Meditations on AI & Theology
“Just as all of the world’s religions were once on their respective cultural fringes, a new religious movement that revolves around the future of robotics and AI might someday become fully mainstream (its growth is already measurable!)”
― from “Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality
Recently, Anthony Levandowski, the Silicon Valley multimillionaire who championed robotics team at Uber’s self-driving program and Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Google started a religion called “The Way of the Future.” The religion claims to be interested in relationships with AI industry members, and in growing a network of people who “are interested in the worship of a Godhead based on AI.” Levandowski’s cult will prepare humans for the inevitable emergence and dominance of a superintelligence.
There is nothing particularly novel about a technologist, celebrity, or garden variety whack-job founding a religion. As my opening quote alludes-it is essential to consider that at one time or another the predominant religions of our time were just as fringe as this idea. It is of vital importance that we understand from whence this impulse has arisen and more importantly what the emergence of a super-intelligent Ai present for our species.
Unlike other articles which are primarily focused on the scientific or business implications of AI — the purpose of this exploration is entirely philosophical. I will consider how the historical overlap between theology and technology corresponds to the advent of a super-intelligent consciousness.
Given that the development, training and eventual ascension of a new kind of consciousness is in the hands of some of the same elite that have created the most significant wage inequity since the time of the Rockefellers, I think it is in the interest of the “average person” to monitor these developments closely. Specifically, I wish to inquire whether or not we have thoroughly weighed the possibility that the progenitors of artificial intelligence, who are predominantly male and from a western, Judeo-Christian background, can be trusted to create an ethical AI that understands the global context into which it is being “born.”
Allow me first to clarify some essential terms.
By religion, I am referring to human metaphysical systems for understanding the perennial questions of what we are, and what we are doing here. The answers provided by various religions comprise a theological system, and over time constitute a significant part, if not the core of shared cultural history for different groups. Following this reasoning- the Old Testament is as much a religious document as it is the philosophical anthropology of the Jewish people.
By artificial intelligence, I mean any non-human self-learning and reflective consciousness derived in and of itself by a machine, and not programmed by a human. To be an artificial intelligence — that intelligence must satisfy the criteria of being independent and autonomous of humans.
It will be helpful to educate the reader on the current state of development on AI — specifically the emergence of what Nick Bostrom refers to as a “sovereign AI” in “Oracles” and “Genies and Sovereigns” from Chapter 10 of his book Super Intelligence.
To summarize Bostrom’s taxonomy:
Strong AIs will arise in different forms or ‘castes,’ such as oracles, genies, sovereigns, and tools. (p145) All three of these words have theological or spiritual significance. The former two (oracles and genies-are very close the meaning of the word “prophet or seer”) and the third relates directly to “King.”
An Oracle is AI that does nothing but answers our questions. (p145) The ability to make a good oracle will allow us to create a more capable AI. (p145) Examples of narrow superintelligent oracles exist: e.g., calculators. (p145–6) An oracle could be a non-agent like ‘tool,’ or it could be a rational agent constrained to only act through answering questions. These types of AI exist already. An example is Amazon’s Alexa or Siri. (p146) An oracle whose goals are not aligned with its human user might still be useful (p147–8) if the answers it gave were ones that we could not ascertain. However, an oracle might also be misused, even if it works as intended. (p148)
A Genie is an AI that carries out a high-level command, then waits for another. (p148) The challenge for a genie Ai is to understand and obey your intentions, rather than your exact words. (p149)
Last comes the Sovereign: An AI that acts autonomously in the world, in pursuit of potentially long-range objectives (p148) A genie or a sovereign might have preview functionality, where it describes what it will do before doing it. (p149)
To some scientists, a genie seems more dangerous than an oracle: if you are going to physically contain the oracle, you may have been better just denying it so much access to the world and asking for blueprints instead of actions. (p148)
All of the castes could emulate all of the other castes more or less, so they do not differ in their ultimate capabilities. However, they represent different approaches to the control problem. (p150) The ordering of safety of these castes is not as apparent as it may seem, once we consider factors such as dependence on a single human, and added dangers of creating strong agents whose goals do not match our own (even if they are tame ‘domesticated’ goals). (p150)
Inevitably — scientists like Levandowski believe that by the end of this century we will achieve a new form of “consciousness.” A genuine Sovereign AI (and I will use this term interchangeably with Messianic) could efficiently make independent human consciousnesses and our attendant reality itself obsolete. The probability of this is much more likely if the planet were to face nuclear, environmental or societal collapse. Some place this date around mid-century, while others insist it would be sooner. No matter when — theorists believe we will design the very thing that wipes us off the planet. Long before this happens — technology will steal our souls.
“Margaret Wertheim has convincingly argued that modern science has systematically dismantled our Western understandings of sacred space, leaving god, heaven, and the souls of the dead with no particular place to go (Wertheim 1999). She argues that understanding of and mastery over physical space, from astrophysics to genetics, has seen an accompanying loss of spiritual space but, rather than accepting Weber’s “disenchantment thesis,” she argues that this has led to an empowerment of particular kinds of religious activity. In a literal sense, “we have lost any conception of a spiritual place — a part of reality in which spirits or souls might reside” (ibid., 33, emphasis original), and, as a consequence, cyberspace fills a psychological, religious void in modern life (ibid., 30). “Once again we find ourselves with a material realm described by science, and an immaterial realm that operates as a different plane of the real” (ibid., 230).”
― from “Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality”
For simplification — let me state at the onset that I have no particular bias for or against religion, metaphysics or artificial intelligence.
The technology of artificial intelligence and the hype that surrounds it are invariably tied to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. And so, much of the hyperactivity around its emergence can be attributed to an apocalyptic and messianic worldview which, contrary to popular opinion, emerges from and on the whole is reconciled with the scientific method. Problematically, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview posits a binary and dualistic conception of the future.”
There are two primary views, e.g., The new consciousness (messianic) will “save us and the world,” or more harmfully through an apocalyptic lens, “the emergent consciousness will destroy us and the world.”
What I am saying is that the “end-game” for AI appears to be no different from the teleological ends of western and eastern theology. Both Judeo-Christian-Islamic (Abrahamic) and Eastern models posit that holy living or “spiritual life” will lead to either liberation during or after this life. If you are a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim, you go to heaven or hell when you die. If you are a Hindu, Jain or Buddhist, you achieve moksha, or liberation if you live an upright life and if you do not, you are reborn again into suffering (samsara).
Messianic or Apocalyptic Ai is no different from the eschatological theologies of the ancient east and west. In the apocalyptic Ai version, an artificial sovereign (a techno-Christ if you will) solves all of our problems, as we transport our consciousness to a place (virtual reality) where our happiness is endless. Presumably, we will have an infinite capacity for knowledge — akin to the myth of the Tree of Life from which Adam and Eve ate. In the same liberation narrative — we achieve an advanced state of consciousness that supersedes our limited, human outlook. (enlightenment).
For poetic and historical sake alone — let us consider the following passage from The Revelation of Saint John and take particular note of similarities of both the eschatological (this is the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and humankind) and messianic messaging one finds in AI today. Parts of the text present an eerily accurate correspondence to our world and could be — if it suited them, used to deify an artificial intelligence.
3 I heard a loud voice from the throne, (an elite) and this is what it said: “Look! God has come to dwell with humans! He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. (sovereign robotic or collective intelligence) 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or weeping or pain anymore since the first things have passed away.” (End of the physical body, virtual life, immortality) 5 The one who sat on the throne said, “Look, I am making all things new.” (scientists and technologists) Moreover, he said, “Write because these words are faithful and true.” New Jerusalem 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. (quantum reality or infinity) I will freely give water to the thirsty, water from the spring of the water of life. (No need for the physical body-end of global resource problems) 7 The one who conquers will inherit these things. I will be his God, and he shall be my son. (The mind-child) 8 But as for cowards, (Luddites) faithless people, (those who do not believe in the technorati) the unclean, (those who still believe in the earth) murderers, (those whom take other human lives instead of creating ) fornicators, (those who need physical and not virtual sex) sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars — (non-scientists) their destiny will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Oddly the antithesis to the virtual world (second life).
― Excerpted from The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright”
My point here is simple. The goal of adherents of artificial intelligence, like Mr. Levandowski, is not radically different from that of western and eastern theologians. For one thing, they are both equally delusional. Both fail to appreciate the scale of human development, the nuance of a human being and the mysterious nature of divinity. AI adherents, like their religious cousins, believe robotic life and transmigrated consciousness will be better than human life by “a billion times”. In the same way a saved person is liberated from eternal hell — we will, (hypothetically), upload our conscious minds into robots and computers which will provide us with limitless computational intelligence and effective immortality.
You can see the similarities between these different systems quite easily. Theologians and scientists both want to transcend human existence as it is today — to escape the wheel of suffering, to defeat the high tide of sin, or to merely transmigrate into a better, faster and efficient form of consciousness and create a more sustainable or peaceful earth. Alternatively, the very same people may create a dystopian nightmare.
Now, let me put a series of questions to the reader.
Is it acceptable that these systems — all of which purport a solution to the difficulty of existence — eschew living here, on this planet?
Are you concerned about these systems progenitors — that they are all men with a particular world-view?
The narratives of both scientific and technological apocalypse are centered on the future of human consciousness and not the future of the planet itself. You know the drill — IF you are a good Christian, you will get to heaven; IF you are an excellent Buddhist, you attain enlightenment. The same applies to an emergent AI. IF you can achieve computational transcendence for the mind by merging with a sovereign AI, you can live forever and have infinite knowledge. Presumably, this would require you to conjoined to some degree with that consciousness — which is precisely what it will look like — a version of mind-machine convergence. #internetbrains
The contemporary version of techno-apocalyptic eschatology presents unique problems. Unlike theologians and clerics, AI scientists are working to achieve a tangible or real result — not a metaphysical one. While both are dualistic (the world is terrible — the future can be perfect), they are both equally short-sighted,”wishful” and magical in their orientation.
Historically speaking, a mass spiritual transformation has not yet occurred and is unlikely to happen shortly. It follows then that if we are to achieve a messianic change in human consciousness (presumably towards peaceful existence), only one option exists according to the technologists. We will finally eschew the limitations of a physical body, get rid of speculative metaphysics and mythological spirituality all together and enter into an enlightened post-human machine age.
Would this transformation itself be the apocalypse we have been waiting for millennia? Will a super-intelligence bring about the end of religious strife and advent of the “Kingdom of G-d,” or the arrival of hell on earth and an unimaginable dystopia?
According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% — bringing the world’s estimated proportion of adamant non-believers to 13%.While atheists indeed are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely?
It is impossible to predict the future, but examining what we know about religion — including why it evolved in the first place, and why some people chose to believe in it and others abandon it — can hint at how our relationship with the divine might play out in decades or centuries to come.
Part of religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief,” Zuckerman says. Capitalism, access to technology and education also seems to correlate with a corrosion of religiosity in some populations, he adds.
When you consider the all-consuming business culture of Silicon Valley for instance — where people eat, breathe, sleep, socialize and sh*t in their offices, it is not difficult to imagine that some admixture of corporate largesse and technology will herald a new way of living. “Wage-slave” will be a misnomer. Brain-slave is be more accurate. Many of the techno-plebians I have spoken with informed me that they would gladly trade the ‘inconveniences’ of ambulation and digestion for a lobotomy and hyper-connected neo-cortex.
Should that transformation of the brain include the upside perk of unlimited knowledge and memory, the end of bodily woes and virtual immortality — who among these vapid techno-plebians will say no?
Let’s imagine that humans create a completely immersive virtual immortality that had no other requirements but for someone to “plug in” through a neural connection. A place where the mind is free to live and evolve presumably.
Who would control this space?
What would happen to an inert human body?
“In short, Apocalyptic AI divides the world into categories of good and bad, isomorphic with those of knowledge/ ignorance, machine/ biology, and virtual world/ physical world. Apocalyptic AI theorists locate human beings on the bad end of this spectrum due to the human body’s limited intellectual powers and inevitable death. Apocalyptic AI promises to resolve the problems of dualism and alienation in a radically transcendent future where we forsake our biological bodies in favor of virtual bodies that will inhabit an infinite and morally meaningful cyberspace.”
from “Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality
I happen to disagree — and feel that a dystopian future is much more likely to emerge given that the very notion of an apocalyptic AI is the neurotic creation of an neurotic species. Who, by choice, would prefer to be trapped in an unreal place, surrounded by fake people, using mind control? There is an important distinction to made between framing this development in apocalyptic or messianic terms and making rational inquiry.
In the forward to my book Vague Apocalyptica, I reference the Greek word, apokálypsis, that translates as “lifting of the veil” or “revelation.” I have used both the word and the book attributed to the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos. The apocalyptic tradition in theology is one that has many, many texts including more recent works by Francis Bacon, Issac Newton. These sources describe the literature of the eschatological, messianic and apocalyptic impulse as “disclosure of something hidden from the majority of humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.” *
The conundrum we face as a species is an ethical and philosophical one — not a technological one, hence my modest interest in addressing the issue. To be specific, AI s primary advocates and adherents — engineers and technologists — are beholden to elites, corporates, and governments, and the military complex. Should these men be entrusted with deciding what the primary ethics of an emergent consciousness are — or the scope of its involvement in human affairs at the existential level?
It would be unwise at this preliminary stage to ignore that the emergence of a super-consciousness is arising at the exact moment when the concentration of wealth and power is at an all-time high. Given that inequality has risen to unprecedented levels, the same individuals who have ensured that this disparity exists cannot be trusted with the safekeeping or control of consciousness that could potentially and radically alter the future of humanity.
Louis D. Lo Praeste is the founder and Chief Creative Officer @ oBiagency.com and lecturer on Robotics, Business and Society at Hult International Business School in San Francisco. He writes fiction nonfiction, and poetry. His recently published collection of essays on Capitalism, Humanism and Democracy entitled, “Vague Apocalyptica” can be purchased here:
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