Idolatry and the AI singularity

A recent newspaper article comments on a religious organization newly founded by a former Google engineer

A recent piece in the Guardian (by Olivia Solon, Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god) comments on a religious organization newly founded by Anthony Levandowski called ‘Way of the Future.’ Its mission is ‘to develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.’ Certainly not a goal lacking in ambition!

A quick Google search shows there’s more being written about Levandowksi than by him, and others have not been slow either to express support for or fear about the prospect of what is termed the AI singularity—the hypothetical point at which artificial intelligence (AI) will supposedly surpass human intelligence and become self-sustaining. The discussion frequently becomes theological in nature. For instance, Zoltan Istvan speaks supportively of AI because he prefers a computerized god to what he claims are the irrational and cruel aspects of the God of the Bible. Zoltan says that if an AI deity were invented, it would be a god which would ‘actually exist and hopefully… do things for us.’

A sense of the new questions raised by this issue pervades the Guardian article – questions which religion (it is claimed) cannot ignore. It is asserted that ‘new technologies and scientific discoveries have continually shaped religion, killing old gods and giving birth to new ones.’ Unless religion ‘keeps up with’ technological progress, it will become irrelevant, unable to speak meaningfully to modern life. Solon closes her article by writing that if ‘traditional religions don’t have the answer, AI – or at least the promise of AI – might be alluring.’

I’m in no way competent to comment on the plausibility of an actually self-conscious, hyper-intelligent machine. I suspect that human intelligence and self-awareness are more subtle qualities than can be replicated in a computer, and that the realism with which the question is treated owes more to modernity’s fascination with its technologies than the credibility of an AI singularity. But as an Old Testament specialist, certain aspects of the Guardian piece strike me as implausible or simply incorrect.

For instance, the assumption that technology is the real force guiding human life, shaping religion in such a way that religion must adapt or die, flounders before a multitude of counter-examples. The ancient world witnessed a number of technological innovations which may seem small to us, but were highly significant and consequential in their time (such as the chariot, or the use of iron). Some even continue to be used to this day (such as the alphabet, developed from proto-Canaanite scripts). But the religions of the ancient world continued without noticeable change through these technological advancements – and this despite at-time cataclysmic social changes in the ancient Near East.

The violent transition from stable late Bronze-age internationalism to the collapse at the beginning of the Iron age is well chronicled in Eric Cline’s fascinating 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton: 2015). Other examples of a more complex relationship between technology and religion come readily to mind: the scientific advancements of the 16th century did not cause the Reformation, and Christianity, as well as the religions of the far East, have continued unchanged through the technological advances of the present century, as well as the last.

But it’s more interesting to reflect on what is not said about the possibility of humans building their own god – namely, that this has all been done before. Whether we imagine a god inside a computer or one indwelling a stone statue, the Bible still ridicules the prospect of asking what your own hands have made to save you (Isaiah 44:9-20). The more things change, the more they stay the same!

For all the differences in the thing worshipped, the heart-attitude of the worshipper is the same: this is a god that might actually do something for us. But Isaiah hammers away at the laughably obvious truth which the idolatrous human heart cannot imagine: a thing made by a human cannot save that human. The ancient idolater used half of a piece of wood to cook his food and then bowed low before the statue he carved from the other half; the modern idolater uses his laptop to pay bills, read the news… and possibly create a god. (What happens when the computer gets a virus?)

We needn’t take the Old Testament claim that human-made gods cannot save on pure faith. The religious way in which we interact with technology, and its failure to meet our deepest needs, enjoys abundant empirical evidence. Facebook and other social media are used in different ways, but to some, they promise a kind of redemption: someone can cover over whatever they don’t like about themselves, presenting themselves in only attractive ways, and create an online persona which is recognized and admired by others. The promise is of the transformation of the self into a beautiful and worthy being, and the covering-over of sin and shame.

It’s actually a promise that’s been made, in different ways, for thousands of years; but its modern incarnation fails like the rest. One doesn’t have to look far to find studies that more time on social media contribute to depression and a sense of loneliness. The connection and intimacy which social media promises is empty, and the problems we hide online follow us everywhere.

This is why the last line of the Guardian piece – if tradition religion doesn’t have ‘the answer,’ AI might be alluring – rings hollow. What exactly is the answer that’s being looked for? Given Levandowski’s mission statement, I assume a more just and peaceful society. But the God speaking through the Bible promises so much more: the complete forgiveness and covering-over of everything wrong with us, and the transformation of our lowly bodies into the image of the glory of the resurrected Christ in the life of the world to come.

Old gods in new code will pass away like the gods of Isaiah’s day, but the church will still be witnessing to the good news of the God who can actually save those who trust him (Isaiah 52:8-10).