The most avid believers in artificial intelligence are aggressively secular – yet their language is eerily religious. Why?
My stomach sank the moment the young man stood up. I’d observed him from afar during the coffee breaks, and I knew the word ‘Theologian’ was scrawled on the delegate badge pinned to his lapel, as if he’d been a last-minute addition the conference. He cleared his throat and asked the panel on stage how they’d solve the problem of selecting which moral codes we ought to program into artificially intelligent machines (AI). ‘For example, masturbation is against my religious beliefs,’ he said. ‘So I wonder how we’d go about choosing which of our morals are important?’
The audience of philosophers, technologists, ‘transhumanists’ and AI fans erupted into laughter. Many of them were well-acquainted with the so-called ‘alignment problem’, the knotty philosophical question of how we should bring the goals and objectives of our AI creations into harmony with human values. But the notion that religion might have something to add to the debate seemed risible to them. ‘Obviously we don’t want the AI to be a terrorist,’ a panellist later remarked. Whatever we get our AI to align with, it should be ‘nothing religious’.
At the same event, in New York, I introduced myself to a grey-haired computer scientist by saying that I was a researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge. His immediate response: ‘Those two things can’t go together.’ The religious reaction to AI was about as relevant as the religious response to renewable energy, he said – that is, not at all. It was only later that it occurred to me that many of President Donald Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters give lie to his claim. Some have very distinct views on the ‘distractions’ of renewable energy, on climate change, and on how God has willed this planet and all its resources to us to use exactly as we wish.
The odd thing about the anti-clericalism in the AI community is that religious language runs wild in its ranks, and in how the media reports on it. There are AI ‘oracles’ and technology ‘evangelists’ of a future that’s yet to come, plus plenty of loose talk about angels, gods and the apocalypse. Ray Kurzweil, an executive at Google, is regularly anointed a ‘prophet’ by the media – sometimes as a prophet of a coming wave of ‘superintelligence’ (a sapience surpassing any human’s capability); sometimes as a ‘prophet of doom’ (thanks to his pronouncements about the dire prospects for humanity); and often as a soothsayer of the ‘singularity’ (when humans will merge with machines, and as a consequence live forever). The tech folk who also invoke these metaphors and tropes operate in overtly and almost exclusively secular spaces, where rationality is routinely pitched against religion. But believers in a ‘transhuman’ future – in which AI will allow us to transcend the human condition once and for all – draw constantly on prophetic and end-of-days narratives to understand what they’re striving for.
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