain Panjwani (London, United Kingdom) qualified as a dentist and obtained his MA in Medical Law and Ethics and a PhD in Law, after which he went on to work closely with Marhum Mulla Asgherali M M Jaffer at the World Federation.
AI and Islam:
ou may think this question is far-fetched. It is not. Just look at what the social/economic trends tell us. In Western Europe and Japan, there is an ageing population and a shrinking population size. In the long term, it is estimated that by 2050, all the continents except for Africa will have an increased ageing population and a shrinking general population. Two important challenges for the world in 2050 are:
1. Demands of the Ageing population
2. Limited human resources available from the declining general population.
In the UK, there are 11 million people aged 65 or over with 3 million people aged 80 or over. By 2050, estimates predict that the elderly will account for 16% of the global population. Research suggests that about three in four elderly people will develop a social care need such as assistance getting up in the morning to all day support for physical, emotional and mental care. With a declining population generally throughout the world, there will be a shortage of human resources willing to take on the responsibility. Families that traditionally look after the elderly will also come under pressure due to much social and economic pressure.
In the last 500 years, technology has come to the rescue of humanity to solve some of our challenges. It is said that, in the last 100 years, more knowledge is discovered than ever before. It is increasingly likely that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) assisted appliances will take on the part of the role of care providers, including, meeting practical care needs, providing round–the–clock support and even providing a form of companionship.
Over 22% of Japan’s population is currently aged 65 or older and many companies are working on robots that can assist the elderly, ranging from those which offer therapeutic care to those which can help move and carry objects. Within the next 20 years, it is increasingly likely that (AI) robots will be used in the care of older adults throughout the developed world. What are the implications for human society as a whole of this intervention in our social relationships? What ought to be the Muslims’ perspective on Artificial Intelligence (AI) assisted appliances?
As part of a larger global society, Muslim communities are also undergoing increasing ageing populations. Our community needs to deliberate upon the key ethical and social implications of the use of this technology; the implications it will have, on family life, social life as well as on individual identity. I am expressing a reflection from an Islamic perspective on this topic briefly, hopefully, to encourage deeper deliberations on this topic among bioethics and religious scholars:
Though there is little work, if any, done on the aforementioned subject, there is one major issue which runs throughout Islamic metaphysical and philosophical literature – the soul (nafs). There is no indication in the Qur’an or hadith that a being higher than the human being would possess something like the complexity of the human soul – both in terms of its intellect, desires, capacity, emotion and transcendental yearning. For this reason, a robot would not be able to replace the human soul but only resemble it. We have to ask, is this resemblance enough for communication with an elderly person? It is possible that in cases where an elderly person has no one at all, a highly developed robot with some human-type personality possessing self-awareness could be programmed to communicate with the elderly person. It is up to an elderly person to accept such an entity. However, from the Islamic viewpoint, this does not replace the soul which is the basis for human identity, emotional capacity and spiritual, ethical and transcendental growth. This complexity allows for deeper intuitions which the robot may not be aware of. Therefore, one may argue that the use of robots in absolutely replacing humans (from a metaphysical point of view) is not only counter-human but dangerous as it reduces human beings to nothing more than mechanical beings who require mechanical communication. There would be no room for deep human communication or flourishing. However, the use of robots in aiding human beings to perform certain services like cleaning or the such would be permissible as the role of human identity is not threatened in a major way.
There is nothing in the Qur’an and ahadith which explicitly talks about A.I or robot. Even if so, it has to be interpreted a great deal. From a purely textualist angle, one may argue there is no prohibition on using robots to communicate with the elderly but this is a limited angle requiring a greater ethical and metaphysical framework which is not present in Islamic theory.
This depends on the judgment of a jurist with his own ijtihad. Again, this is subjective as no overall framework exists with regard to bioethical issues. Usually ihtiyat or bara’ah (exemption) is used in the face of bioethical issues unless some verses and hadith are found which contain some sort of order prohibiting or permitting the technology or action in question.
The Islamic viewpoint may, at present, utilize a mixture of principles from metaphysics, philosophy and ethics with a broad reference to scripture to argue for the protection of human identity. This would position the soul as the basis of human identity and requires cultivation rather than a hindrance. If robots hinder the transcendental and ethical cultivation of the elderly, even at the time of death, this is against the spirit of journeying towards God. It is possible that robots aiding human beings in their services to the elderly would be allowed and as a last resort, to allow robots to replace a human in the case of truly isolated and alone elderly persons (as some movies have suggested). But the thumb rule is one of prohibition and caution as from a metaphysical viewpoint, it renders human beings like machines which is not their purpose in accordance with Islamic scripture and metaphysics.
What do you think about this question?
Dr Sibtain Panjwani has a special interest in bioethics and currently operates on a freelance basis in both Muslim community life and the wider academic environment
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