The Terminator was written to frighten us; WALL-E was written to make us cry. Robots can’t do the terrifying or heartbreaking things we see in movies, but still the question lingers: What if they could?

Granted, the technology we have today isn’t anywhere near sophisticated enough to do any of that. But people keep asking. At the heart of those discussions lies the question: can machines become conscious? Could they even develop — or be programmed to contain — a soul? At the very least, could an algorithm contain something resembling a soul?

The answers to these questions depend entirely on how you define these things. So far, we haven’t found satisfactory definitions in the 70 years since artificial intelligence first emerged as an academic pursuit.

Take, for example, an article recently published on BBC, which tried to grapple with the idea of artificial intelligence with a soul. The authors defined what it means to have an immortal soul in a way that steered the conversation almost immediately away from the realm of theology. That is, of course, just fine, since it seems unlikely that an old robed man in the sky reached down to breath life into Cortana. But it doesn’t answer the central question — could artificial intelligence ever be more than a mindless tool?

Victor Tangermann, The Birth of Alexa, Photoshop, 2018

That BBC article set out the terms — that an AI system that acts as though it has a soul will be determined by the beholder. For the religious and spiritual among us, a sufficiently-advanced algorithm may seem to present a soul. Those people may treat it as such, since they will view the AI system’s intelligence, emotional expression, behavior, and perhaps even a belief in a god as signs of an internal something that could be defined as a soul.

As a result, machines containing some sort of artificial intelligence could simultaneously be seen as an entity or a research tool, depending on who you ask. Like with so many things, much of the debate over what would make a machine conscious comes down to what of ourselves we project onto the algorithms.

“I’m less interested in programming computers than in nurturing little proto-entities,” Nancy Fulda, a computer scientist at Brigham Young University, told Futurism. “It’s the discovery of patterns, the emergence of unique behaviors, that first drew me to computer science. And it’s the reason I’m still here.”

Fulda has trained AI algorithms to understand…

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