book review | Apocalyptic AI: Visions of heaven in robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality

March 31, 2010

Source: Giulio Prisco's Blog — | Giulio Prisco

Geraci defines Apocalyptic AI as a modern cultural and religious trend originating in the popular science press: “Popular science authors in robotics and artificial intelligence have become the most influential spokespeople for apocalyptic theology in the Western world. Apocalyptic AI advocates promise that in the very near future technological progress will allow us to build supremely intelligent machines and to copy our own minds into machines so that we can live forever in a virtual realm of cyberspace.

“Ultimately, the promises of Apocalyptic AI are almost identical to those of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions. Should they come true, the world will be, once again, a place of magic.”

The main Apocalyptic AI authors are Marvin Minsky, Ray Kurzweil and, especially, Hans Moravec, to whom much of Chapter 2 is dedicated. Geraci emphasizes the importance of Moravec’s seminal 1978 essay on Today’s Computers, Intelligent Machines and Our Future for the formulation of the Apocalyptic AI memeset.

Robert made me aware that, in this article, Moravec may have been the first to formulate the Apocalyptic AI idea of resurrection of the dead by copying them to the future: “The machine society can, and for its own benefit probably should, take along with it everything we consider important, up to and including the information in our minds and genes. Real live human beings, and a whole human community, could then be reconstituted if an appropriate circumstance ever arose.”

In a 1992 essay titled Pigs in Cyberspace, Moravec may have been the first to formulate (in modern terms) the Apocalyptic AI idea of our reality as a simulation: “An evolving cyberspace becomes effectively ever more capacious and long lasting, and so can support ever more minds of ever greater power. If these minds spend only an infinitesimal fraction of their energy contemplating the human past, their sheer power should ensure that eventually our entire history is replayed many times in many places, and in many variations. The very moment we are now experiencing may actually be (almost certainly is) such a distributed mental event, and most likely is a complete fabrication that never happened physically.” See also my article CTRL-ALT-R: Another Life, partly inspired by conversations with Robert.

Moravec’s 1978 essay first appeared on the popular science fiction magazine Analog, and Geraci emphasizes the importance of science fiction in modern culture, science and technology. Science fiction may be a window on the future, but it is certainly a window on the present, and it provides snapshots of the zeitgeist and the deeper memes, hopes and fears of our society. Also, Life imitates Art: scientists and especially engineers are inspired by science fiction, and do their best to turn it into reality.

Science fiction and popular science books have an enormous influence on the popular culture and a deep impact on actual science policy and funding decisions. Geraci is well aware of the social dimension of scientific and technodevelopment, which does not happen spontaneously but must be seen as part of a social framework: science and technology are driven by social and cultural phenomena, and in turn they influence society and culture in a continuous feedback loop. In particular, Geraci thinks religions (and in particular Western religions) have been a very important factor in the development of science and technology, which are now beginning to shape religions in turn.

Among the science fiction novels featured in the book, Marvin Minsky’s The Turing Option, with a very readable explanation of Minsky’s thoughts on Artificial Intelligence, Sir Arthur Clarke’s The City and the Stars, with the first (1956) description of mind uploading, and William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. In Neuromancer, Gibson introduced the concept of cyberspace, which became a meeting point of counterculture and computer science and prepared the way for the emergence of the Internet and virtual worlds like Second Life: a powerful example of the deep impact of science fiction literature on science, technology, culture and society.

According to Geraci, Apocalyptic AI is a religion: it is a religion based on science, without deities and supernatural phenomena, but with the apocalyptic promises of religions. And he thinks that, while the Apocalyptic AI religion has a powerful but often hidden presence in our culture, the Transhumanist community embraces it openly and explicitly. Transhumanism is first defined as “a new religious movement“, and throughout the book Geraci continues to see it as a modern religion.

This may shock and upset many transhumanists readers who proudly see themselves as champions of science and rationality against religious superstition. Not this reader, though. I remember my first impressions after joining the Extropy mailing list in the late 90s. I thought, this is a powerful new religion for the new millennium. Fortunately I did not write it: if I had, I would probably have been booted from the list immediately, and now I expect some transhumanists will unfriend me on Facebook and the transhumanist social networks, but perhaps they have already done so since I have been writing about this for years. I am honored to see many of my essays quoted and discussed in Apocalyptic AI.

Robert does not write as a True Believer in Apocalyptic AI (aka Robot Cultist), but rather as a sociologist and an anthropologist observing an interesting cultural and social trend. But he is certainly a friendly observer: Chapter 3 of the book is entirely dedicated to his long field recog mission behind transhumanist lines in Second Life. He attended the 2007 Seminar on Transhumanism and Religion in SL (see page 99 for a picture of our beloved transhumanist avatar Extropia DaSilva giving her lecture) and many events related to transhumanism and religion in 2008 and 2009. In the process, he became a friendly observer in our community, and a good friend of many transhumanist users of Second Life.

Bill Bainbridge, whose work is also extensively featured in the book, has given many lectures in Second Life and written two articles (1981 and 2009) on Religion for a Galactic Civilization: “it is wrong to feel that irrational religion must always be a hindrance to progress. I have suggested that only a transcendent, impractical, radical religion can take us to the stars.” Perhaps Geraci is persuaded that we may need such a new Galactic Religion, and he quotes an interesting exchange (pp. 374 and 375 of The Singularity is Near), where Ray Kurzweil and Bill Gates agree that we need a new religion, based on science.

A new religion, based on science, has been proposed by the Order of Cosmic Engineers (OCE), of which Bainbridge has been one of the founders. Robert Geraci has witnessed the birth of the Order in the cyberspaces of World of Warcraft and Second Life, where the foundation of the OCE was announced at the Conference on The Future of Religions – Religions of the Future, on June 4 and 5, 2008. He writes: “The Order of Cosmic Engineers… is a remarkable fusion of transhumanist religious ideals and life in virtual worlds. It is a group whose aims were presented by Moravec and Kurzweil but which now sees itself in the historically enviable position of pioneer.” I should add that, after the online publication of Bainbridge’s revised version of Religion for a Galactic Civilization and Ben Goertzel’s Cosmist Manifesto in 2009, the OCE has entered a reflexion phase and a subgroup is drafting a systematic framework for a synthetic religion.

Chapter 4 outlines some frequently discussed issues in robotics and AI, for example: Can Artificial Intelligences be conscious, and how can we prove they are conscious? Should AI robots have rights? Can society adapt to robot citizens? How can humans and robots live together? The last question is especially problematic, and thinkers like Moravec and Hugo de Garis believe the era of biological humans will soon be over. In Chapter 5, on The Integration of Religion, Science, and Technology, Geraci writes “Apocalyptic AI, as a successful integration of religion, science, and technology, offers a challenge to the conventional approach in the study of religion and science“, but he does not think religion and science can be integrated, or peacefully coexist, without serious problems.

I liked the book very, very much. But, in a book review, I am supposed to criticize something. What I wish to criticize, is the excessive emphasis on “dualism” in Apocalyptic AI: machines against bodies, minds against brains, software against meat, cyberspace against meatspace. Extreme dualism may be a defining feature of a simplified, black and white Apocalyptic AI caricature, but I don’t think it is a defining feature of modern transhumanism. We tend to see a continuum of shades of grey instead of black and white extremes.

I don’t see myself as a dualist. I think our bodies and brain are machines, in the sense that they are physical systems which obey the laws of physics and can be, in principle, fully understood, reverse engineered and improved. I think they are good machines, but I also think we can build better machines. We don’t hate our biological bodies and brains, shaped by evolution over hundreds of millions of years, but we think in a few decades or a couple of centuries we will be able to engineer much better physical supports for our minds, and we will enter a new phase of directed evolution, toward Moravec’s apocalyptic vision.