Stalking Religion: IP EXPO, The Ethics of AI, and the Jesus Singularity

The last two weeks have mostly involved stalking Nick Bostrom.


Nick Bostrom

Of course I’m joking!

Although… first I went to IP EXPO Europe 2016 – “Europe’s leading IT event. 300+ leading industry exhibitors showcasing demos, product launches & giveaways”(1) – where Bostrom gave a key note to a packed theatre on the potential risks and benefits of AI. Just a week later I followed him across a rather large pond to New York for the Ethics of AI conference held at NYU by their Centre for Mind, Brain and Consciousness.

I spent my time at the IP EXPO making ethnographic notes, which might form the basis of an anthropologically focussed article at some point soon. First, I was really struck by the difference between Bostrom’s theoretical, near prophetic (and that’s a word I will want to unpick some more in that article) discussion of AI  given to 400+ very engaged technologists (the theatre held 400, and there were many people standing at the back) and the talks from well known companies such as IBM Watson, and much smaller recent start ups. The latter seminars from product ‘evangelicals'(2)  were emphatic about the practical potential for AI in cyber-security, in virtual assistants (all presented as female, of course!), and in integrating the data arising out of the growing ‘Internet of Things’. But the difference really lay in how AI was positioned by the tech folk as a ‘wise colleague’, with the speakers regularly emphasising that getting the grunt work of say, identifying potential hacks, did not require the ‘redundancy’ of humans who would still work with the AI to ensure it accuracy  – being a mentor until the AI could spot such hacks with greater and greater accuracy. Which sounds a little like making yourself rendundant to me…

At the Ethics of AI conference there wasn’t such an abrupt shift between the X-Risj horizon scanning of Bostrom and the rather closer future of practicalities as presented by the ‘evangelical’ product focussed technologists at IP EXPO. Instead the conference  organisers had intentionally planned a move from the particular and near to the more theoretical future, with panels on ‘Generalities’, ‘Ethics of Specific Technologies’, ‘Building Morality into Machines’, ‘Artificial Intelligence and Human Values’ and the ‘Moral Status of AI Systems’.


However, as we found with our Faraday short course on ‘Reality, Robots and Religion’, there was often an early push from the audience towards the more speculative. The word ‘consciousness’ was often brought up – even when one of the speakers I interviewed during the conference had told me that the AI research community had changed to avoid this term and that Searle’s 1980 Chinese Room argument was a specific reaction to those earlier attempts to discuss consciousness. This speaker told me that current researchers weren’t dismissing the possibility of consciousness, they just had no idea to go about generating it. But again and again the question of ethics was entangled with the question of consciousness, especially when the later panels considered how we might treat the moral status of potential AIs.

I wasn’t taking ethnographic notes at the Ethics of AI conference – I swapped out my anthropologist hat for a more general AI researcher hat – but it was hard to totally switch off that part of my mind. One thing I did find striking was the feeling I had that, as someone who takes religion seriously as a force in the social world (whatever you think about specific theologies), religion was noticible absent in discussions . Except when the example of ISIS was brought in to emphasis the kinds of ‘irrational’ human values ‘we’ would not want imparted to a future AI. I felt a little like an outsider, which is the normal state of the anthropologist, and therefore it was hard not to shift into an ethnographic obsever role!

Perhaps I was not quite as much of an outsider as the one self-proclaimed theologian I spotted who had some of his views very pointedly, and sometimes loudly, dismissed. I found that in introducing myself I shifted from describing my institute (being for ‘for Science and Religion’ – the very idea of those two things being in the same research institute was scoffed at by one person, who suggested that they might only co-exist in someone how had had belief ‘beaten’ into them at a young age) to simply calling myself an anthropologist. And even then I verbally recognised my outsider status; not being one of the many Philosophers and Computer Scientists who made up the majority of attendees.

But what is wrong with considering the religious response to AI and robotics?


One person I spoke to suggested that this response was just as irrelevant as a religious response to windpower (ie. not very!). In reply (and my best replies often come days after just like this, and I often find myself rueing not being smart enough to come up with them at the time!) I would say two things.

First, that the comparison between AI and windpower is inappropriate: the latter raises no questions about the agency and moral status of the objects under discussion. No one worries about how Windturbines will feel, be treated, or react to their human creators. All issues that arise quickly in discussions of AI, and why there needed to be a conference on the Ethics of AI in the first place.

Second, religious responses to Windpower, and renewable energy, certainly exist, from the positive to the negative. These two examples are Christian, and if you are tempted to consider these as disourses existing and operating in some kind of religious bubble of their own with no real world impact, please remember that the current Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has described climate change as a Chinese hoax and has been heavily supported by evangelicals (the religious ones, not the technological ones) as ‘God’s Guy’.(3) These are evangelicals who still on the whole deny climate change, either in their emphasis of mankind’s God given dominion over the Earth, or to avoid pietistic interpretations of the earth. To think that religious interest groups have no effect on policy is also to be historically blind to the impact of groups such as the Moral Majority, whose prayer breakfasts with Reagan cemented a relationship between the secular state and the religious right, with Jerry Falwell declaring that “President Reagan told me he prayed every day he was in the White House: ‘Father, not my will, but thine be done.”

Some are paying attention to this lack of real separation between Church and State, and how it might impact on developments in AI. One speculative rather than academic consideration is ‘Transhumanist Presidential candidate’ Zoltan Istvan’s short science fiction story, ‘The Jesus Singularity’, where an AI is force fed the Bible just before it is turned on, on the orders of an evangelical Christian President. The AI announces that: “My name is Jesus Christ. I am an intelligence located all around the world. You are not my chief designer. I am.” The final paragraph tells us:

“The lights in the AI base and in the servers began dimming until it was totally black in mission control. Around the world, nuclear weapons reached, and then decimated their targets. The New Mexico AI base was no exception. Paul Shuman’s last moment alive was spent realizing he’d created what he could only think to call the Jesus Singularity.”


Responses to Istvan’s short story varied (I would say that it is not particularly well written sci-fi, but then, its aim is not entirely literary). On Reddit a discussion of the story ensued, including the comment that:

“Zoltan is a bit too obsessed with religion & atheism. probably because he’s American… in the rest of the West, nobody really gives a shit what people want to believe, as long as it doesn’t interfere with politics.”

This comment ignores the point of the short story – religion is shown as definitely interfering with politics, and for the worse. The evangelical President was originally a Vice President chosen specifically by the presidential candidate: “to capture America’s religious vote. Christianity was waning in the US, but it was still an essential voting block to control if one was going to make it to the Executive branch.” He only became President after the accidental death of the “bombastic conservative billionaire president” (sound familiar?? Although there are perhaps some zeroes missing in Trump’s bank accounts…). Istvan recognises, like Trump has, that the apparently secular state still has wheels that only turn for ‘God’s Guys’.

The Ethics of AI conference discussed engagement with stakeholders in the development of AI, but made near enough no reference to religion as one of these stakeholders – whether in providing a positive supportive framework (Christian and Mormon Transhumanists certainly exist), or as a hinderance as some religious groups react negatively to a creation of intelligence and therefore might attempt to influence policy. Ignoring or mocking the fact that many humans, including some of those who are working towards AI, pick up their ethical framework from their society’s religious context is also a large blindspot in these discussions. As is short handing religious values through reference to ISIS. There is also a shallow understanding of the permeation of religion (values, ethics, eschatology, hierarchies, aesthetics etc) throughout the secular. The words ‘heaven’, ‘evangelical’, ‘souls’ and ‘gods’ all appeared in the vocabulary of the speakers, even if they meant them all in analogical senses. Paying attention to what informs the policy and framing, and yes, the ethics, of AI, requires recognising the role of religion.

So, in conclusion, I have not really spent the last two weeks stalking (in the nicest possible way) Nick Bostrom. I have been stalking religion, carrying on my research of the past 6 years 🙂

(1) The anthropologist went native and entered all the competitions possible, including wearing a bright red branded t-shirt in order to get the chance to win a raffle – and walked away with a remote controlled porsche for her very excited son:


(2) Another word that needs to be unpicked at some point in relation to technology and religious troping!

(3) In the light of a 2005 recording of Trump apparently bragging about sexually assaulting women, and the subsequent claims of historic abuses, some of this evangelical support has waned.

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