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AI, Cyborgs, Robots and Religion: what role do various religions play in informing the latest innovations?

This is a summary of the two panels organised by AI and Faith fellow expert Wes E. King (University of Washington) at the 4S/ESociete Conference “Reunion, recuperation, reconfiguration” in Cholula, Mexico, taking place between the 7th to 10th of December 2022.


What is the influence of religious paradigms in the design of intelligent technologies? To answer that question, Wes E. King gathered a diverse panel of presenters to explore new and ancient concepts that counter the dominant narrative and theories around current Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning systems. Current theories are mainly rooted in Eurocentric frameworks, with these norms and assumptions presented as “universal.” Indeed, little work has examined what role various religions play in informing the latest innovations and whether or not they promote human flourishing … until now.


The first panel included three presentations: “Ram-Rajya At The Time of AI: The Statistical Turn In Technoscience” by Ravi Shukla (Jawaharlal Nehru University), “The Stars in our Algorithms: Speculation and Divination from Astrology to Artificial Intelligence” by Leona Nikolić (Concordia University, Montreal) and “The Allahgorithm: When ‘Suggested Content’ Becomes Deified Colonial Whiteness: Perceptions Amongst Young Professional British Muslims” by William Barylo (University of Warwick, UK) and was discussed by Damien Patrick Williams (University of North Carolina at Charlotte).


Shukla’s paper explored through the resurgence of the right wing in India and the growing popularity of the utopian idea of Ram-Rajya (rule of God-King Ram, the icon of Hindu masculinity) and social media. It also discussed how the probabilistic models of AI/ML and its applications are replacing the traditional Aristotelian causal, linear, understanding of the world.


Since AI is all about statistics, Leona Nikolić took the audience in a journey between stars and data, magic and machines. She questioned how astrology (with its earliest forms of celestial pattern recognition) became a precursor of current computational divination as means to control and manipulate the environment – especially when it comes to algorithmic media adopting divinatory practices.


Finally, drawing from ethnographic qualitative studies data, William Barylo’s paper focused on the consequences of current machine learning algorithms on marginalised populations, ranging from policing of difference to the policing of dissent. Among these populations, an environment of deprivation from financial stability, media visibility and political representation lead many to deify social media algorithms as ways of surviving despite the toll on their mental health, morals, ethics and identity. Effectively, many from these groups end up worshipping machines in place of Allah/God – as per artist Abbas Zahedi’s concept of Allahgorithm.


The second panel, featuring Tristan Gohring (Indiana University Bloomington), showcased the paper “The Religion of Technology at the Grassroots” by Jacob Boss. While technology magnates see a future involving the inevitable destruction of the Earth and the exile of humanity to other worlds, Jacob Boss invited the audience to meet the “grinder” biohacking punk culture (a nod to Warren Ellis’s Doktor Sleepless). In a very Cyberpunkian opposition to the all-powerful tech corporations, these grassroots groups seek liberation through DIY cybernetics while believing in the preservation of the Earth and community, and taking inspiration in the wisdom of world’s oldest religious traditions.


Finally, Damien Patrick Williams (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) discussed his paper “Mechanisms of Becoming: A Discussion of the MagicoReligious Valences of Machine Intelligence and Technology”. This paper considers how biohacking (human augmentation) as a model aiming at human “perfection” resonates with other orders of spirits such as golems, angels, djinni, demons and of course gods (with deities like Odin or Hephaistos both associated with crafts, technology and knowledge). Further, the paper argued for more interrelations between accepted religiosities, various “nonwestern, indigenous, disabled, female-coded, or African diasporic practices” and human augmentation, exploring other mythologies and narratives for possibly imagining different models of AI, and its relationship to humans.


Amongst many others, the Q&A with the room raised the question of uncertainty as a gap between the natural and the supernatural that societies might want to bridge with technological attempts. It highlighted some biohacking initiatives in Brazil (with “bio” here referring to the realm of plants), but also questioned the very use of the terms ‘Artificial’ and ‘Intelligence’ put together – interrogating the place and role of technology vis-à-vis of their creators.

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