Sigal Samuel's "Silicon Valley’s vision for AI? It’s religion, repackaged." 9/7/23
The more you listen to Silicon Valley’s discourse around AI, the more you hear echoes of religion. That’s because a lot of the excitement about building a superintelligent machine comes down to recycled religious ideas. Most secular technologists who are building AI just don’t recognize that.
These technologists propose cheating death by uploading our minds to the cloud, where we can live digitally for all eternity. They talk about AI as a decision-making agent that can judge with mathematical certainty what’s optimal and what’s not. And they envision artificial general intelligence (AGI) — a hypothetical system that can match human problem-solving abilities across many domains — as an endeavor that guarantees human salvation if it goes well, even as it spells doom if it goes badly.
These visions are almost identical to the visions of Christian eschatology, the branch of theology that deals with the “end times” or the final destiny of humanity.
Christian eschatology tells us that we’re all headed toward the “four last things”: death, judgment, and heaven or hell. Although everyone who’s ever lived so far has died, we’ll be resurrected after the second coming of Christ to find out where we’ll live for all eternity. Our souls will face a final judgment, care of God, the perfect decision-maker. That will guarantee us heaven if it goes well, but hell if it goes badly.
Five years ago, when I began attending conferences in Silicon Valley and first started to notice parallels like these between religion talk and AI talk, I figured there was a simple psychological explanation. Both were a response to core human anxieties: our mortality; the difficulty of judging whether we’re doing right or wrong; the unknowability of our life’s meaning and ultimate place in this universe — or the next one. Religious thinkers and AI thinkers had simply stumbled upon similar answers to the questions that plague us all.
So I was surprised to learn that the connection goes much deeper.
“The intertwining of religion and technology is centuries old, despite the people who’ll tell you that science is value-neutral and divorced from things like religion,” said Robert Geraci, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and author of Apocalyptic AI. “That’s simply not true. It never has been true.”
John Connor, where are you??! Oh, snap. Hollywood (that prism of imagination, corrupted) is a perennially False Hope, Wrong.