In recent years, we have been buffeted by astonishing news about advances in the quest to create intelligent artificial life in the laboratory. The enormity and frequency of these advances have not afforded us the time to stop and comprehend their moral and religious implications.

The advances are on two parallel fronts — the road to creation of a creature with a human brain whose DNA is entirely assembled from basic chemicals; and the road to creation of a neural network so complex that it can replicate every neuron and synapse in the human brain.  Neither road is completed, but scientists have created an active polio virus completely from scratch, created DNA strands that include chemicals that do not appear in DNA by nature, and are on the verge of creating a complete, viable, human-produced, DNA genome — one that has no genetic material from any human male or female parent.

At the same time, Watson, an IBM computer, won a game of Jeopardy! against human champions—notwithstanding all the puns and nuances that Jeopardy! entails.  Of course, Watson did not understand those puns or even appreciate that it had won the game, but, nonetheless, this was a step forward in creating an artificial intelligence that can play and learn by human rules.

When scientists do perfect the process of assembling living human-like creatures and human-like computer brains, complex enough to display human thoughts, emotions, and learning, we will have to answer for ourselves and our societies: Is there some unique essence that separates natural-born humans from creations that seem to reproduce the same electro-chemical workings as the human brain (for our purposes, let’s call this essence, if it exists, a “soul”)?  Can lab-produced living beings possess a soul? Do humans have the power to create souls or, at least, to implant souls? These questions are of particular interest, as two-thirds or more of Americans believe that every person has a soul and believe in an afterlife of some sort.

They were easier to answer when every human brain had been created from another living being who possessed a soul, a being who could be said to act as the vehicle or agent for the transfer or implantation of a soul into their offspring or clone.

For those who believe that a soul is created or implanted at conception, the question is does, or when does, “conception” occur with assembled DNA; when does it occur during the building of a neural network?  If there is no “conception” as such, what is the miracle or magic that can create souls, and can scientists trigger it? Can computer brains have a soul? For those who believe only God has the power to create or implant the soul, are these new thinking/emoting creations soulless, or can a scientist force God’s hand into creating or implanting a soul? Would God even permit a soul to be created or implanted into a machine or an artificial human? If not, how are we to treat such soulless thinking, feeling, emoting God-less creations?

For those who see the soul as an eternal personality that is reincarnated and replanted in other humans or animals — either eternally or until it fulfills its mission — the question is no less perplexing. For them, the soul must sometimes become disembodied from a living being while on its journey. The question is whether a disembodied soul can be forced to be re-embodied (or can even choose to embodied itself) in an inanimate object or an artificial creature.

How can one tell if a soul has become so embodied, and if the computer or artificial being has the sophistication to become to repository of a soul?  It would change our conception of the spiritual world to imagine that such artificial beings can haunt us as ghosts or visit us in a vision or dream, or to imagine that an unplugged computer has a soul that endures and acts.

These questions lead to a cascade of moral and ethical questions.  If we could determine how sophisticated a computer or artificial creature has to be to have a soul, is it ethical to create creatures with that level of sophistication; is it ethical to prevent these creatures from reaching that level of sophistication; is it even ethical to experiment to discover what that level is? If a computer can have a soul, what are the moral implications of unplugging or even failing to repair that computer? We may have to face the idea that our child’s soul is actually a soul that originated or previously resided in a machine or a test tube creation.

If we conclude that God is no longer necessary for the creation or implantation of a soul, how does that change our relationship with God? If these new creatures have souls, we may have to accept these new creations as full equal partners in the world. Would we be OK with a computer being given a place in a school ahead of our human-born child? We have to wonder whether the soul, while in a machine, can grow and atone; and whether a soul created in a machine, or a soul while it is in a machine, is somehow fundamentally different from the soul that resides in a natural-born human. What criminal responsibility do we impose on thinking computers and their actions?

Can we ethically create such creatures purely for medical experiments or for harvesting of their organs for the sake of “natural” human beings? If not, are these computers and creations entitled to human rights, like the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Will these creatures be allowed to marry, marry outside their own kind, do they have a fundamental right to reproduce, how do we treat their offspring? Do they get control over their deaths? Do we include or exclude them from our religious and political activities?

At base, we must ask whether our answers will draw us closer to God, to a deeper moral understanding of ourselves and the world, or if they will cause us to lose faith. Will it make us fear these new creatures, or welcome and integrate them? It has been said that one can judge a human society by how it treats its most vulnerable members.  Whether we accept these artificial beings as part of human society and, in any case, how we treat them as vulnerable members, will be part of how we judge ourselves and how future generations judge us.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Temple Israel Center of White Plains.)