Religion as protection from reckless pursuit of superintelligence and other risky technologies

I think religions that provide hope in personal resurrection – either traditional religions based on the “supernatural” or modern, Cosmist religions based on science, might be our best protection from reckless pursuit of superintelligence and other risky technologies.

In “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies” (2014), Nick Bostrom shows that the extermination of humanity as we know, by future superintelligent entities, is a real existential risk that we should start considering very seriously. Superintelligence is smarter than you like you are smarter than a beetle, and its interests may be incompatible with the existence of humanity.

I find hope more interesting (and fun) than fear, and so I have never been too worried about existential risks, but I must admit that Nick has valid points. See my review of Superintelligence, where I conclude that “it seems reasonable to follow Nick’s advice and pursue very cautiously – if at all – research that could result in superintelligence.”

Not everyone agrees. On the contrary many brilliant and imaginative people wish to advance superintelligence research at all costs. Bostrom clearly identifies the problem:

We, as individuals, don’t want to die.

If nothing happens, the default outcome is that we are all dead in a few decades, but superintelligence could change things radically:

“[S]uperintelligence could almost certainly devise means to indefinitely prolong the lives of the then still-existing humans… or helping them shuffle off their mortal coils altogether by uploading their minds to a digital substrate.”

Today many imaginative scientists and science-literate laypersons, who could appreciate Nick’s arguments, believe that death is final. They feel doomed to the irreversible non-existence of certain death, unless the superintelligence explosion happens in their lifetime, and therefore they want to push forward recklessly, as fast as possible.

On the contrary, those who hope to be resurrected after death, by either supernatural agencies or future science and technology, do not feel the same urgency to accelerate at all costs (this is my case). Therefore I think religion, or forms of scientific spirituality that offer hope in personal resurrection and afterlife, can help.

It’s evident that belief in resurrection has survival value for societies. Those who believe that they will live again are less scared to die in battle. Similarly, those who believe that they will see their loved ones again after death are less likely to be permanently crippled by despair when a loved person dies, and more likely to continue giving a positive contribution to society. In general, faith in afterlife makes believers a bit less obsessed with immediate survival here-and-now, and a bit more likely to put the long-term interest of the community above their own immediate interest. I think it’s clear that these are the reasons why all societies developed religion.

Today, we know too much science to believe in traditional, revealed religions not based on (or in direct conflict with) science. Therefore, if we want to keep the benefits of religion, we must find ways to make it compatible with science. Reviving religion, in a transhumanist formulation that doesn’t ask believers to give up science or other desirable aspects of modern thinking, is the main focus of my work.

How can future science and technology resurrect the dead? Nobody knows, but there are promising indication of possible paths in today’s science and philosophy. I invite you to browse the turingchurch.com website, which is mainly focused on that.

Back to Bostrom and future superintelligence:

“[T]he superintelligence might be able to create relatively faithful simulations of some past people – simulations that would be conscious and that would resemble the original sufficiently to count as a form of survival (according to at least some people’s criteria). This would presumably be easier for people who have been placed in cryonic suspension; but perhaps for a superintelligence it would not be impossible to recreate something quite similar to the original person from other preserved records such as correspondence, publications, audiovisual materials and digital records, or the personal memories of other survivors. A superintelligence might also think of some possibilities that do not readily occur to us.”

The first part of the quote mentions cryonics and mindfiles (Bainbridge-Rothblatt “softcopy cryonics.”) Bainbridge and Rothblatt make a very persuasive case that future AI technology may be able to patch a person together from bits, snippets and traces stored in the cloud.

But what about those who died before the cloud?

In sober academic language, Bostrom says: “A superintelligence might also think of some possibilities that do not readily occur to us.”

My interpretation: future superintelligences might find ways to tweak and re-engineer space-time, develop time scanning and quantum archaeology means, and bring back the dead from the past in fulfillment of the Common Task of Fedorov and the Russian Cosmists.

I hope humanity and technology will co-evolve, with humans enhanced by synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, and artificial life powered by mind grafts from human uploads, blending more and more until it will be impossible – and pointless – to tell which is which. I hope our superintelligent hybrid mind children will spread to the stars, become masters of space and time, and pursue the Common Task – to bring us back. However, I realize that this is not an inevitable outcome but a best case scenario.

The best case scenario requires humanity to survive and pass our most cherished values – love and compassion for all sentient life – to our superintelligent hybrid mind children. We may need to pursue potentially dangerous research very, very cautiously, without the reckless urgency that comes from hopeless despair.

The same considerations apply to other advanced technologies with potential existential danger. For example, real Drexlerian molecular nanotechnology could permit radical biological life extension and mind uploading, but also the accidental development of replicant “grey goo” that eats the biosphere.

If you run too fast to catch the train of immortality, you may end up crushed on the rails. But if you believe that another train will come, you can find the selfless strength to work carefully and patiently toward a good future for everyone. Therefore I think religions that provide hope in personal resurrection – either traditional religions based on the “supernatural” or modern, Cosmist religions based on science, might be our best protection from reckless pursuit of superintelligence and other risky technologies.

Image: Flock, by Sven Geier

  • Matt

    I find this a little confusing. You seem to advocate against research into superintelligence. But wouldn’t it be necessary to pursue superintelligent mind children?

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Matt – research into superintelligence is necessary to pursue superintelligent mind children, and therefore I don’t advocate against it. On the contrary, I think pursuing research into superintelligence is our cosmic destiny.

    I just don’t feel any desperate urgency to achieve superintelligence within my lifetime. No big problem if it takes a few decades, or centuries – the universe is young, and we will experience it again.

    • Matt

      Thanks for the explanation Giulio!

  • Nupur Munshi

    Sir you wrote
    My interpretation: future superintelligences might find ways to tweak and re-engineer space-time, develop time scanning and quantum archaeology means, and bring back the dead from the past in fulfillment of the Common Task of Fedorov and the Russian Cosmists.

    Most of us here in India would opt for this because we cremate our bodies after death.
    I am happy to read such an encouraging thought but little disheartened by the use of the word “might”and”No big
    problem if it takes a few decades or centuries” . I would expect you to use a strong “will” instead and a “few decades”. only.
    I sincerely hope that your interpretation comes true

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Nupur – if the future is not uniquely determined, “might” is more correct than “will” in this context. I often use “will” to emphasize intention: things will be this way, because we will make them this way.

    Timeline: I don’t like to make detailed predictions with a date, because they are nearly always wrong. Also, from a cosmic perspective there is very little difference between a few decades and a few centuries. The only real difference is that (assuming no radical advances), in a few decades we might be still alive, while in a few centuries we are certainly dead, but that’s geography, not cosmology.

    My personal gut feeling about the likely timeline for supertech like strong AI and mind uploading is something like the end of this century, halfway between a few decades and a few centuries.

  • Nupur Munshi

    Thanks for your explanation Sir!

  • Mael

    hi Giulio,

    It would be nice to have some kind of Cosmist catechism for children …

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Mael – yes, a Cosmist book for children would be a great project, very cool and useful. Better not call it “catechism” though, I never liked the word and some people would be very upset ;-)

    We must give some serious thought to the idea! A good example of transhumanist book for children (actually the only example that I know of) is
    Death Is Wrong

  • Once again I am trying to leave a comment. I have tried several times already. I keep getting an error message “please leave a correct CAPTCHA value.” I try to copy what I see. So this is one more test.

  • mitch

    At point, some bright minds, usually with masters or doctoral degrees in the hard sciences, needs to put forth practical, but currently, impossible to achieve methods of achieving resurrection. Right now, even some incomplete conjectures, I believe, based on the hard sciences, on recovering the lost data of peoples lives, could be of some benefit to Transhumanists, especially.

    One, perhaps flawed concept, might be to identify data streams compacted in Planck Cells. It sounds unattainable right now, and may be entirely, impossible, but its an area of possibility. Another, very far, off, notion is that entirety of our lives gets stored in black holes of the distant future, via the Holographic Principle. There must be lots of concepts out there, to be proposed by scientific minds. My option would be to promote so many that at least one would emerge as plausible, even if far fetched.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Hi Mike, yes, I know, captchas are a pain in the neck, but you wouldn’t believe how many spam comments per day without captchas. Thousands.

  • Benjamin Goertzel

    Hmmm… maybe a really compelling scientific argument for the future availability of techno-resurrection (or simply a practical demonstration of reanimating some Alcor patients, or even some frozen goats) would calm down folks who are questing near-term AGI out of a desire for personal immortality .. but I’m not sure a new Cosmist religion based on the idea of this **possibility** has sooo much potential in this regard…

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Ben. Yes, I would like to find, or hear, a really compelling argument for the future availability of techno-resurrection.

      How about something like this:

      seems sort of plausible that the universe should be optimally
      energy-efficient. So it should be a reversible computer (ref. Landauer
      principle). But apparently the universe is not a reversible computer
      because information is irreversibly erased in the collapse of the
      wavefunction. But if the information is just stored away instead of
      destroyed, the universe can still be a reversible computer. Assuming the
      MWI interpretation, the lost information is, indeed, still available.
      So the MWI should follow from Landauer principle with some plausible
      assumptions. If the apparently discarded information is stored away in
      some kind of “Akashic records,” perhaps it might be retrieved from the hidden
      registers of space-time.
      (Half-baked idea that needs more development).

      the potential of a new Cosmist religion based on the idea of
      resurrection, note that we already have several, very successful,
      religions essentially based on the idea of resurrection: Christianity,
      Islam, Hinduism, and many others. As we have discussed a few times, the
      obstacle (I think) is that we haven’t yet found ways to make Cosmism
      emotionally compelling.

      • Benjamin Goertzel

        About Cosmism and emotional compulsion. I think that transhumanism, Cosmism, Singularitarianism, etc. have a lot of emotional-compulsion value. As tech advances further, more and more people will adopt these views, I’m quite sure…

        However, all the world’s popular religions are based on some sort of **absolute faith** …. (Yes, you can point to Zen and Sufism and various obscure Indian traditions etc. as contradicting this, but they are ultimately fairly miniscule percentage-wise…)…. It seems that the feeling of taking something absolutely on faith does something special for people’s minds and hearts…

        Cosmism seems not to offer that, in its current forms…. It is founded heavily on science, and in science everything is always up for revision based on further experience. We even have the idea that, after the Singularity, ALL our current ideas and beliefs may seem ultra-silly and infantile. (Compare that to the notion that after Judgment Day, religious people will see all their dearly-held beliefs VINDICATED fully … not proved ultra-silly and obsolete…)

        In short, traditional religions are supplying a sense of inner surety and security via faith that Cosmism intrinsically seems incapable to supply.

        Cosmism can supply a deep sense of surety and security — but only if one is willing to go beyond individual ego-attachment and be comfortable with surety/security regarding very broad cosmic growth and development processes….

        On the other hand, the successful traditional religions, while *theoretically* asking participants to go beyond individual ego-attachment, in practice pander very concretely to individual ego-attachment (e.g. via offering personal immortality, supposed answers to everyday-life prayers, etc.)…

        The religions that in practice ask members to transcend ego-attachment, are ascetic/mystical ones with fairly few adherents…

        So I would say the choices for Cosmism are

        1) Accept that Cosmism is not going to have the same emotionally compelling impact as traditional religions, until our cultural psychology evolves to the point that ego-attachment is vastly minimized relative to the current situation

        2) Develop “dumbed down” versions that stand to Cosmism as mainstream Buddhism stands to Zen, or mainstream Islam stands to or hardcore Sufi philosophy… . These dumbed-down versions of Cosmism would provide people with the feeling of absolute faith and confidence, and promises of individual ego-gratification…

        I don’t have much interest in developing dumbed-down, psychologically-manipulative versions of Cosmism. I guess you don’t either. But maybe someone else will come along who does.

        One might argue that a simplistic interpretation of Kurzweil almost fits the bill. Ray, on a simplistic reading, offers an absolute certainty in the inevitability of the Singularity, and an absolute confidence that it will be Good for us All and offer us a Utopia. Of course on reading him more carefully one sees more nuance.

        Francis Heylighen has also offered a similar quasi-utopic interpretation of the Global Brain….

        So the ideas of Ray or Francis could potentially be twisted by someone into a popular traditional-religion-style “dumbed down” version of Cosmism, perhaps…

        As for me I’m Ok with Cosmism not pandering to ego-based goals, and thus not feeling as emotionally compelling to ordinary modern people….

        As brain-computer interfacing, mind uploading and other tech help us dissolve the bounds of our egos in various ways, obstacles to fully emotionally embracing Cosmism will gradually melt away…

        • Giulio Prisco

          Re “Develop “dumbed down” versions that stand to Cosmism as mainstream Buddhism stands to Zen, or mainstream Islam stands to or hardcore Sufi philosophy… I don’t have much interest in developing dumbed-down, psychologically manipulative versions of Cosmism. I guess you don’t either.”

          I don’t have the inclination, and I don’t have the skill. But I do have interest, and sometimes I think that’s what should be done.

          Often a “dumbed down” version of something is just a preliminary version intended for a simple first approach, understandable by everyone without spending too much time, without thinking too much, and without having to go through a PhD-level course first.

          Most people must work all the time for a living and prefer to drink, screw and have fun in the little free time they have. Philosophy in pills is all they have time for.

          Those with the time and the required background can then explore the ethereal intellectual heights of Zen or Sufi, and the others can find some happiness in mainstream Buddhism and Islam. Is that such a bad thing?