The Cult of Kurzweil: Will Robots Save Our Souls?

Last month a computer—IBM’s famous “Watson”—trounced the greatest human Jeopardy players of all time, and effectively inaugurated a new era in human-computer relations.

After decades of difficulty—in which all of the problems that seemed easiest turned out to be the most difficult—artificial intelligence (AI) experts are now well (or at least better) positioned to tout the potential of computers. Although robots still cannot walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time, enthusiasts hope they will soon equal our intelligence and, perhaps, even provide us with scientific alternatives to the traditional religious promises of salvation.

The AI Apocalypse

Scientists like roboticist Hans Moravec and inventor Ray Kurzweil advocate uploading our minds into robots or virtual reality so that we can live forever. They believe that our minds can be replicated outside of our brains if we simply copy the pattern of neuro-chemical activity taking place in our bodies. That pattern, rather than the brains in which the pattern takes shape, “is” the personality. If it can be transferred to a digital medium, it can be made immortal. Both Moravec and Kurzweil predict that this technological transcendence is rapidly approaching. In the near future, our essential selves will be digital information, capable of infinite replication, rapid learning, and regular backup in case of an accident. Surpassingly intelligent robots—our Mind Children, according to Moravec—will populate the universe, converting physical reality into a cosmic interweb of thinking machines.

In the years since these claims were first made in the late 1970s and 1980s, their cultural credibility has grown at an astounding (some would say alarming) rate, and sightings of these Apocalyptic AI authors and their religious ideas have become commonplace in the popular press. In particular, faith in what is called the “Singularity”—the moment when robots become transcendently intelligent and we, as a consequence, upload our minds into machines—finds a home in the news, in science fiction, in film festivals, and in prime time television shows.

Even the IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the eminently professional Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, devoted an entire special edition to discussing the Singularity in June of 2008 (a fact which one roboticist told me that he found “a little disturbing”).

Perhaps because journalists think they’re throwing Kurzweil to the wolves when they profile him in their pages or perhaps because they are, themselves, true believers, major news media online and in print have rushed to interview Kurzweil and profile his ideas over the past few years. Most recently, Time magazine has labeled the Singularity a “serious hypothesis…an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.” Where once Kurzweil was listed among the fringe and suspected of being just a bit off-balance, in the past few years (especially since founding his own for-profit school, Singularity University) he has become a legitimate prophet.

Saint Kurzweil

Perhaps calling Kurzweil a prophet actually undersells his current popularity; if popular media can make a man into a saint, then Kurzweil has been beatified. Transcendent Man, a biographical documentary about Kurzweil, cruised into film festivals in 2009 and received wide accolades around the time of its 2011 digital release.

Like any good hagiography, the film revels in Kurzweil’s genius as well as his eccentricity: one moment we see blind people praising him for changing their lives with his reading machines and the next moment we hear Kurzweil promising that he will resurrect his father from the dead—or watch him swallow hundreds of vitamin supplements out of a hope that these will keep him alive until he can upload his mind. Perhaps it is because Kurzweil appeals as both genius inventor and spiritual savior that the film garnered considerable attention. Thanks to the film, Kurzweil and the director, Barry Ptolemy, were able to evangelize in print and in interviews, such as in their recent conversation with PBS’s Charlie Rose.

The reviewer for the ever-hip Film School Rejects claims that “every moment of Transcendent Man is about as compelling as it gets,” the Associate Editor of the International Documentary Association’s webpage lists the film as one of her top ten documentary film picks of 2009 and the film’s press releases cite a rave from Ain’t It Cool News that says, “not only is Transcendent Man the must-see film of 2011 but it just might change your life forever”. Whether or not the film accurately prophecies the future, it certainly looks likely to profit the filmmakers. Upon its initial iTunes release in Canada, the film shot into to the top ten in popularity, which was followed by immediate success in the United States.

One Singular Salvation?

It is, of course, totally unclear whether Moravec, Kurzweil, and their supporters are correct. Will robots become massively intelligent? Will human beings become highly intelligent cyborgs or upload our minds fully into machines and thereby live forever? Whether they are correct is probably less important than the fact that the faithful who believe they are has a growing membership. Singularity University had more than 1200 applications for its first nine-week graduate class in 2009 (40 students were accepted). Public policy leaders and corporate officers have attended executive classes and funding has come from major tech companies such as Google and Nokia. Press surrounding the university has been positive, including even an encouraging review from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which suggests that traditional universities have much to learn from SU’s curriculum.

What we see is the emergence of a genuine religious tradition. Is it new? Not exactly: faith in technology to produce transcendent human conditions is centuries old. But this manifestation, whether it be under the label of transhumanism, Singularitarianism, or (as I’ve called it) Apocalyptic AI, has a cultural cachet that goes far and allows it to separate itself from other religious visions. Sacred books such as Moravec’s Mind Children (1988) and Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near (2005) and documentary films like Transcendent Man establish a textual tradition that forms the core of an entire belief system promising salvation, encouraging embodied practices (most of which are designed to keep an individual alive until the coming day of upload), and establishing a worldview through which all of science, religion, and politics may be judged.

The more that Kurzweil or others in the Apocalyptic AI movement receive attention or accolades from the New York Times or Time the more we can expect their movement to grow. This will present a serious challenge to traditional religious communities, whose own promises of salvation may appear weak in comparison to the “scientific” soteriology offered by Kurzweil.

If Moravec was right in proposing that we will upload our minds into machines, then traditional offers of heavenly afterlives will struggle indeed! In the meantime, Singularity advocates will continue to encourage others to join them in a rational and scientific quest for salvation.

 

 

 

 

 

References:

 

Young, Jeffry R. 2009. “What Traditional Academics Can Learn From a Futurist’s University.” Chronicle of Higher Education (September 14). 

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A. David Lewis is a Ph.D. recipient in Religious Studies from Boston University and the co-editor of Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. He serves as a steering committee member on the “Death and Dying” area of the American Academy of Religion, and he is an Editorial Board member of The International Journal of Comic Art. He teaches in the Humanities at colleges throughout the Greater Boston area.