Why does everyone assume that the AI revolution will either lead to a fiery apocalypse or a glorious utopia, and not something in between? Of course, part of this is down to the fact that you get more attention by saying “The end is nigh!” or “Utopia is coming!”
But part of it is down to how humans think about change, especially unprecedented change. Millenarianism doesn’t have anything to do with being a “millennial,” being born in the 90s and remembering Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is a way of thinking about the future that involves a deeply ingrained sense of destiny. A definition might be: “Millenarianism is the expectation that the world as it is will be destroyed and replaced with a perfect world, that a redeemer will come to cast down the evil and raise up the righteous.”
Millenarian beliefs, then, intimately link together the ideas of destruction and creation. They involve the idea of a huge, apocalyptic, seismic shift that will destroy the fabric of the old world and create something entirely new. Similar belief systems exist in many of the world’s major religions, and also the unspoken religion of some atheists and agnostics, which is a belief in technology.
Look at some futurist beliefs around the technological Singularity. In Ray Kurzweil’s vision, the Singularity is the establishment of paradise. Everyone is rendered immortal by biotechnology that can cure our ills; our brains can be uploaded to the cloud; inequality and suffering wash away under the wave of these technologies. The “destruction of the world” is replaced by a Silicon Valley buzzword favorite: disruption. And, as with many millenarian beliefs, your mileage varies on whether this destruction paves the way for a new utopia—or simply ends the world.
There are good reasons to be skeptical and interrogative towards this way of thinking. The most compelling reason is probably that millenarian beliefs seem to be a default mode of how humans think about change; just look at how many variants of this belief have cropped up all over the world.
These beliefs are present in aspects of Christian theology, although they only really became mainstream in their modern form in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ideas like the Tribulations—many years of hardship and suffering—before the Rapture, when the righteous will be raised up and the evil punished. After this destruction, the world will be made anew, or humans will ascend to paradise.
Despite being dogmatically atheist, Marxism has many of the same beliefs. It is all about a deterministic view of history that builds to a crescendo. In the same way as Rapture-believers look for signs that prophecies are beginning to be fulfilled, so Marxists look for evidence that we’re in the late stages of capitalism. They believe that, inevitably, society will degrade and degenerate to a breaking point—just as some millenarian Christians do.
In Marxism, this is when the exploitation of the working class by the rich becomes unsustainable, and the working class bands together and overthrows the oppressors. The “tribulation” is replaced by a “revolution.” Sometimes revolutionary figures, like Lenin, or Marx himself, are heralded as messiahs who accelerate the onset of the Millennium; and their rhetoric involves utterly smashing the old system such that a new world can be built. Of course, there is judgment, when the righteous workers take what’s theirs and the evil bourgeoisie are destroyed.
Even Norse mythology has an element of this, as James Hughes points out in his essay in Nick Bostrom’s book Global Catastrophic Risks. Ragnarok involves men and gods being defeated in a final, apocalyptic battle—but because that was a little bleak, they add in the idea that a new earth will arise where the survivors will live in harmony.
Judgement day is a cultural trope, too. Take the ancient Egyptians and their beliefs around the afterlife; the Lord of the underworld, Osiris, weighs the mortal’s heart against a feather. “Should the heart of the deceased prove to be heavy with wrongdoing, it would be eaten by a demon, and the hope of an afterlife vanished.”
Perhaps in the Singularity, something similar goes on. As our technology and hence our power improve, a final reckoning approaches: our hearts, as humans, will be weighed against a feather. If they prove too heavy with wrongdoing—with misguided stupidity, with arrogance and hubris, with evil—then we will fail the test, and we will destroy ourselves. But if we pass, and emerge from the Singularity and all of its threats and promises unscathed, then we will have paradise. And, like the other belief systems, there’s no room for non-believers; all of society is going to be radically altered, whether you want it to be or not, whether it benefits you or leaves you behind. A technological rapture.
It almost seems like every major development provokes this response. Nuclear weapons did, too. Either this would prove the final straw and we’d destroy ourselves, or the nuclear energy could be harnessed to build a better world. People talked at the dawn of the nuclear age about electricity that was “too cheap to meter.” The scientists who worked on the bomb often thought that with such destructive power in human hands, we’d be forced to cooperate and work together as a species.
When we see the same response over and over again to different circumstances, cropping up in different areas, whether it’s science, religion, or politics, we need to consider human biases. We like millenarian beliefs; and so when the idea of artificial intelligence outstripping human intelligence emerges, these beliefs spring up around it.
We don’t love facts. We don’t love information. We aren’t as rational as we’d like to think. We are creatures of narrative. Physicists observe the world and we weave our observations into narrative theories, stories about little billiard balls whizzing around and hitting each other, or space and time that bend and curve and expand. Historians try to make sense of an endless stream of events. We rely on stories: stories that make sense of the past, justify the present, and prepare us for the future.
And as stories go, the millenarian narrative is a brilliant and compelling one. It can lead you towards social change, as in the case of the Communists, or the Buddhist uprisings in China. It can justify your present-day suffering, if you’re in the tribulation. It gives you hope that your life is important and has meaning. It gives you a sense that things are evolving in a specific direction, according to rules—not just randomly sprawling outwards in a chaotic way. It promises that the righteous will be saved and the wrongdoers will be punished, even if there is suffering along the way. And, ultimately, a lot of the time, the millenarian narrative promises paradise.
We need to be wary of the millenarian narrative when we’re considering technological developments and the Singularity and existential risks in general. Maybe this time is different, but we’ve cried wolf many times before. There is a more likely, less appealing story. Something along the lines of: there are many possibilities, none of them are inevitable, and lots of the outcomes are less extreme than you might think—or they might take far longer than you think to arrive. On the surface, it’s not satisfying. It’s so much easier to think of things as either signaling the end of the world or the dawn of a utopia—or possibly both at once. It’s a narrative we can get behind, a good story, and maybe, a nice dream.
But dig a little below the surface, and you’ll find that the millenarian beliefs aren’t always the most promising ones, because they remove human agency from the equation. If you think that, say, the malicious use of algorithms, or the control of superintelligent AI, are serious and urgent problems that are worth solving, you can’t be wedded to a belief system that insists utopia or dystopia are inevitable. You have to believe in the shades of grey—and in your own ability to influence where we might end up. As we move into an uncertain technological future, we need to be aware of the power—and the limitations—of dreams.