The latest US census found that 43 per cent of the population in Santa Clara County, California, were members of a religious institution. This is slightly less than the American national average of 50 per cent, but you’d probably expect that because the area includes Silicon Valley, where geeks are busy designing our online, gadget-laden future. You might assume they would be pretty secular types.
You’d be wrong. As a measure of religious observance, that census is useless. Perhaps the geeks don’t all belong to churches, but the reality is that the inhabitants of the Valley are in the grip of a religious mania so bizarre, so exotic, that it makes the Prince Philip-worshipping inhabitants of the island of Pacific Tanna look positively mainstream. For the geeks worship a machine that has not yet been built.
This machine will appear in about 2045 at a moment its worshippers call the Singularity. It will be the last machine we will ever build because, being superintelligent and able to redesign itself to be ever more intelligent, it will do everything we need, including make us medically immortal by curing all our ills, or, perhaps, genuinely immortal by uploading us into itself. Or it will kill us. The mood of the machine is as unpredictable as that of Prince Philip; it may be an Old rather than a New Testament god.
The Abraham — or perhaps John the Baptist — of this faith is Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil has long been the hot gospeller of the future. As with all futurologists, his forecasts have proved more often wrong than right. Yet he is a marketing genius and that has led to him being lauded by presidents and employed by Google to work on artificial intelligence (AI). This genius has also led to the establishment of the Singularity University, the campus of which is inside the mighty Nasa Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley. It is Kurzweil who chose the date of 2045 for the advent of the Singularity and who has been the final machine’s most effective disciple.
Singularity is a term derived from physics, where it means the point at the unknowable centre of a black hole where the laws of physics break down. For Valley believers, the tech version of this is where the rules and conventions that have previously ordered human life come to an end. It is the ‘trans-human’ moment at which we transcend our biological destiny.
Considered as a religion, this is very American. It is structurally similar to the fundamentalists’ belief in the Rapture — the moment when the elect are swept up to Heaven to avoid the ensuing Tribulation — which is also said to be imminent. And, indeed, in their subliterate way, Kurzweil’s books do read like fundamentalist tracts.
Furthermore, some techno-Christian sects have embraced the Singularity as being all part of God’s plan. ‘Live is purposeful,’ runs the creed of the transhumanist Terasem Movement. ‘Death is optional. God is technological. Love is essential.’
That great Valley apostate Jaron Lanier, who sees through the folly of techno-babble better than anybody, has noted this convergence of technology and faith. ‘What we are seeing,’ he writes, ‘is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture.’
The Singularity is, indeed, a faith. But its adherents conceal this awkward fact with an analysis that the gullible might mistake for science. This analysis is based on the idea of an exponential growth in our technological prowess, particularly in the development of AI. Ultimately what once took thousands of years will happen in seconds, and the machine-god will emerge.
It is, of course, absurd. As Professor Andrew Blake, managing director of Microsoft Research at Cambridge, observed at a recent Spectator event, ‘There is no scientific basis for any of this.’ The only model for such exponential acceleration is the growth in power of computer chips over the past few decades. This may or many not continue, but even if it does there is no reason to think it will lead to real machine intelligence.
Should we care about the appearance of this ridiculous faith? Well, obviously, yes. The people who cling to this faith are, in their geekish way, among the most powerful in the world. They make the machines which increasingly dominate our life and work. Even if they are not conscious Singularity believers, they certainly tend to worship the machine as something that will somehow liberate us from ourselves.
This is apparent in the aspiration to free the geeks from the ordinary restraints of society. Peter Thiel, founder of Pay-Pal, for example, has founded the Seasteading Institute, which aims to build floating cities in international waters — ‘An open frontier,’ he calls it, ‘for experimenting with new ideas in government.’ Larry Page, co–founder of Google, has also idly suggested that we should ‘set aside some small part of the world’ for innovation to take place without regulation.
Furthermore, the rhetoric associated with AI and the Singularity feeds through into the way we build and use machines. Lanier has pointed out the way this rhetoric is used to fool us into thinking the technology is much smarter than it actually is. For example Watson, an IBM computer that won the American TV gameshow Jeopardy!, was advertised as a breakthrough for AI. Lanier observes that Watson was nothing more than ‘a new phrase-based search engine’. This does not sound quite as sexy or as marketable as machine intelligence; it just happens to be true.
The rhetoric, Lanier says, is double-edged. It encourages us to think of people ‘more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people’. In short, we can make the Singularity more likely by stupefying ourselves into becoming machines instead of simply seeing machines for what they are — useful tools.
Religion is — and will always be — a human constant. We know little about the world beyond our immediate perceptions and we console ourselves by filling in the gaps with faith. The awfulness of this new Silicon Valley faith is that, unlike most traditional religions, it does not exalt humanity but instead seeks its destruction. It may succeed if we persist in making ourselves so stupid that even dumb computers will seem intelligent.
Bryan Appleyard’s latest book is Bedford Park: A Novel.