Robert Geraci:
"Apocalyptic A.I." (Oxford, 2010)

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Trivia: this could be the first book written in Second Life. Geraci created a Virtual Temple in Second Life and his avatar discussed his theories with other people's avatars.

Singularity thinking originated with Hans Moravec's essay "Today's Computers, Intelligent Machines and Our Future" (1978) and Marvin Minsky's essay "Will Robots Inherit the Earth" (1994), and was popularized by Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near" (2005). David Levy's "Robots Unlimited" (2006) even predicted that machines will soon be conscious. Masahiro Mori, a scientist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and future president of the Robotics Society of Japan who in 1970 had published the influential article "The Uncanny Valley", had actually predated the whole Singularity movement when he argued in "The Buddha in the Robot" (1974) that robots would someday be able to attain buddhahood.

Geraci emphasizes the gulf separating these books (Apocalyptic AI) from the mundane daily research carried out at A.I. laboratories, where scientists work on narrow specialized technical details.

In 1999 Kurzweil argued that there exists a general law, the "Law of Accelerating Returns", that transcends Moore's Law. Order causes more order to be created and at a faster rate. Order started growing exponentially millions of years ago, and progress is now visible on a daily basis. This echoed science-fiction writer Vernon Vinge's declaration that "the acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century" (1993). They both base their conclusions on the ever more frequent news of technological achievements. (Personally, i think that they are confusing progress and the news cycle. Yes, we get a lot more news from a lot more sources. If the same news and communication tools had been available at any time in previous peacetime periods, the people alive back then would have been flooded by an equal amount of news). In particular, at some point computers will acquire the ability to improve themselves, and then the process that has been manually done by humans will be automated like many other manual jobs, except that this one is about making smarter computers, which means that the process of making smarter computers will be automated by smarter computers, which turns into an self-propelled accelerating loop. This will lead to an infinite expansion of "intelligence".

Robert Geraci in "Apocalyptic A.I." (2010) shows how Singularity thinking borrows from Jewish and Christian apocalyptic scriptures. The Judaistic/Christian religions offer a dualistic view of the world: good and evil fight a cosmic battle. "Evil" materializes as bodily decay, earthly world, and limited intellect. "Good" will someday materialize as eternal life, paradise and unlimited knowledge. The new religion of the Singularity adopts a similar view, cursing the mortal body and limited knowledge of the human mind and envisioning a future in which we will become immortal and omniscient in cyberspace. The enabler is the high priesthood of A.I. scientists and engineers, whom Geraci nicknames "mystical engineers". Stefan Helmreich in "Silicon Second Nature" (1998) studied the "mystical" attitudes of the practitioners of Virtual Reality and Artificial Life. In 2003 Philip Rosedale's Linden Lab launched "Second Life", a virtual world accessible via the Internet in which a user could adopt a new identity and live a "second life" as an avatar, and Geraci views Second Life as a sort of temple where people perform religious functions.

The Singularity bears obvious similarities with the Omega Point introduced by Pierre Teilhard, a Catholic priest from France, in his book "The Phenomenon of Man" (1955), a point of superthuman intelligence towards which the universe is evolving. The physicist Frank Tipler gave the omega point a formal mathematical and scientific formulation in his book "The Physics of Immortality" (1994).

Geraci summarizes how apocalyptic thinking arose among Jews and Christians: they were both persecuted people. The Jews endured slavery and/or occupation by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans. The Christians were persecuted by the Romans. Geraci thinks that A.I. scientists such as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil feels a similar persecution, except that now it is "bodily alienation": they want to escape the limitations of the biological body.

Cultural historian Margaret Wertheim in "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace" (1999) argued that cyberspace represents the high-tech equivalent of religious paradise, an identification that goes back to Michael Benedikt of the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote in the introduction to the collection "Cyberspace" (1992) that cyberspace is the equivalent of the biblical "Heavenly City".

The discovery of cyberspace has not been too different from the discovery of America: when Amerigo Vespucci's letter to Lorenzo de Medici in 1503 revealed that Colombo had discovered a "new world", many viewed America as the new Eden. America became the natural vehicle for Europe's utopian dreams at a time when Europe was launching into the scientific and artistic revolution of the Renaissance. The great utopian works of the following century, from Thomas More's Utopia" (1516) to Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" (1627), were influenced by the myth of America as a blank space where a superior society could be created. Six centuries later what these Western futurists are imagining in cyberpace is not all too different from what those futurists imagined in their utopian books.

Geraci quotes sociologists Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge's "The Future of Religion" (1985), according to which secularism encourages religious innovation, not necessarily the demise of religion. In other words, an increasingly secular science has not killed religion but rather has created an opportunity for reforming religion. When Nietzsche announced "the death of God" in his book "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (1883), he had basically opened the doors for a new religion, and the first one to take advantage of that opening had been the scientistic religion presented by Karl Marx in "Capital" (1894): communism. In "Religions for a Galactic Civilization" (1982) Bainbridge advocated establishing a scientistic theocracy along the lines of UFOlogy as something that humans need in order to survive (UFOlogy was replaced by Singularity thinking in the revised 2009 version).

Wertheim thinks that humans naturally want a spiritual dimension to their lives. Science, by banning the spiritual out of the physical universe, has created the need for a new kind of spiritual space. If they can no longer find it in the physical universe, today's humans will find it in cyberspace. Virtual life on the Internet has been getting more and more interesting and meaningful, and the line between the real world and the virtual world has gotten more and more blurred.

Bainbridge wrote in "Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0" (2009) that religion and science are not opposed at all; instead, they coevolve: "Religion shapes science and technology, and is shaped by them in return". And, without mentioning the Singularity, he added: "...creation of a galactic civilization may depend upon the emergence of a galactic religion capable of motivating society for the centuries required to accomplish that great project".

Traditionally the strength of religion has been proportional to ignorance of science. But this time the new religion of A.I. is about science itself and it is being created by people who are very knowledgeable about the science. This is not the first time that scientists present technology as a sort of divine power, as David Noble of York University in Toronto has shown in "The Religion of Technology" (1997), and it would not be the first time that a new science rises in parallel with a new organized religious, as Margaret Wertheim has shown in "In Pythagoras' Trousers" (1997). Geraci mentions Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" (1627), the first scientific utopia, and that Isaac Newton wrote (unpublished) books of prophecy such as "Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St John" (1733). And sometimes we forget that science and technology evolved from the monasteries and the Church-controlled universities of the medieval era. The culture of the San Francisco Bay Area lies at the same intersection of science and spirituality, the former represented by the high-tech industry and the latter by the "New Age" movement. Fred Turner calls it "digital utopianism" in his book "From Counterculture to Cyberculture" (2008).

Science fiction has mediated between religion and technology. Critical studies such as David Ketterer's "New Worlds for Old" (1974) showed that (Western) science fiction routinely borrows concepts from the Christian scriptures. And studies such as Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" (1998) and Jason Pontin's "On Science Fiction" (2007) shows that science fiction exerts a huge influence on A.I. scientists. Pontin once wrote "Science fiction is to technology as romance novels are to marriage: a form of propaganda" (MIT Technology Review, 2005). Many future A.I. scientists were inspired to enter the A.I. field precisely because they were fans of science fiction: Isaac Asimov's "I Robot" stories of the 1940s and "Multivac" stories of the 1950s, Osamu Tezuka's manga "Tetsuwan Atomu/ Astro Boy" (1951), Arthur Clarke's short story "Dial F for Frankenstein" (1964), Brian Aldiss' short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" (1968), Philip Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (1968), Algis Budrys's "Michaelmas" (1977), Vernon Vinge's novella "True Names" (1981), William Gibson's "Neuromancer" (1984), which was predated by his short story "Burning Chrome" (1982), Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" (1991), Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" (1992), Charles Stross' "Accelerando" (2005), etc. After all, even the the great theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in his visionary book "Imagined Worlds" (1998) that "science is my territory, but science fiction is the landscape of my dreams".

Science fiction inspired the "transhumanist" movement way before the Singularity became a popular concept. The "extropian" movement believed in the power of science and technology to yield immortality. Its members practiced cryogenics to preserve their brain after death. The term "extropy" was coined by Tom Bell, juxtaposing it to "entropy". Max More, an Oxford philosopher, had helped set up the first cryonic service in Europe (later renamed Alcor). Relocating to Los Angeles, in 1988 More founded the magazine "Extropy", subtitled "journal of transhumanist thought" and founded the "Extropy Institute", which in 1991 had its own online forum. The extropian movement had strong anti-government libertarian/anarchic political views, predicting a technocratic society in which the power would shift to the people. By the time Wired published the influential article "Meet The Extropians" in 1994, the extropian movement included members and sympathyzers such as Hans Moravec, Ralph Merkle, Nick Szabo, Hal Finney, as well as co-founders Tom Bell (Tom Morrow) and Perry Metzger. Merkle would go on to become a leader in nanotechnology, Szabo and Finley would pioneer Bitcoin, Metzger would launch the cryptography mailing list. Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher at Oxford University, has pursued more social and ethical concerns in the several organizations that he established: in 1998 Bostrom and David Pearce founded the World Transhumanist Association that later changed name to Humanity+, the year in which Bostrom published "How Long Before Superintelligence?" (1998) in 2004 Bostrom and James Hughes founded the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies; and in 2005 Bostrom founded the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Bostrom's concerns have been summarized in his bestseller "Superintelligence" (2014). For example, Kevin Kelly explored the connection between information and God in "Nerd Theology" (1999). In 2006 the Italian physicist Giulio Prisco became an advocate for the transhumanist movement in virtual reality, initially through his avatar Giulio Perhaps in Second Life. In 2007 he published the article "Engineering Transcendence" predicting that in the future it will be possible to become immortal inside cyberspace and to create perfect simulations of the past that will revive all those who have ever been alive. In 2008 he founded the Order of Cosmic Engineers (in a virtual world) and in 2010 the Turing Church (in the real world). The latter was initially just a "mailing list about the intersection of transhumanism and spirituality", but in 2014 it evolved into a "minimalist, open, extensible" religion whose manifesto preaches: "We will go to the stars and find Gods, build Gods, become Gods, and resurrect the dead from the past with advanced science" These "un-religions" (religions without the hierarchy and without the dogmas) are reminiscent of the church of engineers envisioned by August Comte, the founder of positivism, in his book "Catechism of Positive Religion" (1852). Comte was hoping to replace all religious institutions (in his view outdated) with a scientistic religion.

See also: my book on the Singularity.

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