Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Artificial Intelligence

On July 8, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards delivered what would become his most enduring sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” With white-knuckled hands gripping the lectern, the minister exhorted that the “wrath of God burns against them … the flames do now rage and glow.”

Such fears are not just for the 18th century, as a character very much like Edwards’ God is seen in the artificial intelligence thought experiment known as “Roko’s basilisk,” named after the handle of the anonymous commentator who conceived of it. Roko posited that at some future date—after the Singularity, when artificial intelligence has achieved almost omnipotent powers—an AI might exist which will punish anyone who has not actively worked towards its existence.

This AI, named after a legendary medieval creature, is capable of generating virtual reality simulations where even after you’re dead it will punish you for not having done your technological due-diligence in ensuring its creation. First appearing on the internet board Less Wrong in 2010, the idea generated horror on the technological site. Roko argued that hearing about, but rejecting, Roko’s basilisk threatened your (simulated) immortal soul, like a potential convert rejecting the one true God.

Science journalist Sally Adee notes at The Last Word on Nothing that there is a contradiction in the fact that the “kind of rationalist who would propose a future technological superintelligence is not the kind of person who has any patience with religious tropes.” Yet the thought experiment bears some similarity to Edwards’ God. Among the believers (including Edwards) in the theology of Calvinism, there is little about God that is comforting other than that he has decided to save some of his unworthy creatures. As Edwards invoked before his shrieking audience, God “abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire.” Similarly, the “Digital Calvinists” of Less Wrong, and other assorted communities awaiting the Singularity, very much do fear Roko’s basilisk, as much as any shaking sinner in that Enfield church feared their angry God.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, the founder of Less Wrong and a respected AI figure, banned discussion of Roko’s basilisk, writing to Roko in 2010, “You have to be really clever to come up with a genuinely dangerous thought. I am disheartened that people can be clever enough to do that and not clever enough to do the obvious thing and KEEP THEIR IDIOT MOUTHS SHUT …. This post was STUPID.”

The concept itself became an internet meme, like Slender Man or other creepypasta stories willed into a type of reality. Elon Musk and girlfriend Grimes supposedly kindled their (now dead) romance over an affinity for the thought experiment. Meanwhile, the subject remained banned on Less Wrong. Roko repented for any offense caused, contritely writing that he wished “very strongly that my mind had never come across the tools to inflict such large amounts of self-harm.”

The Singularity: An approaching messiah?

Such examples of approaching technology with a fundamentally “religious” perspective are surprisingly common. There are those thinkers who believe we’re on the verge of a massive technological shift as the computational powers of our machines surpass the abilities of their creators. For these figures—including respected scholars like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, as well as industrialists like Musk and Peter Thiel—the Singularity looms as an approaching messiah that will completely alter consciousness once our machines begin to think. Writing in Slate, technology journalist David Auerbach explains that for them the Singularity “brings about the machine equivalent of God itself.” Beth Singler, an anthropologist at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, told Adee, “This narrative is an example of implicit religion …. It’s interesting that this explicitly secular community is adopting religious categories, narratives and tropes.”

Some believe we’ll all be resurrected as immortals in a future computer simulation. Ed Regis in his Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, which despite its curious title and its 1991 publication date remains the best general introduction to their thinking, writes that the transhumanist goal is a “temporal, corporal, quite this-worldly way of escaping all the same ills and limitations of the flesh, just exactly as it had been envisioned by the greatest saints.” With the appropriate amount of snark, Regis explained that thinkers like Moravec are “at bottom, interested in the same thing [as religion], which is to say, true immortality, life ever-lasting in the form of pure consciousness.” Whether through Christ or computer, the theology isn’t hard to spot, even if it comes from avowed atheists.

Digital Calvinism is one of the odder manifestations of this sublimated faith in technology. If we return to Edwards’ pulpit, we can see how much Digital Calvinism resembles the original flavor. Edwards’ sermon expressed humanity’s irredeemable fallen depravity and God’s total power. The theologian warned that “God may cast wicked men into hell at any given moment.” Edwards didn’t find his God to be evil; to the contrary, humanity was wicked and the Lord’s punishments only appear as such from our limited perspective—similar to Business Insider tech reporter Dylan Love’s description of Roko’s basilisk’s motivations, where “you may find yourself in trouble at the hands of a seemingly evil AI who’s only acting in the world’s best interests.”

Despite the heat of Edwards’ rhetoric, his was a cold gospel. As Edwards argued, when human minds confront the awful omnipotence of God, they must be forced to “wonder that you are not already in hell.” In the pews, Edwards’ listeners reacted by screaming, shouting, and sobbing—shades of Roko’s basilisk, where Yudkowsky wrote that it “caused actual psychological damage to at least some readers.” Fear of an angry God—we see it in the fainting penitents of Enfield, and in the sweaty commentators of the internet.

Both Edwards’ sermon and the discussions about Roko’s basilisk unify certainty and uncertainty into an anxious partnership: There is certainty as to the nature of reality, but uncertainty as to the individual person’s place within that reality. Despite an unwarranted and almost comically erroneous misapprehension of the Puritans as anti-intellectual, Edwards saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, his faith owing itself not just to Calvin and the Reformation, but to Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution as well. Moravec, Kurzweil, and all the rest of the transhumanists praying to their digital God are very much in Edwards’ stead in this regard, but the problem with their faith isn’t that it has too little reason, but that it has far too much.

Something of the sacred in technology

Less Wrong may be a “blog devoted to the art of human rationality,” but there is a fundamental problem, not least of all the attendant psychological tumult, which comes from an over-reliance on imagined logic to the point of absurdity. For most of you reading this (and certainly for its author), there is something self-evidently ridiculous about Roko’s basilisk, an example of what I’ve called “The Fedora Fallacy” whereby whenever an interlocutor declaims “Let’s examine this rationally,” what you’re about to hear is anything but. Yet for all of my mockery, transhumanists aren’t wrong to sense something of the sacred in technology, and their existence evidences how old gods must be continually born again. Digital Calvinism is proof that a sense of the sacred exists in the most unlikely of places, what’s crucial is to ensure that it’s ultimately a mature sense of the sacred.

There can be no abolishment of any category called “Religion,” for faith exists for the purpose of meaning making, and as long as there are people (or artificial intelligences), there will be a need for meaning. As personally bizarre as I may find the reasoning behind Roko’s basilisk, or Edwards’ God for that matter, the former evidences an intersection between faith and technology that has been underexplored. Great moments of technological change often herald religious changes.

Two generations after Edwards, and a new religious enthusiasm arrived with the steam-locomotive and the telegraph, so that in 1829 Jacob Bigelow, a Harvard professor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, could remark that “next to the influence of Christianity on our moral nature,” new innovations most had a “leading sway in promoting … progress and happiness.” Whether true or not, it was clear that faith spread over the wire and preachers sent on the train had altered America’s religious landscape. Is it any wonder that the digital revolution has brought about similar shifts in religion?

The great awakenings of the past are often understood in terms of how they changed the lives of everyday Americans, but in our own era there have been almost inconceivable shifts in behavior which have been brought about from technology. From the supercomputers all of us carry in our pockets and that have rendered humans into veritable cyborgs, to the massive web of influence we call the internet and the often-detrimental effects of social media, the current technological revolution is arguably its own religious revival, altering consciousness more than even Edwards could have ever hoped to.

Religion is implicit in such technological change; it behooves us not to argue for its elimination, but to render more sophisticated forms of understanding it. As much as Roko’s basilisk as a concept deserves disdain, the reality is that self-aware Artificial Intelligence—whether malevolent, benevolent, or something else—will surely be developed sooner rather than later. Such a development requires a religious response.

The ghost is very much in the machine, and it’s impervious to exorcism. Let’s make sure that our supplications are appropriate.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and an editor at Berfrois. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter. He is author of America and Other Fictions and Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations about Goodness, both available from Zero Books.