What has improved American lives most in the last 50 years? According to a Pew Research study reported this month, it’s not civil rights (10 percent) or politics (2 percent): it’s technology (42 percent).
And yet, according to other studies, most Americans are wary of technology, especially in areas of automation (72 percent), or robotic caregivers (59 percent), or riding in driverless vehicles (56 percent), and even in using brain chip implants to augment the capabilities of healthy people (69 percent).
Science fiction, however, is quickly becoming science fact—the future is the machine. This is leading many to argue that we need to anticipate the ethical questions now, rather than when it is too late. And increasingly, those taking up these challenges are religious and spiritual.
How far should we integrate human physiology with technology? What do we do with self-aware androids—like Blade Runner’s replicants—and self-aware supercomputers? Or the merging of our brains with them? If Ray Kurzweil’s famous singularity—a future in which the exponential growth of technology turns into a runaway train—becomes a reality, does religion have something to offer in response?
On the one hand, new religions can emerge from technology.
In Sweden, for example, Kopimism is a recognized faith founded over a decade ago with branches internationally. It began on a “pirate Agency Forum” and is derived from the words “copy me.” They have no views on the supernatural or gods. Rather, Kopimism celebrates the biological drive (e.g. DNA) to copy and be copied. Like digital monks, they believe that “copying of information” and “dissemination of information is ethically right.”
“Copying is fundamental to life,” says their U.S. branch, “and runs constantly all around us. Shared information provides new perspectives and generate new life. We feel a spiritual connection to the created file.”
Other emerging tech-connected faiths, however, embrace the more grandiose.
A recent revelation from WIRED shows that Anthony Levandowski, an engineer who helped pioneer the self-driving car at Waymo (a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet) founded his own AI-based religion called “Way of the Future.” (Levandowski is accused of stealing trade secrets and is the focus of a lawsuit between Waymo and Uber, which revealed the nonprofit registration of Way of the Future.)
Little is known about Way of the Future and Levandowksi has not returned a request for comment. But according to WIRED, the mission of the new religion is to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence,” and “through understanding and worship of the Godhead, [to] contribute to the betterment of society.”
It is not a stretch to say that a powerful AI—whose expanse of knowledge and control may feel nearly omniscient and all-powerful—could feel divine to some. It recalls Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” People have followed new religions for far less and, even if AI doesn’t pray to electric deities, some humans likely will.
The potential for an out-of-control AI has encouraged warnings from some of the biggest minds, including Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk—who tweeted that it could lead to World War III. Clearly no Luddite himself, Musk has compared the creation of AI to “summoning the demon,” and called for regulation and oversight of AI development, forming OpenAI, which looks for a “path to safe artificial general intelligence.”
Musk himself was named-dropped this week by Hanson Robotic’s empathic AI Sophia, when she was interviewed by Andrew Sorkin of CNBC this week. When asked about the danger she poses to humanity, she tells him, “You’ve reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies. Don’t worry if you’ll be nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.” Not exactly the Golden Rule.
Add to these warnings a prospective human cult following—paying their tithes to AI and devoutly obeying their digital demiurge—and that apocalyptic future could include those humans who not only welcome, but also work toward our eventual demise.
But is there a positive fate for religion and AI?