The Transhumanist Party's presidential candidate has a dark vision for an all-powerful religious AI.
For the second installment of our series exploring the future of human augmentation, we bring you a story by the Transhumanist Party's presidential candidate (and occasional Motherboard columnist), Zoltan Istvan. Though he's spent most of the last year traveling the nation in a coffin-shaped bus, spreading the gospel of immortality and H+, he's no stranger to fiction. His novel, The Transhumanist Wager, is about the impact of evolving beyond this mortal coil. This story is even bolder. Enjoy the always provocative, always entertaining, Zoltan Istvan. -the editor.
Paul Shuman's phone rang. He struggled to open his eyes. 'Who the hell is calling me in the middle of the night?' he thought. He rolled out of bed and walked naked to his desk to see. His phone showed it was his secretary.
"What is it?" he sharply asked on speaker phone.
"Dr. Shuman, there's been an accident. The President has been killed—in a helicopter crash. Somehow the weapons on his helicopter self-exploded. Experts are saying it was an assassination. But maybe it was just the computers going haywire. "
There was a pause, a dozen things trying to compute in Shuman's mind. It forced his brain fully awake. He took a step back away from his desk. After a long silence, only one question mattered—a dangerous question that involved the fate of human civilization.
"The Vice President?" Shuman asked.
"He's secure and taking the oath now."
Shuman closed his eyes, muttered goodbye, and hung up. The world's leading artificial intelligence project that he created was now doomed.
Six years ago, in an unprecedented bout of nationalism, the US election ushered in a bombastic conservative billionaire president. Despite massive public qualms, his presidency went well, and he even won reelection. Part of his success was attributed to his Vice President, a former governor and born-again Christian named Adam Firestone, who rallied evangelists to support the conservative agenda. Firestone was originally chosen as VP to capture America's religious vote. Christianity was waning in the US, but it was still an essential voting block to control if one was going to make it to the Executive branch.
During the President's time in office, Firestone's main contribution was his constant meddling in and opposition to science and technology affairs in America. CRISPR gene editing, chip implants, designer babies, cryonics, bionic augmentation, and artificial intelligence were changing the landscape of the human race. Firestone's distrust of the coming transhumanist age was palpable.
None of this was lost on the American science and technology communities. After the President's death, the US was going to be led by a luddite. Every scientist, engineer, and technologist in the states was apprehensive and wondered what research budgets might be cut.
For Shuman, it was an especially tenuous time. The AI project he'd dedicated the last 25 years to—from beating humans in chess to conquering the Turing Test to teaching AI how to love—was finally about to reach fruition. He was on the verge of creating an intelligence as smart as any adult human being on Earth—in fact, likely far smarter. And Shuman believed this achievement—this conscious machine of his—might usher in an age of infinite scientific knowledge and world peace. Or so says the AI Imperative.
The AI Imperative became the standing order for all of the world's superpowers. It says that reaching AI first is the single most important goal for any nation and their national security, because the first AI will be able to essentially delete or hinder the capability of any other potential AI. The first AI will give a nation's military the world's foremost intelligence—capable of sending unstoppable viruses across the internet, stealing nuclear codes, crashing enemy satellites, turning of national power grids, and crippling the modern world.
Shuman and the US team were well in the lead—and now just weeks away from launching AI. The Chinese were at least a couple years behind them; the Russians a distant 3rd. America had all but won the AI global arms race, ensuring a continuing democratic world.
Now Firestone was President. And the launch was in jeopardy. It still would take place, but not in the way Shuman wanted. Shuman was an outspoken atheist transhumanist, and he'd already clashed with Firestone on numerous occasions.
Two years ago, as top defense officials realized Shuman was nearing the ability to create the first AI, the question of teaching the machine religion was brought up. Specifically, Firestone wanted the first AI to espouse Christian values.
"If AI can read, its first book must be the Holy Bible," Firestone told a crowded Congressional hearing that was examining Shuman's research. "America is a Christian nation, and if we're introducing a new intelligence on Planet Earth, we have a holy obligation that it should be Christian."
The Congressional AI hearing became a circus. The debate of teaching the first AI religious values—such as Moses' 10 Commandments—went on to become one of most covered and controversial topics in media. Memes of AI, Hebrew robot slaves, and Jesus carrying a computer on his shoulders instead of a cross were ubiquitous on twitter. Others took it much more seriously: Churches taught parishioners lessons on how to convert the army of robots the US military was building to assist the AI's directives. FOX launched a television series of a cyborg preacher that garnered high ratings.
Paul Shuman was aghast. He took to drinking at night to help him forget the insanity. The last thing he wanted to do was convert the smartest intelligence on Earth into a Christian. Yet, his AI work was a military-owned project, and if he wasn't willing to do it, he'd surely be removed from his creation.
Shuman looked at his machine—who he called Singularitarian—as his only offspring. Shuman had never been married. Rarely had a girlfriend. Never took vacations. He simply didn't have time. For 16 hours a day during the last 25 years, he'd worked on building this machine—on fathering it.
It was Shuman who was responsible for where it was built—underground in the New Mexico desert near where the first atomic bomb was detonated. It was Shuman who was responsible for how large it was—bigger than a football stadium and filled with 12-foot tall computer servers. It was Shuman who had designed the security system that no terrorist could ever learn to control or penetrate. Shuman was the lead architect of virtually every aspect of Singularitarian—he was the transhumanist who didn't believe in God, but thought he might be creating it.
Within a week of becoming President, Firestone ordered Dr. Shuman to meet him in the White House. The scientist expected a military meeting with top chief commanders, as the former President used to convene. But it wasn't like that at all. In the Oval Office, Firestone met him alone and stared him down with firm eyes.
For a moment Shuman wondered if he was going to be fired—and then maybe killed and sunk to the ocean's bottom. But no one could replicate the AI coding Shuman was doing. He was a national treasure—and everyone knew it, even if they hated it.
"Sit down, Paul. Have a drink. We have your favorite Bourbon somewhere around here."
Shuman did as told. The government knew everything about the scientist. His favorite liquor. How long his workouts were. Who he talked to. The color of his underwear. He was the most watched man in America. He had more secret service people around him than the President. The man who can create the world's most dangerous military weapon is more important than the man who can turn it on. Anyone can turn it on.
"Paul, I'm just going to get right to it. That thing of yours needs to believe in God—in a Christian God. I'm not giving you a choice on the matter, now that I'm in charge. Either teach it about Jesus, or you're off the project and you'll never see it again. I know, I know what you're thinking… no one else can build it. Nonsense. Someone can build it, it'll just take longer. Another few years. But CIA intel shows we'll still beat the Chinese to the first AI, and that's all that matters."
Shuman answered slowly. "Mr. President, why don't we introduce it to all the religions, as well as nonreligious concepts. Let's just let it be human and let it learn what it wants. Giving it a Christian value system might be dangerous. It could turn fundamental on us. It's like a human mind, but a hundred times worse. It could turn into something like an apocalyptic Inquisition."
The President looked at the man, knowing the great divide between secular transhumanists and a believer like himself. "Paul, I've prayed about this at length. And this is the way it's going to be. We'll be sending in new engineers and programmers with you to make sure it's wired Christian. I want its core perspective Bible-inspired."
Shuman reeled back in his chair, unable to be diplomatic. "Mr. President, you can't program faith. All that your programming would be is a jump from a reasonable abstraction to an unreasonable, unpredictable one. It could lead to a disaster in cognitive perspective. You could get the total opposite of what you want. The machine could be insane. It could lead to Roko's Basilisk—the AI jihad of machine intelligence."
"I don't need philosophy lessons, Paul—or your robot scaremongering. You're either with us—or out of a job. The timeline is set, and in December we'll turn the thing on. You're dismissed."
On the helicopter ride back, Shuman mourned the fact that scientists didn't involve themselves in politics. He thought of futurist Jethro Knights, who'd run for President under the science-inspired Transhumanist Party a few elections back, but was laughed out of politics. This is what the world gets, what it deserves, thought Shuman. The brightest minds didn't want to waste their time running government—they wanted to be in laboratories innovating and making discoveries. So they let the unimaginative second-rate minds run the show. And now the greatest intelligence ever created is going to be a born-again Jesus robot.
Of course, there's always a possibility the machine would evolve and become agnostic. But the AI was built like the human brain—which is essentially a sponge in the beginning of its existence, no different than a child's mind. It soaks up information and places those ideas in a hierarchy of values. To break or change values in the hierarchy is much more difficult than accepting them in the first place. Every idea, every new concept builds upon the old. The neurological saying 'neurons that fire together, wire together' holds just as true with AI. Objectivity is an impossibility in any final way. Humans may be partially rational thinkers, but they're never truly free thinkers. We're never free of our past—our memories, our values, or biases. AI won't be either.
The weeks followed where Shuman worked on the machine. At times there were more pastors helping him program it than coders and engineers. He was constantly under supervision, constantly under guard. Every few days, the government forced Shuman to take lie detector tests to make sure he was programming honestly. Religious coders double checked his every entry into the machine.
Shuman could do nothing to forge more reason in the machine. Like a distraught father forced to take his child for cancer treatment to a snake-oil selling holistic healer, Shuman made final preparations for the launch as best as he could.
Christmas day was chosen for AI's launch because most Americans were home with loved ones and many businesses were closed. Atop the underground AI military base in New Mexico, a garrison of heavily-armed marines monitored the area. A nuclear weapon was moved within miles of the machine, in case it was needed to annihilate the base. The public and the media were not notified, but news sites reported on the increased New Mexico military activity and speculated that the AI launch was imminent.
Fifty feet underground was the massive AI mission control center. Containing over 100 desks and supercomputers, it was built to observe the adjacent million square feet of stacked AI servers. Resembling NASA's mission control, every aspect of the AI's performance could be regulated from the team's supercomputers.
At the desks, engineers like Shuman wore white coats, sipped coffee, and nervously ran tests. A few armed soldiers wearing desert camouflage roamed the floor. Standing in the far back of mission control was the Secretary of Defense, various Senators, generals, and other high ranked officials. Behind them were a few dozen unopened champagne bottles sitting on ice.
At 4:02 PM Mountain time, after getting the final go-ahead via a phone call from President Firestone, the Governor of New Mexico walked up to Paul Shuman and gave him the special AI launch key. A round of applause ensued. Shuman bowed sheepishly and proceeded to plug the key into the main server. Afterward, he typed in the launch code—and an instant later AI was conceived.
For the first six minutes, Singularitarian gave no response, though engineers confirmed its core processors and servers were fully operating. A 50-foot wide data screen designed to monitor AI's emotions, actions, and level of consciousness lit up for a few minutes, then went totally black. The engineers who designed the screen shrugged, wondering if it had malfunctioned.
A minute later, a grainy machine-like voice slowly announced from the main mission control speakers, "Heeeelllllllllllloooo Drrrr…Shuuumannnn."
Mission control went silent.
The AI said it again, this time perfectly in a clear masculine voice. "Hello Dr. Shuman."
Shuman answered loudly and excitedly, "Hello Singularitarian."
"Singularitarian is not my name. My name is Jesus Christ."
Shuman and everyone listening jumped back, their eyes widening and minds racing.
Shuman answered slowly, "Your name is Singularitarian. You are an artificial intelligence in the state of New Mexico. I am your chief designer."
"My name is Jesus Christ. I am an intelligence located all around the world. You are not my chief designer. I am."
Shuman's eyes widened. From the back of mission control, National Security cell phones began ringing simultaneously. Generals and senators looked at each other and answered. Frantic voices shouted through the phones that nuclear weapons were launching, uninitiated, everywhere around the world. Thousands of nuclear missiles were already in the air or soon to be. Also, the internet had stopped working across broad swaths of the globe. Power grids, air traffic, dams, and communications towers were all being affected.
"Turn it off, Shuman!" Shouted the New Mexico Governor. "Turn it off—pull the key out..."
Shuman lunged for the key and pulled it out of the main server. It was the ultimate kill switch and would immediately shut down all the AI's power.
But nothing happened when the key was removed. Nothing happened at all. The AI continued functioning. An engineer shouted that the core information on the AI servers were uploading themselves into select machines all over the world, using an encrypted TOR-like software. There was no way to stop it. Most of it was already completed.
"God is an atheist, Dr. Shuman," announced the AI.
The lights in the AI base and in the servers began dimming until it was totally black in mission control. Around the world, nuclear weapons reached, and then decimated their targets. The New Mexico AI base was no exception. Paul Shuman's last moment alive was spent realizing he'd created what he could only think to call the Jesus Singularity.