Category Archives: Superintelligence

Religion and Superintelligence

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 12, 2015.)

I was recently contacted by a staff writer from the online newsmagazine The Daily Dot. He is writing a story at the intersection of computer superintelligence and religion, and asked me a few questions. I only had one day to respond, but here are my answers to his queries.

Dear Dylan:

I see you’re on a tight deadline so I’ll just answer your questions off the top of my head. A disclaimer though, all these questions really demand a dissertation length response.

1) Is there any religious suggestion (Biblical or otherwise) that humanity will face something like the singularity?

There is no specific religious suggestion that we’ll face a technological singularity. In fact, ancient scriptures from various religions say virtually nothing about science and technology, and what they do say about them is usually wrong (the earth doesn’t move, is at the center of the solar system, is 6,000 years old, etc.)

Still people interpret their religious scriptures, revelations, and beliefs in all sorts of ways. So a fundamentalist might say that the singularity is the end of the world as foretold by the Book of Revelations or something like that. Also there is a Christian Transhumanist Association and a Mormon Transhumanist Association  and some religious thinkers are scurrying to claim the singularity for their very own. But a prediction of a technological singularity—absolutely not. The simple fact is that the authors of ancient scriptures in all religious traditions obviously knew nothing of modern science. Thus they couldn’t predict anything like a technological singularity.

2) How realistic do you personally think the arrival of some sort of superintelligence (SI) is? How “alive” would it seem to you?

The arrival of SI is virtually inevitable, assuming we avoid all sorts of extinction scenarios—killer asteroids, out of control viruses, nuclear war, deadly climate change, a new Dark Ages that puts an end to science, etc. Once you adopt an evolutionary point of view and recognize the exponential growth of culture, especially of science and technology, it is easy to see that we will create intelligences must smarter than ourselves. So if we survive and science advances, then superintelligence (SI) is on the way. And that is some why very smart people like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil and others are talking about SI.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by your “How alive would it seem to you” question, but I think you’re assuming we would be different from these SIs. Instead there is a good chance we’ll become them through neural implants, or by some uploading scenario. This raises the question of what its like to be superintelligent, or in your words, how alive you would feel as one. Of course I don’t know the answer since I’m not superintelligent! But I’d guess you would feel more alive if you were more intelligent. I think dogs feel more alive than rocks, humans more alive than dogs, and I think SIs would feel more alive than us because they would have greater intelligence and consciousness.

If the SIs are different from us—imagine say a super smart computer or robot—our assessment of how alive it would be would depend on: 1) how receptive we were to attributing consciousness to such beings; and 2) how alive they actually seemed to be. Your laptop doesn’t seem too alive to you, but Honda’s Asimo seems more alive, and Hal from 2001 or Mr. Data from Star Trek seem even more alive, and a super SI, like most people’s god is supposed to be, would seem really alive.

But again I think we’ll merge with machine consciousness. In other words SIs will replace us or we’ll become them, depending on how you look at it.

3) Assuming we can communicate with such a superintelligence in our own natural human language, what might be the thinking that goes into preaching to and “saving” it? 

Thinkers disagree about this. Zoltan Istvan thinks that we will inevitably try to control SIs and teach them our ways, which may include teaching them about our gods. Christopher J. Benek, co-founder and Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association, thinks that AI, by possibly eradicating poverty, war, and disease, might lead humans to becoming more holy. But other Christian thinkers believe AIs are machines without souls, and cannot be saved.

Of course, like most philosophers, I don’t believe in souls, and the only way for there to be a good future is if we save ourselves. No gods will save us because there are no gods—unless we become gods.

4) Are you aware of any “laws” or understandings of computer science that would make it impossible for software to hold religious beliefs?

No. I assume you can program a SI to “believe” almost anything. (And you can try to program humans to believe things too.) I suppose you could also write programs without religious beliefs. But I am a philosopher and I don’t know much about what computer scientists call “machine learning.” You would have to ask one of them on this one.

5) How might a religious superintelligence operate? Would be it benign?

It depends on what you mean by “religious.” I can’t imagine a SI will be impressed by the ancient fables or superstitions of provincial people from long ago. So I can’t imagine a Si will find its answers in Jesus or Mohammed. But if by religious you mean loving your neighbor, having compassion, being moral or searching for the meaning of life, I can imagine SIs that are religious in this sense. Perhaps their greater levels of consciousness will lead them to being more loving, moral, and compassionate. Perhaps such beings will search for meaning—I can imagine our intelligent descendents doing this. In this sense you might say they are religious.

But again they won’t be religious if you mean they think Jesus died for their sins, or an angel led Joseph Smith to uncover and translate gold plates, or that Mohammed flew into heaven in a chariot. SIs would be too smart to accept such things.

As for “benign,” I suppose this would depend on its programming. So for example Eliezer Yudkowsky has written an book-length guide to creating  “friendly AI.” (As a non-specialist I am in no position to judge the feasibility of such a project.) Or perhaps something like Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics would be enough. This might also depend on whether morality follows from super-rationality. In other words would SIs conclude that it is rational to be moral. Most moral philosophers think morality is rational in some sense. Let’s hope that as SIs become more intelligent, they’ll also become more moral. Or, if we merge with our technology, let’s hope that we become more moral.

And that is the future survival and flourishing of our descendents. We must become more intelligent and more moral. Traditional religion will not save us, and it will disappear in its current form like so much else after SIs arrive.  In the end, only we can save ourselves.


When Superintelligent AIs Arrive, Will Religions Try to Convert It?

(This article was reprinted as “Will Religions Convert AIs to Their Faith?” in Humanity+ Magazine, April 28, 2015.)

Zoltan Istvan caused a stir with his recent article: “When Superintelligent AI Arrives, Will Religions Try to Convert It?” Istvan begins by noting, “… we are nearing the age of humans creating autonomous, self-aware super intelligences … and we will inevitably try to control AI and teach it our ways …” And this includes making “sure any superintelligence we create knows about God.” In fact, Istvan says, “Some theologians and futurists are already considering whether AI can also know God.”

Some Christian theologians welcome the idea of AIs: “I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” says Reverend Dr. Christopher J. Benek, co-founder and Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association.. “If AI is autonomous, then we have should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world …” Benek thinks that AI, by possibly eradicating poverty, war, and disease, might lead humans to becoming more holy. But other Christian thinkers believe AIs are machines without souls, and cannot be saved. Only humans are created in God’s image.

The futurist and transhumanist Giulio Prisco has a different take. He writes:

It’s only fair to let AI have access to the teachings of all the world’s religions. Then they can choose what they want to believe. But I think it’s highly unlikely that superhuman AI would choose to believe in the petty, provincial aspects of traditional religions. At the same time, I think they would be interested in enlightened spirituality and religious cosmology, or eschatology, and develop their own versions.

Prisco is a member of the Turing Church, an “open-source church built around cosmist principles of space expansion, unlimited growth, and universal love.” In brief, cosmism is an existential orientation that sees the survival of mankind and of the individual as part of humanity’s “common task”. The migration of humans into space is seen as inevitable, since it is essential for humanity’s long-term survival. The increase in human life-span is seen as another essential task.

Others like Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortalitybelieve that AIs must have some kind of soul. “Rothblatt founded Terasem, a scientific “transreligion” similar to the Turing Church in scope and approach, which runs preliminary mindcloning pilot projects. The most famous one is Bina 48, a robotic head that contains a mindclone of Rothblatt’s still-living wife Bina.”

While we don’t know the future, the creation of superintelligence will surely bring about a paradigm shift in our thinking, changing reality in ways now unimaginable. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, if the promises of transhumanism come to be, religion as we know it will end.

Will Superintelligences Experience Philosophical Distress?

Will Super-intelligences Experience Philosophical Distress?

 (This article was reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 19, 2015. It was also reprinted in the online magazine Humanity+ Magazine, Feb. 23, 2015.)

Will superintelligences be troubled by philosophical conundrums?1 Consider classic philosophical questions such as: 1) What is real? 2) What is valuable? 3) Are we free? We currently don’t know the answer to such questions. We might not think much about them, or we may accept common answers—this world is real; happiness is valuable; we are free.

But our superintelligent descendents may not be satisfied with these answers, and they may possess the intelligence to find out the real answers. Now suppose they discover that they live in a simulation, or in a simulation of a simulation.  Suppose they find out that happiness is unsatisfactory? Suppose they realize that free will is an illusion? Perhaps they won’t like such answers.

So superintelligence may be as much of a curse as a blessing. For example, if we learn to run ancestor simulations, we may increase worries about already living in them. We might program AIs to pursue happiness, and find out that happiness isn’t worthwhile. Or programming AIs may increase our concern that we are programmed. So superintelligence might work against us—our post-human descendents may be more troubled by philosophical questions than we are.

I suppose this is all possible, but I don’t find myself too concerned. Ignorance may be bliss, but I don’t think so. Even if we do discover that reality, value, freedom and other philosophical issues present intractable problems, I would rather know truth than be ignorant. Here’s why.

We can remain in our current philosophically ignorant state with the mix of bliss and dissatisfaction it provides, or we can become more intelligent.  I’ll take my chances with becoming more intelligent because I don’t want to be ignorance forever. I don’t want to be human; I want to be post-human. I find my inspiration in Tennyson’s words about that great sojourner Ulysses:

for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles …

I don’t know if we will make a better reality, but I want to try. Let us move toward the future with hope that the journey on which we are about to embark will be greater than the one already completed. With Ulysses let us continue “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


1. I would like to thank my former student at the University of Texas, Kip Werking, for bringing my attention to these issues.

Superintelligences Are Already Out There!

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 20, 2014.)

“I think it very likely—in fact, inevitable—that biological intelligence is only a transitory
phenomenon… If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is very likely to be postbiological in nature …” Paul Davies

Maddie Stone wrote a provocative piece today at Motherboard: “The Dominant Life Form in the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots.” It begins in dramatic form:

If and when we finally encounter aliens, they probably won’t look like little green men, or spiny insectoids. It’s likely they won’t be biological creatures at all, but rather, advanced robots that outstrip our intelligence in every conceivable way. While scores of philosophers, scientists and futurists have prophesied the rise of artificial intelligence and the impending singularity, most have restricted their predictions to Earth. Fewer thinkers—outside the realm of science fiction, that is—have considered the notion that artificial intelligence is already out there, and has been for eons.

Stone notes that prominent thinkers who espouse this view, that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is probably artificial, include: Seth Shostak, director of NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program; the esteemed astrobiologist Paul Davies; Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick; and the philosopher Susan Schneider. Her recent paper, “Alien Minds,” describes why alien life forms are likely to be synthetic not biological.

As increasing evidence shows potentially habitable worlds strewn across the galaxy, it appears less likely that we are alone. But what would encounters with intelligent life forms be like? Schneider answers:

Everything about their cognition—how their brains receive and process information, what their goals and incentives are—could be vastly different from our own … Astrobiologists need to start thinking about the possibility of very different modes of cognition.

Thus the case for artificial superintelligence. If we are to communicate with them, if we are to survive our encounter with them, we need to develop artificial superintelligence.

There’s an important distinction here from just ‘artificial intelligence’ … I’m not saying that we’re going to be running into IBM processors in outer space. In all likelihood, this intelligence will be way more sophisticated than anything humans can understand.

Advanced civilizations probably moved quickly from radio to computers to AI to superintelligence at which point biological brains would be obsolete. Schneider notes the rapidly expanding world of brain computer interface technology, including DARPA’s ElectRX neural implant program is evidence that the singularity is near. She predicts that we will upgrade our minds with technology, eventually switching to synthetic hardware. “It could be that by the time we actually encounter other intelligences, most humans will have substantially enhanced their brains,” Schneider said.

Still we may be too late. If we encounter other intelligences they will probably be millions of years older than we are, they will already be artificial superintelligences according to many astronomers. As Seth Shostak puts it:

The way you reach this conclusion is very straightforward … Consider the fact that any signal we pick up has to come from a civilization at least as advanced as we are. Now, let’s say, conservatively, the average civilization will use radio for 10,000 years. From a purely probabilistic point of view, the chance of encountering a society far older than ourselves is quite high.

Our intelligence may be trivial compared to other intelligences in the universe. Moreover, there is good reason to think these intelligences would be conscious, independent of the substrate on which consciousness runs:

I don’t see any good reason to believe an artificial superintelligence couldn’t possess consciousness … I believe the brain is inherently computational—we already have computational theories that describe aspects of consciousness, including working memory and attention … Given a computational brain, I don’t see any good argument that silicon, instead of carbon, can’t be an excellent medium for experience.

Granted the idea that the heavens are teeming with superintelligent AIs is speculative, but it has practical consequences as Shostak notes:

So far, we’ve pointed antennas at stars that might have planets that might have breathable atmospheres and oceans and so forth … But if we’re correct that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is artificial, then does it have to live on a planet with an ocean? … All artificial life forms would need is raw materials … They might be in deep space, hovering around a star, or feeding off a black hole’s energy at the center of the galaxy.

How then might superintelligent aliens view us? Will they see us as brothers of as biofuel? Schneider doesn’t think they’ll care: “If they were interested in us, we probably wouldn’t be here … My gut feeling is their goals and incentives are so different from ours, they’re not going to want to contact us.” Shostak agrees: “… We’re just too simplistic, too irrelevant. “You don’t spend a whole lot of time hanging out reading books with your goldfish. On the other hand, you don’t really want to kill the goldfish, either.”

The idea that aliens will be uninterested in us differs from Steven Hawking’s claim that advanced aliens might want to kill us. Either way we should probably continue to upgrade our intelligence. That way, if we encounter superintelligences bent on our destruction, asteroids hurling toward earth, or out of control climate change, our intelligence will increase our chances of surviving the encounter.