ShelfLife asked Robert Geraci, author of “Apocalyptic AI,” (Oxford University Press, Feb. 2010), to shed light into the world of artificial intelligence and the making of his new book. Geraci, an alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin (Plan II ’99) says the interdisciplinary approach that characterized his time at UT is apparent in his research now, where religious studies meets anthropology and science.
As an author, how do you feel your Plan II education factored in during this experience?
Along with all of the many lessons in culture, politics, science, and practical skills like critical reading & writing, my professors in Plan II encouraged me to study with passion. I would name Betty Sue Flowers (English), Bob King (linguistics), and TK Seung (philosophy) as the most influential upon me–all were brilliant and encouraged brilliance in all of their students, helping us develop our critical thinking skills and our ability to express what we thought. I firmly believe that Plan II offers the best undergraduate education in the country and think it founds much of what I do today. The intellectual excitement of my faculty and classmates at UT made learning a joy and continues to bolster my attitude toward learning, teaching, and research.
What sparked the idea to write “Apocalyptic AI?”
The book flowed out of my desire to think about how religion and science interact in contemporary culture. As a grad student, I read and commented on pop science books in robotics and AI that promised we would become immortal by uploading our minds into robots and/or virtual reality in the future. As I started teaching at Manhattan College, it seemed to me there was a connection between that idea and apocalyptic traditions in Judaism and Christianity. After I wrote an essay on this (published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in 2008), I wanted to do a full book treatment that would consider whether those apocalyptic ideas actually mattered in public life. I find that the most interesting questions in religious studies end up being about real people doing real things, so I set about trying to find out if the ideas of pop science authors like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil actually matter to anyone.
How did you prepare and conduct research for the book?
The book involves three basic areas where I wanted to think through the consequences of Apocalyptic AI ideology: robotics research, virtual world residency, and public policy discourse. For the first, I went to Carnegie Mellon University’s famed Robotics Institute as a visiting researcher during the summer of 2007 and interviewed folks there about immortality, mind uploading, the future of intelligent machines, etc. It was a fun and fascinating time…I wish it could have lasted longer! For the second area, I conducted conversations and did interviews in the virtual world of Second Life. I met a wide variety of people and found that many feel a sense of transcendence in their activities in SL and there is a transhumanist community there which actively looks forward to mind uploading into SL or similar environments. I construed public policy discourse very broadly to include philosophical, theological, legal, and governmental discussions about machines and machine intelligence. In all of these areas, the Apocalyptic AI authors are of considerable influence. All told, my research was anthropological and sociological, seeking to evaluate the nature and significance of certain ideas, but not their moral worth.
What exactly is “cyber-theology?”
That would be any theology that is grounded in digital technologies. In my own work, the term refers to the ways in which some people hope to address traditional religious claims through advances in computer science. For example, the Apocalyptic AI authors advocate that we will create a transcendent new (digital) world, upload our minds into that world (providing immortality and rejecting the limitations of the earthly body), and even resurrect the dead through high fidelity computer simulation. Those are three things that, for example, Christian theology has promised for two thousand years but that people now hope to receive from technological progress.
What were you most surprised to learn during your research for the book?
One thing that really surprised me is that there are people in Second Life who think of their personalities in that world as distinct from and potentially severable from their personalities in conventional reality. Some of the folks whom I interviewed think (or at least talk) in terms of identities that are separate from their “primary” or “other personality.” It is a fairly unique form of self-consciousness and I enjoyed learning from the people willing to share with me.
Any misconceptions about AI you’d like to clear up?
Well, I’m pretty skeptical about terminator scenarios where the robots all wake up and take over the world. More importantly, however, I think we should steer away from the idea that technologies develop according to their own logic without concern for the choices of real people. Such technological determinism disregards the contingency of life and the moral and practical agency of humanity. We can make choices about what kinds of technology (including AI technology) we’d like to develop.