In the next 25 years, AI will evolve to the point where it will know more on an intellectual level than any human. In the next 50 or 100 years, an AI might know more than the entire population of the planet put together. At that point, there are serious questions to ask about whether this AI — which could design and program additional AI programs all on its own, read data from an almost infinite number of data sources, and control almost every connected device on the planet — will somehow rise in status to become more like a god, something that can write its own bible and draw humans to worship it.
Recently, reports surfaced that a controversy-plagued engineer who once worked at Uber has started a new religion. Anthony Levandowski filed paperwork for a nonprofit religious organization called The Way of the Future. Its mission: “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.”
Of course, this is nothing new. The Singularity is another quasi-spiritual idea that believes an AI will become smarter than humans at some point. You might laugh at the notion of an AI being so powerful that humans bow down to worship it, but several experts who talked to VentureBeat argue that the idea is a lot more feasible than you might think.
One of the experts is Vince Lynch, who started a company called IV.AI that builds custom AI for the enterprise. Lynch explained how there are some similarities between organized religion and how an AI actually works. In the Bible used by Christians, for example, Lynch says there are many recurring themes, imagery, and metaphors.
“Teaching humans about religious education is similar to the way we teach knowledge to machines: repetition of many examples that are versions of a concept you want the machine to learn,” he says. “There is also commonality between AI and religion in the hierarchical structure of knowledge understanding found in neural networks. The concept of teaching a machine to learn … and then teaching it to teach … (or write AI) isn’t so different from the concept of a holy trinity or a being achieving enlightenment after many lessons learned with varying levels of success and failure.”
Indeed, Lynch even shared a simple AI model to make his point. If you type in multiple verses from the Christian Bible, you can have the AI write a new verse that seems eerily similar. Here’s one an AI wrote: “And let thy companies deliver thee; but will with mine own arm save them: even unto this land, from the kingdom of heaven.” An AI that is all-powerful in the next 25-50 years could decide to write a similar AI bible for humans to follow, one that matches its own collective intelligence. It might tell you what to do each day, or where to travel, or how to live your life.
Robbee Minicola, who runs a digital agency and an AI services company in Seattle, agreed that an all-knowing AI could appear to be worthy of worship, especially since the AI has some correlations to how organized religion works today. The AI would understand how the world works at a higher level than humans, and humans would trust that this AI would provide the information we need for our daily lives. It would parse this information for us and enlighten us in ways that might seem familiar to anyone who practices religion, such as Christianity.
“[For a Christian] one kind of large data asset pertaining to God is the Old and New Testament,” she says. “So, in terms of expressing machine learning algorithms over the Christian Bible to ascertain communicable insights on ‘what God would do’ or ‘what God would say’ — you might just be onto something here. In terms of extending what God would do way back then to what God would do today — you may also have something there.”
The dark side
Of course, any discussion about an AI god leads quickly to some implications about what this “god” would look like and whether we would actually decide to worship it. Some of the implications are troubling because, as humans, we do have a tendency to trust in things beyond our own capacity — e.g., driving in a major city using GPS and trusting we will arrive safely, as opposed to actually knowing where we want to drive and trusting our instincts.
And, if an AI god is in total control, you have to wonder what it might do. The “bible” might contain a prescription for how to serve the AI god. We might not even know that the AI god we are serving is primarily trying to wipe us off the face of the planet.
Part of the issue is related to how an AI actually works. From a purely technical standpoint, the experts I talked to found it hard to envision an AI god that can think in creative ways. An AI is programmed only to do a specific task. They wondered how an AI could jump from being a travel chatbot into dictating how to live.
And the experts agreed that actual compassion or serving as part of an organized religion — activities that are essential to faith — go far beyond basic intellectual pursuit. There’s a mystery to religion, a divine component that is not 100 percent based on what we can perceive or know. This transcendence is the part where an AI will have the most difficulty, even in the far future.
Vincent Jacques runs a company called ChainTrade that uses AI to analyze blockchain. It’s hyper-focused machine learning — the AI enforces anti-money laundering statutes. That’s obviously a long way from an AI that can tell you how to live your life or read an AI bible.
“It would be extremely dangerous to have an all-knowing, thinking AI being someday,” says Jacques. “All computer programs, including AI programs, are built for a specific and narrow purpose: win a chess game, win a go game, reduce an electricity bill etc. The computer logic, even if it is advanced AI, doesn’t play well with a general will and general thinking capability that could at the same time design military strategies, marketing strategies, and learn how to play chess from scratch. For this reason, I’m not really scared of a potential super-thinker that could overthrow us one day — I believe that the inventive and innovative part will always be missing.”
For her part, Minicola argues that an AI may be able to guide people and enlighten them in an intellectual way, but this is not the same as an actual expression of faith or any form of transcendence. “In terms of AI taking on God and manifesting something beyond data that simply does not exist, or rather beyond God — that’s not happening,” she says.
Actual worship, though?
In my view, this is where the dangers come into play. As a Christian myself, it’s hard to imagine ever worshiping a bot that lacks any real personality, wisdom, or ability to become relevant and personal, no matter how much more intelligent it is than any human. An AI god would be cold and impersonal, an intellectual “being” that’s not capable of love or emotion.
Will people actually worship the AI god? The answer is obvious — they will. We tend to trust and obey things that seem more powerful and worthy than ourselves. The GPS in your car is just the most obvious example. But we also trust Alexa and Cortana; we trust Google. When an AI becomes much more powerful, in 25 to 50 years, there is a great possibility that it will be deified in some way. (Apple and Google loyalists already have a religious fervor.)
If an AI god does emerge, and people do start worshiping it, there will be many implications about how this AI will need to be regulated … or even subdued. Hang on for the ride.