Can an AI agent have a soul? Let's not beat around the bush here. That's the key question asked by almost every piece of science fiction about artificial intelligence for thousands of years, dating all the way back to the ancient myths about statues coming to life. The answer, not surprisingly, depends on how one defines a soul. So let's start with some definitions. I know these are quite simplistic but nonetheless, it is impossible to continue this discussion without first defining some key terms.
Artificial Intelligence: an artificial system with the ability to make decisions based on stimuli. AI systems need not be able to learn or be conscious and often are very simple.
AI Agent: any manifestation of an artificially intelligent system. AI agents include, but are not limited to, characters in a video games, intelligent entities in simulations, intelligent robots, tracking & identification systems used by the military, obstacle avoidance systems in development for lunar & planetary rovers, and future agents such as upgrades (hardware and/or software) to the human brain or even true androids.
Android: an AI agent embodied in a robot. An android must be humanoid and be self-contained. Most androids are assumed to have human-level intelligence but that is not a requirement. Star Trek's Data is an example of an android in science fiction. Honda's Asimo is an example of a modern android.
Consciousness: the ability to be aware of one's actions and thought patterns, including being aware of the quality of subjective experiences (example: the smell of a rose as total experience rather than simply as a stimuli that is logged.)
Mind: the totality of everything we experience as conscious beings, including the mechanism used to process that experience.
Materialist: a person who believes that the physical brain can fully explain all the elements of the mind.
Dualist: a person who believes that the physical brain cannot explain all that we experience (particularly subjective experiences and existential thought) and that some sort of non-material mind must exist.
Soul: the non-physical element of the mind, if one exists. Note: this is not necessarily the same thing as the spirit as defined by many Christians. I will discuss that in the Religion section of this site.
God: the Christian God as described in the Bible. Since the Western world is predominantly Christian, and to prevent needlessly complicating this section of my site, I'm going to assume we're discussing the Christian God when I mention God in this section. I will discuss other faiths, other notions of God and spirituality in general in the Religion section of this site.
First we have to ask: can an AI agent mimic the behavior of the human mind? Regardless of whether or not humans have souls, if it is impossible for such an agent to mimic of the behavior of the human mind, then the issue of a soul become more or less moot. If AI never progresses beyond the point where it can only be trained to accomplish a simple task or a set of tasks, then one could very easily conclude that AI agents are not truly conscious, and thus wouldn't have a soul if one exists. So what parts of the human mind must an AI agent emulate before we're willing to assume it's alive? Emotions? Fan's of Star Trek's Data would likely disagree. So, in the ultimate interest of discussing whether or not an AI agent can have a soul, let's start with this question.
Next: Is it alive?
Is it alive?
Does it have emotions?
Is it conscious?
Can it have faith?
Can it have hope?
Can it love?
Does it have a soul?