Professor Robert Geraci Discusses Epic and Alternative Life in AI

Dr. Robert M Geraci is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College and author of Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Robotics (Oxford University Press, 2010), Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life (Oxford University Press, 2014), Temples of Modernity: Nationalism, Hinduism, and Transhumanism in South Indian Science (Lexington 2018), and Futures of Artificial Intelligence: Perspectives from India and the United States (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2021). His work has been funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the National Research Foundation of Korea, the American Academy of Religion, and twice by Fulbright-Nehru Professional Excellence (Research) Awards.  His research and writing flows out of his interest in how we use technology to enchant and give meaning to the world. To study this, he uses ethnographic fieldwork, methods from science & technology studies, literature (science fiction) studies, and what he calls “the hodgepodge of methods that all of us in ‘religion and science studies’ put to use.” He is a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion.

 

Q:  Professor Geraci, thanks for connecting with us! This issue of our Newsletter is about how AI-powered technologies enable new ways of telling epic stories and engaging the big questions of mankind.   One of your key research and writing themes over the past decade and a half is “Apocalyptic AI”.  Indeed, that is the title of your 2010 book, subtitled “Visions of Heaven, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality.”  That certainly sounds epic!  What do you mean by “Apocalyptic AI” and what draws you to that theme?

A:  Broadly speaking, my engagement with such ideas probably traces to my ongoing love of fantasy and science fiction (SF) gaming. From a young age, I have been a fan of games like Dungeons & Dragons and, more directly relevant, the post-apocalyptic game Shadowrun, which merges magic and modern tech. Along with playing games like that, I read vociferously in fantasy and SF, and I have always enjoyed rigorous, creative worldbuilding. The apocalyptic predictions about our technological future certainly fit into that mental landscape.

Although I’ve been an SF reader since childhood, my interest in the apocalyptic perspectives on technology  began when I took up reading pop science books in robotics and AI in graduate school. I first read Hans Moravec, later complementing that with a host of subsequent authors (and now Ray Kurzweil is most famous for these kinds of things), and was astounded by the kinds of religious promises being made by scientists. Going back to the late 1970s, Moravec argued for the scientific coherence of things like uploaded minds, simulated universes, and universal computation. Regardless of the actual likelihood of such promises, when you look at them from the lens of immortality, transcendence, cosmogony, and cosmic purpose the religious side leaps right out at you! As I continued thinking about those things, I started seeing the structural parallels between those ideas about technology and ancient apocalyptic theologies. In its simplest description, both perspectives put their faith in an imminent transition to a glorious and perfect new world that resolves the problems of the present world and of human life.

The search for transcendence and cosmic purpose in Apocalyptic AI is one of those beautiful illustrations of what I call cultural hydras, many headed monsters of religion, science, and technology. Those goals–established and defended by scientists and engineers–show a powerful integration of human interests in religion, science, and technology and indeed epic in their sweep! They attempt to answer the grand questions of life, from its origins to its ultimate fulfillment. I expect that the capacity of Apocalyptic AI to provide a worldview is what makes it such an important part of contemporary life. When Moravec was first composing his ideas, the audience for them was limited to SF fans and a few tech aficionados but “serious” roboticists largely ignored them. But with a few decades of mulling it over, the universal deployment of the Internet and mobile phones, and the cultural triumph of SF and fantasy in our pop culture landscape, suddenly the Apocalyptic AI is everywhere you look.

 

Q:  Many readers like to get lost in a story.  That seems to be the attraction of fantasy literature and its visual equivalents, whether a screen epic like Game of Thrones or a massively played game like World of Warcraft.  You have written a lot about the avatar-based game Second Life.  How have you explored the Second Life world and what do you see as the appeal to people who “live”  in it?

I joined Second Life (SL) in 2007 along with the rest of the hype wave after free accounts were enabled and I spent several years there, even making friends who carried over into conventional life, though I haven’t been back in a while. Initially, I told my wife about a news article I was reading and she joined first. She’s also a scholar of religion so she immediately went looking to see if people were building churches and that kind of thing, which they were. So we started exploring and it became a key location of my ethnographic research for both my first book on Apocalyptic AI and my second book on videogames, which engaged SL and World of Warcraft (WoW). What I found back then was that a tremendous number of people see SL as an opportunity to rebuild the world in a better image–or in better images, since what Christians intend when they build churches or Narnian landscapes is not the same as what transhumanists intend when they build cyberpunk utopias.

But quite powerfully, an environment like SL leans on people, helping them see the potential for digital transcendence. To a considerable extent, the same is true of a game like WoW, in which players have the opportunity to become the most magical and heroic versions of themselves in a world of enchantment and meaning. Second Life, however, has no predetermined purpose so inhabitants have to create that themselves. For a lot of newcomers to SL the question of “what am I supposed to do here?” and, in particular, their inability to come up with an answer to that question prohibited them from really enjoying the digital world. The folks who took up SL and really inhabit it are people who see an opportunity to develop connections with other people and create new opportunities in their own lives. I think that people are all deeply committed to the search for meaning and transcendence, though that search takes many forms, and SL provides creative users with the potential to realize that search.

 

Q:  Alternate Reality – blessing or curse for the life of the mind?  Is this a new path to creative engagement with the world or a new form of  “opiate of the people”?

A:  Let’s go with both/and. 🙂  Virtual realities can provide opportunities for creative expression but they can also permit unproductive escapism. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that when Marx labeled religion the opiate of the people he did not mean that as just a criticism of it. He genuinely thought that religion was a form of resistance, an attack on the purposelessness of life that was inflicted by unjust social and material structures. But of course he thought there were more productive modes of resistance. He argues that the sigh of despair that led one to religion would be better resolved by his economic utopia. Similarly the joy and even transcendent experiences of virtual worlds are an indictment of the everyday banality of life, and they give people powerful experiences and allow them to build wonderful communities. But when we fall into the trap of seeing enchantment solely in virtual worlds, we miss out on so much in life.

As an avid hiker, I experience beauty and wonder while in the wilderness. But there are many, many ways of getting those experiences in daily life–from handcrafts to architecture. We don’t have to be trapped into dull routines of wake up — go to work — get stuck in traffic — go to sleep. We can learn to witness the enchantment of the world sneaking through the cracks of all that! And for many people virtual worlds are an opportunity to do so. That’s a great thing as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of other forms of relationship building and social participation.

 

Q:  In the last half dozen years, you have written extensively about engagement with AI technologies from the perspective of the Hindu faith and your book forthcoming this fall/winter compares AI narratives in the US and India.  How did your research and writing take this turn and why do you find this interesting and important?

A:  Most of the research on religion and science has been centered around Europe and the United States. I thought there was room for more careful engagement with other cultures but I didn’t have grad students I could ship out to the far corners of the world! So, I applied for a Fulbright-Nehru research grant to study the intersections of religion, science, and technology in India. I was fortunate to receive that first one (I’ve had another more recently) and was able to join the Indian Institute of Science where I could observe, interview, and ultimately become friends with scientists and engineers in India. I didn’t have any particular axe to grind upon arrival; I just wanted to see what people did.

My initial interviews with scientists and engineers generally began with something like “well, religion and science don’t have much to do with one another here in India but sure I’m happy to talk with you” and then quickly became fascinating conversations about the social role of science, the participation of religious rituals in laboratories, and more. Just as I’d found that in American approaches to robotics there were all kinds of religious things happening, I found that the “siloes” of religion and science in India were really a matter of discourse rather than actual practice. Of course, as a scholar of religion perhaps I’m inclined to see it wherever I go, just as the proverbial worker with a hammer for whom everything looks like a nail. But I don’t think I’m too far off the mark in seeing something religious about Apocalyptic AI or in the practice of Ayudha Puja in laboratories.

To me, these intersections of religion, science, and technology are part of the human effort to experience enchantment in the world. We vigorously resist the idea that the world is without meaning or purpose, and one outcome of that is to fuse things like religion and technology. That’s a perfectly okay response to the world. Sometimes, those combinations can in fact be pernicious so it’s worthwhile to explore them and encourage our collective efforts in positive directions. But it’s also just fun to see what directions human creativity can take!

Ultimately, however, learning to live in another culture and gain a small inkling as to how other people see the world changed the way I was conducting my research. I’m far more interested now in how we build collective solutions to global problems than I was previously. I have been an ardent environmentalist since I was a child; but my approach to religion and technology changed when I started learning from people in India. I realized that we needed more global solutions to political and social problems. So my new book ends with an exploration into how we can start that process in the design of artificial intelligence. I don’t want to dispute that there might be some social good in promises of cosmic transformation (not least because we really need solutions to our self-inflicted environmental woes!), but Silicon Valley shouldn’t be the hegemonic source for all the values that undergird our approach to AI. We very much need to think about what cultural resources are available in the world and deploy them as necessary in our design of technologies and government policies.

 

Q:  I understand your own faith tradition is Judaism.  Manhattan College in the Bronx where you teach in the Religious Studies Department, is part of the Lasallian Order of Brothers of the Christian Schools.  It requires every student to take three religious studies courses, including a course on Catholicism and a course that focuses on global studies or contemporary issues.  And here you are writing about crossover perspectives between the Abrahamic and Eastern religions.  Does drawing on such diverse traditions influence your understanding of how faith adherents can encourage beneficial AI and avoid its destructive effects?

A:  I’m very proud that in our world we at Manhattan College stand behind the importance of understanding religious life and practice. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was right on in stating that the global connections of contemporary life mean that to do politics, business, or almost anything else well requires that we understand religion. Maybe it’s just self-interest, but I think it’s a wonderful thing that our students all get exposed to a wide variety of themes in human religion. The world’s religious traditions are far from perfect and none of them has exclusive access to truth. But when you consider the scope and depth of human religious work, you can’t discount the many ways that people have tried to understand ourselves and the world. In that process, many people have developed valuable insights about what the world could be, even if we aren’t particularly good at bringing that about. When we approach our religious practices and traditions humbly, recognizing that they are just part of the larger human effort to understand the world, we have an opportunity to draw from them and from others’ traditions to develop a better approach to AI. We really do need to design and deploy AI toward a better world. We cannot let the political or economic will to power be the guiding principle of our technologies, and I think a careful and open approach to the study of religion–both as insiders to a tradition and as outsiders–can help us do that.

 

Thank you, Professor Geraci!

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