Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | Bibliography and book reviews | My book on consciousness | Contact/feedback/email
(Copyright © 2018 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Religion and the Law of Accelerated Exaggeration

Robert Geraci of Manhattan College, in his book "Apocalyptic A.I." (2010), showed that Singularity thinking borrows motifs and practices from Jewish and Christian apocalyptic scriptures. The Judaistic/Christian religions offer a dualistic view of the world: good and evil are fighting a cosmic battle. "Evil" materializes as bodily decay, earthly world, and limited intellect. "Good" will someday materialize as eternal life, paradise and unlimited knowledge. Singularity thinking (which he calls "Apocalyptic A.I.") adopts a similar view, cursing the mortal body and the limited knowledge of the human mind while 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".

Geraci points out 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 feel similarly persecuted, except that now it is "bodily alienation": they want to escape the limitations of the biological body.

New York University anthropologist 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.

Incidentally, the Singularity bears obvious similarities with the Omega Point, described by Pierre Teilhard, a Catholic priest from France, in his book "The Phenomenon of Man" (1955), and conceived as a point of super-human 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).

Tipler predicted that evolution would end with a simulation of all the conscious beings who ever existed, i.e. the resurrection of all the dead. A precursor of transhumanism was Russian "cosmism", a school of scientific life extension (all the way to resurrection and immortality) led by a friend of the novelist Lev Tolstoy, the librarian Nikolai Fyodorov or Fedorov (employed in Moscow's largest lending library), whose "Philosophy of the Common Task" was published posthumously. This movement included Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who advocated a future of space travel in "The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reactive Devices" (1903), and the mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky, whose book "The Biosphere" (1926) discussed how the noosphere (thinking matter) shapes the biosphere (living matter) that shapes the geosphere (inanimate matter).

Faced with technological progress, thinkers liked to toy with the idea that the old human species was soon to be replaced by some new posthuman species. The term "posthumanism" was coined in 1976 by the Egyptian literary critic Ihab Hassan in a talk ("Prometheus as Performer") at the International Symposium on Postmodern Performance in Milwaukee, after the French philosopher Michel Foucault had declared humankind "a historical construction whose era is about to end" ("The Order of Things", 1973).

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".

Jeffrey Fisher's study "The Postmodern Paradiso" (1997) shows similarities between medieval Christian mythology and cyberspace utopia. Chris Chester's "The Digital Computer is Dead" (2002) noted the links between technology and magic. To celebrate the age of Web 2.0, in 1999 Yale University’s computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto titled “The Second Coming”.

The impact on mysticism of the discovery of cyberspace has not been too different from the impact that the discovery of America had five centuries earlier: when in 1503 Amerigo Vespucci wrote to Lorenzo de Medici that Cristoforo Colombo had actually discovered a "new world", many viewed this "New World" as the new Eden. America (named after Amerigo) became the natural vehicle for Europe's utopian dreams at a time when Europe was launching into the humanistic, scientific and artistic revolutions 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 today's futurists are imagining in cyberpace is not all too different from what those 16th-17th century futurists imagined in their utopian books.

In "The Future of Religion" (1985) sociologists Rodney Stark of the University of Washington and William Bainbridge of Boston University showed that we live in an age that lends itself to the establishment of new religions. 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 his "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).

Their book showed that religious innovation is particularly rampant in the Western states, from Alaska down to California, where membership in traditional churches is very low. By the 1980s Christian Science's leading state was California, followed by Oregon and Washington, Theosophy's leading state was Washington followed by California, Baha'i's leading state was again California followed by Oregon. And one of the largest new religions in the world, transcendental meditation, started out in California (in 1965 when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi founded the Students' International Meditation Society in Los Angeles). Many of the psychedelic movements born in California mutated into religious movements. For example, Timothy Leary founded "exo-psychology" and Richard Alpert became a Hindu guru, Baba Ram Dass.

Historically, new religious movements spread first among the educated elite. This seems hard to believe because the educated elite tends to be less religious than the less educated masses, i.e. more secularized, but Stark and Bainbridge show that secularization is precisely the condition required for religious innovation. People who already belong to a religious movement are unlikely to shift to another one. For example, 19th century spiritualism spread initially among socialists and intellectuals who were not religious at all. And from the beginning it took technology as a metaphor for the supernatural: the first celebrities of spiritualism were the sisters Leah, Kate and Maggie Fox who referred to their communications with the dead as a form of telegraphy, and the first journal of spiritualism, founded in New York in 1852, was called The Spiritual Telegraph. The telegraph, electricity, photography felt utterly unexplainable, and for many these technologies replaced the supernatural of traditional religions.

Stark and Bainbridge point out the "overrepresentation" of Jews in modern cult movements and they explain it as a consequence of the rapid secularization of Judaism. Coincidence or not, Ray Kurzweil was born to secular Jewish parents.

Given the appeal of "religious innovation" to the secularized elite, and the fact that science has not solved the fundamental problems of humanity (the meaning of life and eternal life), Stark and Bainbridge easily predicted that "religious innovations will have significant influence in the coming years".

It is precisely the success of science in demolishing the traditional religions that is creating the need for a new religion. This new religion needs to be more "scientific".

Kurt Andersen wrote in "Fantasyland" (2017): "The idea that progress has some kind of unstoppable momentum... was always a very American belief. However, it's really an article of faith, the Christian fantasy about history's happy ending reconfigured during and after the Enlightenment as a set of modern secular fantasies." Michael Shermer's book "Heavens on Earth" (2018) examines humanity's obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality from Dante's "Divine Comedy" to transhumanists, cryonicists, and extropians and singularists.

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. Mark O'Connell wrote in "To Be a Machine" (2017) that both religion and science are ways of transcending our inherently pathetic condition.

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 that the "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 religion, as Wertheim has shown in "In Pythagoras' Trousers" (1997). Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" (1627) was the first scientific utopia, and Isaac Newton wrote (unpublished) books of prophecy such as "Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St John" (1733). Sometimes we forget that science and technology evolved from the Catholic monasteries and from the Church-controlled universities (and from the Islamic madrasas) of the Middle Ages. The culture of the San Francisco Bay Area lies at the same intersection of science and spirituality, the former represented by Silicon Valley's 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).

Just like prophetic books mediated between science and religion back then, today it is science fiction that has mediated between religion and technology. Critical studies such as David Ketterer's "New Worlds for Old" (1974) showed that science fiction routinely borrows concepts from the Christian scriptures. Studies such as Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" (1998) and Jason Pontin's "On Science Fiction" (2007) documented how science fiction exerted 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 (originally written between 1940 and 1950) and "Multivac" stories (starting with "Franchise" of 1955), Osamu Tezuka's manga "Tetsuwan Atomu/ Astro Boy" (1951), Groff Conklin's "Science Fiction - Thinking Machines" (1954), an anthology of stories about robots, androids and computers; Arthur Clarke's short story "Dial F for Frankenstein" (1964), Frank Herbert's "Do I Wake or Dream/ Destination Void" (1965), 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), Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), 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), etc. After all, even 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".

Coincidence or not, the first Artificial Intelligence conference took place in 1956, exactly at the peak of a frenzied boom of sci-fi movies: Christian Nyby's "The Thing From Another World" (1951), Edgar Ulmer's "The Man from Planet X" (1951), Robert Wise's "The Day The Earth Stood Still" (1951), Rudolph Mate's "When Worlds Collide" (1951), Felix Feist's "Donovan's Brain" (1953), Jack Arnold's "It Came From Outer Space" (1953), Phil Tucker's "Robot Monster" (1953), Gordon Douglas's "Them!" (1954), Herbert Strock's "Gog" (1954), Jack Arnold's "Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954), Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), Fred Wilcox's "Forbidden Planet" (1956), Val Guest's "The Quatermass Xperiment" (1956), etc. At least three featured robots: "The Day The Earth Stood Still", "Gog" and "Forbidden Planet".

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". The Oxford philosopher Max More had helped set up the first cryonic service in Europe (later renamed Alcor). Relocating to Los Angeles, in 1988 More started 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 power would be wielded directly by 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.

The original prophet of what came to be called "transhumanism" was probably Fereidoun "FM-2030" Esfandiary who wrote "Are You a Transhuman?" (1989) and predicted that "in 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever". He died from pancreatic cancer (but was promptly placed in cryogenic suspension).

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 fellow philosopher David Pearce founded the World Transhumanist Association that later changed name to Humanity+, and in the year 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.

Kevin Kelly explored the connection between information and God in the article "Nerd Theology" (1999).

The Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart wrote in his book "History of the Information Society" (2001): "Each new generation of technology revived the discourse of salvation".

In 2006 the Italian physicist Giulio Prisco became an advocate in virtual reality for the transhumanist movement, 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 with neither a hierarchy of priests neither immutable 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.

There is a strand of the publishing business that warns against the power of the high-tech world to corrupt the soul of humanity. For example: Noam Cohen's "The Know-It-Alls - The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball" (2017), Franklin Foer's "World Without Mind - The Existential Threat of Big Tech Hardcover" (2017), "The Big Nine - How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity" (2019), written by New York University futurist Amy Webb. There are striking similarities between these books and medieval Christian treatises warning against the influence of Satan's angels. There are echoes of Paul's "Letter to the Romans" (in the New Testament), in which he describes Satan as "god of this world" and warns about the "secret power of wickedness", echoes of the medieval prayers for the recommendation of the soul (see the "Ordo Excommunicandi et Absolvendi") and of course of the Christian belief that humanity is preparing for a titanic fight between Jesus and Satan, which will precede the Second Coming and the Last Judgement, as predicted in the Book of Revelation. This prophecy can be summarized as: the Antichrist appears, sin becomes widespread, and Satan will demonstrate superhuman power. And so these books become the modern equivalent of the medieval manuals of exorcism such as the "Compendio dell'Arte Essorcistica" published in 1572 by the Franciscan friar Girolamo Menghi, a best-seller of its time.

Anthropologists may be interested in analyzing the different ways in which Europe, the USA and China perceived the studies on Artificial Intelligence. Europe's A.I. was largely immune to the mood swings of the East Coast and West Coast of the USA. Europe's A.I. was "secular": it came out of scientific laboratories and continued to produce papers and demos even during the "A.I. winter". Ditto for Canada and Japan. In fact, all the inventors of deep learning (today's most popular branch of A.I.) that i can name were born and raised outside the USA: Fukushima, Schmidhuber, Hinton, Lecun, Bengio (as well as the vast majority of their students) all the way to DeepMind's founders. Even those who did their PhD studies in US universities were typically born outside the USA (for example, Sebastian Thrun, father of Google's self-driving car, and Andrew Ng). Kurzweil's "The Singularity Is Near" came out in 2005, predating the boom of deep learning by 7 years. Very few people were taking AI seriously in 2005, especially in the USA. Moravec's "Mind Children" came out even earlier in 1988, in the middle of the A.I. winter. A.I. was kept alive in the USA mainly by Hollywood movies: "Terminator" (1984), "Robocop" (1987), "Matrix" (1999), "A.I." (2001), "I Robot" (2004)... Looking at the timeline, one has to wonder whether the Singularists (Moravec, Kurzweil, etc) had an impact on the renewed academic and business investment in A.I. that led to Deep Learning and then to the new mythology of the AlphaGo era. China, on the other hand, missed 60 years of the history of A.I. and looked into it only after 2012. China is largely indifferent to the debate of what constitutes real A.I. China's "communist" A.I. is simply a synonym for mass automation to fulfill the Communist Party's program of efficient technological collectivism. Progress in Europe's secular A.I. (deep learning) lent credibility to the mystical A.I. of the USA and fueled the rise of China's communist A.I.

"There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception" (Aldous Huxley).

Will truly intelligent machines become religious?

Back to the Table of Contents

Purchase "Intelligence is not Artificial"
Back to Cognitive Science | My book on consciousness | My reviews of books | Contact