The Coming Kingdom: Virtual or Heaven? Religious and Artificial Intelligence Apocalypticism

Scholar of religion and theorist in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and virtual reality Robert M. Geraci clarifies the similarities between religious apocalyptic and AI apocalyptic thought (1). He claims that the modern secular world, including science and technology, has its own “concealed theology” that enables religious thought to engage science and technology in critical dialogue. Geraci writes that,

“Apocalyptic AI has absorbed the categories of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic theologies and utilizes them for scientific and supposedly secular aims… Popular science publications in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) reveal a striking merger between apocalyptic religious thought and scientific research” (2).

Apocalyptic AI has absorbed this religious apocalyptic category. The notion of “apocalypse” in much of religious thought involves a prophet, usually active during a time of troubling circumstances and political conditions, receiving divine revelation via a vision of a transcendent reality considered distinct from the daily norm. It can be “broadly described as the belief that God has revealed the imminent end of the ongoing struggle between good and evil in history” (3).

For ancient Jews and Christians, apocalypticism was a desired alternative to their submission and oppression under the Roman Empire, especially under Rome’s rule over Palestine in the first century CE. The wish was for the Messiah to speedily return so God could radically reconstruct the evil, miserable, and corrupt world into an infinitely good one. Usually, religious apocalyptic thought devalues the present world and human body, a point articulated by the New Testament writer Paul who teaches that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom” (1 Cor. 15:50). Here Paul states the impossibility of saving the human body as it is in the present world. Paul expected an impending resurrection of and transformation from the flawed body into an immortal, glorified one that could inhabit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:51).

Religious apocalyptic themes find a parallel in apocalyptic AI. Some have noted how popular science works of Apocalyptic AI have traces of religious “apocalyptic discourse” (4). Geraci, more specifically, draws attention to major elements of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, such as the powerful feelings and experiences of alienation in the world, anticipating God’s intervention in history, a desire for the initiation and establishment of a heavenly new world, and the transformation of human beings in the new world into glorified and purified bodies.

Similarly, apocalyptic AI advocates feel alienated, frustrated, and disillusioned with the limitations of bodily life and thus place their hopes in a future Virtual Kingdom in which exist intelligent machines and humans who have left their feeble bodies. Having left their bodies, humans will possess enhanced mental abilities and, in the hopes of AI and transhumanist advocates, immortality. Some hope that even the dead may be resurrected through high-fidelity computer simulations capable of reconstructing a personality, which could then be instantiated within a robot body (5).

There is one distinguishing point, however, between religious and AI apocalypticism in that AI advocates cannot rely upon divine agencies to guarantee the coming Virtual Kingdom. Rather, many apocalyptic AI advocates are unreceptive of religion. They see traditional belief in souls and spirits as a psychological crutch for dealing with death and a weakness suggestive of an inability for us human beings to “improve ourselves” (6).

Many harbor concerns that people will turn away from scientific advancement to useless and impotent religious beliefs and faiths. The result of that, they think, will produce ignorance that will prove a major threat to ever attaining the Edenic Virtual Kingdom. Because they cannot rely on divine agencies, apocalyptic AI advocates turn to human and technological evolution as the means through which to attain the Virtual Kingdom. Through this evolution, human beings will live in a virtual paradise within perfect virtual bodies in a mechanical future.

Some anticipate a sudden revolution (7) in an event called the “Singularity” marking “a radical divide between this world and the next, a mechanical world culminating in the onset of the age of mind, a Virtual Kingdom in cyberspace… The singularity is the point on the graph of progress where explosive growth occurs in a blink of an eye; it is the end of history and the beginning of the new world and it is closer than you think” (8).

The Virtual Kingdom entails transcendence through an elevation beyond limited human life with something much better on another plane altogether. The Virtual Kingdom will be a place where pain is non-existent, living a meaningful life becomes possible, and human beings fully replace or significantly augment their weak bodies to participate in the Kingdom,

“In the future, human beings will reconfigure their bodies in order to participate in the Kingdom come. Whether as cyborgs, robots, or software, they will live forever, cast aside pain and want, and participate in a truly universal network of knowledge” (9)

People will be capable of downloading their consciousness into machines. They will have minds superior to natural human minds through the benefit of additional senses (such as ultraviolet vision or infrared), enhanced memory, rapid powers of computation, internal networking to the internet, and more (9). Computer systems expert and engineer Kevin Warwick believes that this will arrive in this century,

“Well before the 21st century is completed, people will port their entire mind file to the new thinking technology… Up until now, our mortality was tied to the longevity of our hardware. When the hardware crashed, that was it. As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file. We will be software, not hardware. Our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups” (10).

Warwick’s view of the future in 2050 offers a scenario far from perfection. He postulates that not only will intelligent machines not need human values and social skills, but they will also desire domination (11). Machines will outsmart humanity, possibly rule the planet, and use humans as slaves to perform jobs. There is also the scenario of conflict as many people come to reject the creation of machines that no longer embody basic values and assumptions of human nature. Factional conflict will occur over whether or not to build such machines and there could be conflict between humans and machines (12). A fear for apocalyptic AI advocates is that future conflict will prevent humanity from attaining the Virtual Kingdom.

Others are more optimistic. Futurist Ray Kurzweil postulates that soon nanotechnology will make humans have superior bodies that can live longer, be more adaptable to environmental changes, and allow faster computation times for the mind, while also possessing the advantages of a biological body such as self-healing (13).

Apparent is that religious apocalypticism and AI apocalypticism overlap in key areas. Both involve the devotee looking forward to an ideal Kingdom. Both believe that this kingdom will be devoid of corruption, limitation, mortality, and pain. On both worldviews, such desires emerge from a sense of alienation and discontent with the present world motivating a strong desire for the establishment of the ideal Kingdom. For many of the religious, this is the Kingdom of God. For apocalyptic AI advocates, it is a Virtual Kingdom in a perfect mechanical future.

References

1. Geraci, Robert M. 2018. “Apocalyptic AI: Religion and the Promise of Artificial Intelligence.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76(1):138-166.

2. Geraci, Robert M. 2018. Ibid. p. 138.

3. Collins, John J. 1984. “General Introduction.” In The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism Volume I: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity, edited by John J. Collins, vi–xii. New York: Continuum Press. p. vii.

4. Meeks, Wayne. 2000. “Apocalyptic Discourse and Strategies of Goodness.” The Journal of Religion 80(3):461-475. p. 463.

5. Moravec, Hans. 1999. Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 142; Kurzweil, Ray. 2005. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books. p. 328; Geraci, Robert M. 2011. “There and Back Again: Transhumanist Evangelism in Science Fiction and Popular Science.” Implicit Religion 14(2):141-172. p. 154.  

6. Minsky, Marvin. 1985. Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 41.

7. Schoepflin, Rennie B. 2000 “Apocalypticism in an Age of Science.” In The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism Volume 3: Apocalypticism in the Modern World and the Contemporary Age, edited by Stephen J. Stein, 427-441. New York: Continuum. p. 428.

8. Geraci, Robert M. 2012. “Transhumanism as a Secularist Faith.” Zygon 47(4):710-734. p. 714-715

9. Geraci, Robert M. 2018. Ibid. p. 154.

10. Kurzweil, Ray. 1999. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking. p. 141; Warwick, Kevin 2003. “Cyborg Morals, Cyborg Values, Cyborg Ethics.” Ethics and Information Technology 5(3):131-137. p. 136; Geraci, Robert M. 2018. Ibid. p. 153. 

11. Singh, Vikas. 2007. Will we evolve into cyborgs? Available.

12. Warwick, Kevin. 2004. March of the Machines: The Breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. p. 179.

13. De Garis, Hugo. 2005. The Artilect War: Cosmists vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent Machines. Palm Springs: ETC Publications. p. 12.

14. Kurzweil, Ray. 1999. Ibid. 141

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