A few weeks ago, the German AI pioneer Jürgen Schmidhuber (formerly of the Technical University of Munich, currently working at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia) gave an interview to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.1Cf. Schmidhuber, Jürgen, Interview v. 5/6 August 2023, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 79 (2023) No. 179, 17. Like many protagonists of the AI scene before him, in the course of the interview he indulges – under the cover of serious AI research and scientificity – in visions that must be described as science fiction at best, and as pseudo-religious given his misleading reference to the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Schmidhuber’s ideas are not new: they can be found almost verbatim in 1999 and 2005 in the work of the self-proclaimed futurists Hans Moravec2Cf. Moravec, Hans, Robot. Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, New York 1999. and Ray Kurzweil.3Cf. Kurzweil, Ray, The Singularity Is Near. When Humans Transcend Biology, New York 2005. In the following I would like to explain why they are not so much serious science as a substitute religion for a so-called post-religious age. It is interesting to note that Kurzweil, Moravec and Schmidhuber are critical and even opposed to classical forms of religiosity4Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 1: “We would spend six months studying one religion – going to its services, reading its books, having dialogues with its leaders – and then move on to the next. The theme was ‘many paths to the truth’” and Moravec, Robot, 191: “Other belief systems may have social utility for the groups that practice them, but ultimately they are just made-up stories. I myself am partial to such ‘physical fundamentalism.’” and Schmidhuber, In the beginning was code, presentation from 10 November 2012, available at: https://www.thekurzweillibrary.com/in-the-beginning-was-the-code, accessed on 26 August 2023. but nevertheless employ – possibly unconsciously – highly religious topoi.
God, Singularity and the Omega Point
Schmidhuber believes that machines will be able to learn and develop themselves, uncontrolled by humans. While Kurzweil refers to this point as the singularity,5Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 22f. Schmidhuber, referring to Teilhard de Chardin, calls it the omega point.6Cf. Schmidhuber, Interview. Moravec, in reference to Teilhard de Chardin, also speaks of the omega point, but understands it as the point in time when the self-propagating artificial intelligence has populated the entire universe and thus becomes an all-encompassing “cosmic mind”.7Cf. Moravec, Robot, 202.
Like Kurzweil and Moravec, Schmidhuber sees technological progress as part of a comprehensive exponential development since the beginning of the universe. However, as with Kurzweil, the events he cites as evidence for this seem highly eclectic and arbitrary.8Cf. Schmidhuber, Interview and Kurzweil, Singularity, 17. Like Kurzweil and Moravec, Schmidhuber prophesises an AI spreading independently throughout the universe:
“It gets interesting once they can physically replicate themselves. For example, if on Mercury a solar-powered 3-D printer joins with others and they can print all the parts that make them up, and also the parts that make up the robots that collect the appropriate raw materials and assemble the printed parts, so that the whole machine society can copy itself. Then, for the first time, you have a new kind of life that has nothing to do with biology and yet can multiply. And can rapidly improve in ways that traditional life cannot. That will happen, and the great thing about it is that the gigantic space of the world offers such systems a previously untapped habitat that is immeasurably large compared to the tiny biosphere.”9Schmidhuber, Interview (translation: MW).
Kurzweil also supports this idea: “Ultimately, the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe.”10Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 29. He even goes so far as to identify the universe with God: As soon as it is saturated with artificial intelligence, it will “awaken” – according to him, it is we ourselves who are creating God.11Cf. ibid., 390: “We can consider God to be the universe. […] The universe is not conscious – yet. But it will be”.
Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point
If one consults Teilhard de Chardin, it becomes clear that Schmidhuber’s and Moravec’s use of the term omegapoint, which Teilhard coined, is an absurd distortion of his original idea. In his work The Phenomenon of Man, he attempts to reconcile natural science and Christian theology by describing cosmogenesis and evolution as part of divine creation. He describes the Point Omega as the goal of creation towards which everything is directed. He identifies this point with Jesus Christ, whose love leads the cosmos to its goal in freedom, a maximum of complexity and consciousness.12Cf. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, Der Mensch im Kosmos, München 71964, 250-267.
In contrast to Moravec and Schmidhuber, Teilhard de Chardin sees the omega point as transcendent and personal – since the universe is evolving towards this point, it must already exist before the universe. He explicitly deplores modern man’s desire to “depersonalise that which he admires most”. He sees this desire as rooted in the instrument of analysis applied by scientific research, which breaks reality down into smaller and smaller parts. “A single reality seems to remain […]: the energy – the new spirit. The energy – the new God. The impersonal for the omega of the world as for its alpha.”13Cf. ibid., 251. He thus opposes precisely the reductionism that Moravec and Schmidhuber practised in his name decades later.
Surrogate Religion Singularity
If one considers man as homo religiosus and assumes the existence of religion in all peoples of all times,14Cf. Feil, Ernst, Religion I, in: Betz, Hans Dieter et al. (eds.), Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart4. Bd. 7 R-S, Tübingen 2004, 263-267, 264.it is not surprising that, to the same extent that traditional religions are losing significance, substitute religions are emerging. Although the attempt to clearly define a generally accepted concept of “religion” is difficult to impossible in view of the plurality of religious views,15Cf. ibid., 265. there are nevertheless elements that apply to religion and religiosity in general and which can also be found in Schmidhuber, Kurzweil and Moravec. Religion conveys a sense of the infinite, of transcendence, in the broadest sense of God. It provides orientation in the world of life by offering explanatory models for the interrelationships of the world of life and is able to give people a function in this world.16Cf. ibid., 264. Another aspect of religion is that of the distinction of the sacred from the profane17Cf. Bürkle, Horst, Religion. III. Religionswissenschaftlich, in: Kasper, Walter et al. (eds.), Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche3, Vol. 8 Pearson-Samuel, Freiburg i. Br. 1999, 1039-1041, 1040. or a concept of redemption from suffering and death.18Cf. Kornwachs, Klaus, Prothese, Diener, Ebenbild. Warum sollen wir denkende Maschinen bauen? In: Herder Korrespondenz 56 (2002) 402-407, 406. Some forms of religion develop a fundamentalist character – and fundamentalist elements can also be traced in Kurzweil and Moravec.
Taken by themselves, all these elements do not yet form a religion – for that, they would have to grow together into a conceptually and philosophically more cohesive unit. But as the cultural scientist Hartmut Böhme notes, it is a characteristic of the post-Enlightenment to break individual religious motifs out of their theological and institutional bond: “Such motifs do not form discourses, but the shaking base of seemingly religion-free techniques. This is the form of religion after the death of God.”19Böhme, Hartmut, Die technische Form Gottes. Über die theologischen Implikationen von Cyberspace, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung 217 (1996) No. 86, 13/14 April 1996, 53. In this context, to speak of ideas such as singularity and strong AI20“Strong AI” denotes – in contrast to “weak AI” – the idea that AI not only simulates consciousness, but also produces consciousness itself. as a substitute religion thus seems entirely appropriate.
Technical credulity as a sacred element
Kurzweil’s and Moravec’s belief in progress and technology does indeed have a sacred character. Kurzweil’s belief in exponential progress, which he calls the Law of accelerating returns,21Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 7f. can be seen as the fundamental dogma of a religion that has made the perpetual, exponential increase in performance its basis. Kurzweil and Moravec pay reverence to this exponential acceleration because it is supposedly capable of solving all of humanity’s problems – and far more quickly than the profane minds that persist in their worldview of only linear performance growth imagine.
This belief in progress sometimes takes on radical features, for example, when there is talk of overcoming currently existing physical limits and of accelerating (!) the speed of light.22Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 139f. or when the concept of time machines is used to further accelerate technical processes.23Cf. ibid.
God, transcendence and eternal life
The declared vision of Schmidhuber, Kurzweil and Moravec is the transcendence of human biology through technology. This transcendence is achieved solely through humans and their technological efforts and does not require God – humans thus substitute themselves for God through their self-transcendence and transcendence takes place within the boundaries of our universe. According to Kurzweil and Moravec, technology will lead to a detailed understanding of the brain and thus of our mind, which we can reprogram with the help of software. Scanning and backing up our own nervous systems will transcend death – as disembodied spirits on machines we could, according to them, effectively live on indefinitely.24 Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 323.
According to Kurzweil, we ourselves will create God with the help of technological progress, namely when intelligent technology has spread throughout the universe and the whole cosmos has merged into one giant artificial brain. Because Kurzweil identifies the universe with God, God becomes conscious to the extent that the universe is filled with consciousness.25Cf. ibid., 29. To a certain extent, this represents a reversal of the traditional idea of creation.
Moravec performs a similar reversal when he explicitly refers to Teilhard de Chardin and calls the status of an artificial intelligence encompassing the entire universe point omega, but reverses its original meaning into the opposite.26Cf. Moravec, Robot, 202. While Teilhard de Chardin identifies the point omega with Christ and thus thinks of it as explicitly personal, Moravec takes an apersonal view because, as a “physical fundamentalist”, he does not believe in any personal primordial principle.27Cf. ibid, 191 Moravec lacks a transcendence like that of Teilhard de Chardin, for whom the omega point lies before creation as a primordial principle towards which creation is oriented: his “transcendence”, as with Kurzweil, remains limited to the boundaries of the universe.
Because Kurzweil believes that technological progress is capable of solving all human problems, he sees even small delays in technological development as a great danger that could condemn millions of people to further suffering or even death. He thus gives a fundamental rejection to cultural and ethical concerns about technological progress:
„[T]he reflexive, thoughtless antitechnology sentiments increasingly being voiced in the world today do have the potential to exacerbate a lot of suffering.“28Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 373f.
The promises of the singularity must therefore be fulfilled as soon as possible, technological progress must be achieved as quickly as possible – criticism of this is inadmissible for Kurzweil because it ultimately leads to human suffering.
Moravec describes himself as a fundamentalist, or more precisely, as a “physical fundamentalist”.29Cf. Moravec, Robot, 191. He sees physics as the “only legitimate claimant to the title of true knowledge” and denies all other belief systems their claim to truth. These are merely “made-up stories” that may still have a social benefit for their respective adherents.30Cf. ibid. According to Moravec, anyone who is rational relies on natural science, and only on it. However, Moravec does not give his readers a reason why this obvious physical fundamentalism should be more rational than belief in a religion.31Cf. also Böhme, Die technische Form Gottes: “They [cyberprophets like Moravec] are religious fundamentalists who long to dissolve the interconnectedness of human history and biological-evolutionary conditions. They are wild transcendental yearnings. The scrap pile of earth and the maggot bag of the human body are the sacrifice that can be made to the exit from bio-evolution all the more easily because earth and body have the stigma of sanctity attached to them.”
An example of the effects of this technical fundamentalism is given by the Protestant theologian and computer scientist Anne Foerst. She describes the reactions of some renowned AI scientists to her proposal in 1996 to offer a seminar on “God and Computers” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Marvin Minsky, for example, was strongly opposed to this seminar, which he described as an “evangelical enterprise”. One student understood the class as “indoctrination”, a PhD student accused it of “suffering from the set of collective pathologies known as religious faith”.32Cf. Foerst, Anne, Von Robotern, Mensch und Gott, Künstliche Intelligenz und die exististenzielle Dimension des Lebens, Göttingen 2008, 54-56, translation: MW. At MIT, the bastion of objectivity and rationality, “psychologically so misguided” people like theologians should not be holding seminars. Foerst calls it ironic that “so many highly intelligent people can be so religious in their rejection of religiosity.”33Ibid., translation: MW.
Science Transcending Religion?
In analogy to the attempt to overcome the limitations of the human body with the help of technological developments and thus to “transcend” human biology, science-believing researchers such as Schmidhuber, Kurzweil and Moravec are engaged in replacing religious beliefs with supposedly scientific ones – presumably without knowing the extent to which they themselves are practising religion. The physicist and philosopher Klaus Kornwachs accuses these AI researchers of a metaphysical deficit when they see a redemption of the human race in their optimisation thinking. “They play with a surrogate of salvation history, usually without even knowing the theological background.”34Kornwachs, Prothese, Diener, Ebenbild, 406, translation: MW.
Joseph Weizenbaum describes the substitute religion of natural science very vividly:
“I really believe that natural science […] today has all the characteristics of an organised religion. There are novices, these are the students at the universities. There are priests, which are the young professors, then there are the monsignori, which are the older ones. There are bishops and cardinals. There are churches and there are cathedrals. My own university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a cathedral within science. There are even popes and – and this is very important – there are heretics! The heretics of natural science are punished just like the heretics of an old religion: they are expelled.”35Weizenbaum, Joseph, Wo sind sie, die Inseln der Vernunft im Cyberstrom? Auswege aus der programmierten Gesellschaft (mit Gunna Wendt), Freiburg i. Br. 2006, 166f, translation: MW.
The God Machine
The Catholic theologian and philosopher Hans-Dieter Mutschler sees a fundamental change in the understanding of technology since the Industrial Revolution. While technology before the industrial revolution was always handicraft technology and thus comparatively inefficient and prone to failure, modern, highly efficient technology is pushing the boundaries of nature further and further.36Cf. Mutschler, Hans-Dieter, Die Gottmaschine, Das Schicksal Gottes im Zeitalter der Technik, Augsburg 1998, 109-116.
Mutschler sees this as the reason for the contrast between technology and religion that is often perceived today.37Cf. ibid., 36f. Pre-industrial technology was strongly dependent on nature for its functionality and thus corresponded to the religious mode of receiving. Modern technology, on the other hand, emancipates itself from nature; a basic religious act is no longer necessary here. Therefore, modern natural science became more and more an appeal instance of atheism.38Cf. ibid., 222f.
However, to the same extent that technology and natural science displaced religion, they themselves became a substitute religion: in the 19th century, railway stations were built in the image of ancient temples or churches.39Cf. ibid., 38. At the same time, electricity companies advertised the new form of energy with posters depicting the god Helios enthroned on a generator.40Cf. ibid., Carl Benz’s motivation for inventing the automobile was the “liberation of man” – an almost religious motif.41Cf. ibid., 23. The inventor of rocket technology, Hermann von Oberth, wrote fantastic literature part time, in which he portrayed himself as a founder of religion.42Cf. ibid., 40.
According to Mutschler, a very similar divinisation of technology is taking place today in the field of computer technology. He draws a direct comparison between the deification of steam and electricity, which seems bizarre to us today, and the theses of AI researchers like Minsky and Moravec. Although there is now thorough scientific and philosophical literature that doubts that computers will ever be able to simulate all human performance, reductionists like Minsky and Moravec stick to their theses quasi-religiously and usually keep to themselves at their congresses without seeking dialogue with philosophy. Today, it is cyberspace that evokes religious categories: the creators of artificial worlds put themselves in the place of God and are themselves masters of infinity, being and non-being.43Cf. ibid, 81-103 and 244.
According to Mutschler, the supposed opposition between religion and technology does not exist, because new technologies have been accompanied by a form of crypto-religiousness since the Industrial Revolution. The longing to transcend all boundaries is a human characteristic that, if it is no longer expressed religiously, is expressed in other ways.44Cf. ibid, 244f.
Mutschler predicts that the phase of divinisation of computer technology will also come to an end at some point. He pleads for a new, far more sober attitude to technology, which should be a means to finite purposes and should not convey any religious message.45Cf. ibid., 246f.
This text is not about demonising AI as a technology or fundamentally questioning its usefulness: AI is already shaping our everyday lives and making our lives easier in many ways. At the same time, the current hype about AI is dominated by exaggerated expectations of the technology. As Mutschler explains, this is not a new phenomenon: the most highly developed technologies have been religiously exalted for centuries.
However, in view of the importance of AI for decision-making processes with sometimes fatal consequences for humans and the environment, a critical awareness of the technology and its capabilities, but above all of its limitations, is more necessary than ever. Therefore, it must be clearly stated when people renowned in their field, such as Schmidhuber, Kurzweil or Moravec, pursue science fiction and substitute religion under the disguise of a supposed scientificity. Joseph Weizenbaum warned almost prophetically as early as 1972:
“Most of the damage that the computer could potentially result in depends less on what the computer can or cannot actually do, and more on the characteristics that the public ascribes to the computer. The non-specialist has no choice at all but to attribute to the computer the properties that come to him through the propaganda of the computer community amplified by the press. Therefore, the computer scientist has an enormous responsibility to be modest in his claims.”46Vgl. Weizenbaum, Albtraum Computer, Ist das menschliche Gehirn nur eine Maschine aus Fleisch? In: Die Zeit 27 (1972) No. 3, 21 January 1972, 43.
Note: Parts of this text are based on my master thesis submitted to the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Bonn on 18 June 2014, “Artificial Intelligence as a Challenge for the Future. Theological and Ethical-Moral Reflections.” An English version of the thesis can be downloaded from my website.
- 1Cf. Schmidhuber, Jürgen, Interview v. 5/6 August 2023, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 79 (2023) No. 179, 17.
- 2Cf. Moravec, Hans, Robot. Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, New York 1999.
- 3Cf. Kurzweil, Ray, The Singularity Is Near. When Humans Transcend Biology, New York 2005.
- 4Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 1: “We would spend six months studying one religion – going to its services, reading its books, having dialogues with its leaders – and then move on to the next. The theme was ‘many paths to the truth’” and Moravec, Robot, 191: “Other belief systems may have social utility for the groups that practice them, but ultimately they are just made-up stories. I myself am partial to such ‘physical fundamentalism.’” and Schmidhuber, In the beginning was code, presentation from 10 November 2012, available at: https://www.thekurzweillibrary.com/in-the-beginning-was-the-code, accessed on 26 August 2023.
- 5Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 22f.
- 6Cf. Schmidhuber, Interview.
- 7Cf. Moravec, Robot, 202.
- 8Cf. Schmidhuber, Interview and Kurzweil, Singularity, 17.
- 9Schmidhuber, Interview (translation: MW).
- 10Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 29.
- 11Cf. ibid., 390: “We can consider God to be the universe. […] The universe is not conscious – yet. But it will be”.
- 12Cf. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, Der Mensch im Kosmos, München 71964, 250-267.
- 13Cf. ibid., 251.
- 14Cf. Feil, Ernst, Religion I, in: Betz, Hans Dieter et al. (eds.), Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart4. Bd. 7 R-S, Tübingen 2004, 263-267, 264.
- 15Cf. ibid., 265.
- 16Cf. ibid., 264.
- 17Cf. Bürkle, Horst, Religion. III. Religionswissenschaftlich, in: Kasper, Walter et al. (eds.), Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche3, Vol. 8 Pearson-Samuel, Freiburg i. Br. 1999, 1039-1041, 1040.
- 18Cf. Kornwachs, Klaus, Prothese, Diener, Ebenbild. Warum sollen wir denkende Maschinen bauen? In: Herder Korrespondenz 56 (2002) 402-407, 406.
- 19Böhme, Hartmut, Die technische Form Gottes. Über die theologischen Implikationen von Cyberspace, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung 217 (1996) No. 86, 13/14 April 1996, 53.
- 20“Strong AI” denotes – in contrast to “weak AI” – the idea that AI not only simulates consciousness, but also produces consciousness itself.
- 21Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 7f.
- 22Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 139f.
- 23Cf. ibid.
- 24Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 323.
- 25Cf. ibid., 29.
- 26Cf. Moravec, Robot, 202.
- 27Cf. ibid, 191
- 28Cf. Kurzweil, Singularity, 373f.
- 29Cf. Moravec, Robot, 191.
- 30Cf. ibid.
- 31Cf. also Böhme, Die technische Form Gottes: “They [cyberprophets like Moravec] are religious fundamentalists who long to dissolve the interconnectedness of human history and biological-evolutionary conditions. They are wild transcendental yearnings. The scrap pile of earth and the maggot bag of the human body are the sacrifice that can be made to the exit from bio-evolution all the more easily because earth and body have the stigma of sanctity attached to them.”
- 32Cf. Foerst, Anne, Von Robotern, Mensch und Gott, Künstliche Intelligenz und die exististenzielle Dimension des Lebens, Göttingen 2008, 54-56, translation: MW.
- 33Ibid., translation: MW.
- 34Kornwachs, Prothese, Diener, Ebenbild, 406, translation: MW.
- 35Weizenbaum, Joseph, Wo sind sie, die Inseln der Vernunft im Cyberstrom? Auswege aus der programmierten Gesellschaft (mit Gunna Wendt), Freiburg i. Br. 2006, 166f, translation: MW.
- 36Cf. Mutschler, Hans-Dieter, Die Gottmaschine, Das Schicksal Gottes im Zeitalter der Technik, Augsburg 1998, 109-116.
- 37Cf. ibid., 36f.
- 38Cf. ibid., 222f.
- 39Cf. ibid., 38.
- 40Cf. ibid.
- 41Cf. ibid., 23.
- 42Cf. ibid., 40.
- 43Cf. ibid, 81-103 and 244.
- 44Cf. ibid, 244f.
- 45Cf. ibid., 246f.
- 46Vgl. Weizenbaum, Albtraum Computer, Ist das menschliche Gehirn nur eine Maschine aus Fleisch? In: Die Zeit 27 (1972) No. 3, 21 January 1972, 43.