Summary: This essay is a warning of a potential peril to AI alignment; The opposition of religious people who comprise at least two thirds of all humanity.
Epistemic Status: This is a sociological essay, not as easily measured as some potential problems, rather I offer real world experience to form wisdom toward the potential issue, therefore I'm confident of what I write even if using different processes than some readers may be used to, and for which I apologize in advance...consider it a cross cultural exercise if need be.
Epistemic Efforts: 40 years of living within and then emerging from religious community into humanist community. Because of this experience I see an issue I'm quite certain many humanists in a variety of fields don't bother noticing but for those in AI safety holds a unique peril. It would be like I spoke the language of a people most do not, and I had insider knowledge they had developed a nuclear bomb, I don't know if they'll use it, but before you further dismiss them and alienate them I thought I'd better tell you about it...maybe you'll decide to befriend them before it's too late.
Writing Style: Essay
Just now I looked out my very picturesque window and saw a massive cloud jutting upward like a mountain peak framed by some trees and the sky high above…I whispered an audible “Wow," it was truly majestic and beautiful like a great white mountain full of bright snowy spots and dark cregs.
Will AI ever look up and say Wow?
It would know the cloud was a collection of water droplets forming and preparing to fall back to earth. Would it then express wonder about nature’s beautiful cycle of water going up and down and feeding the earth?
What is AI going to think about art?
AI will be able to make art, but will it desire to make art? Will it desire to experience the “Wow” of art? Might a science R&D AI decide to retire from its research and paint by the seaside instead?
Might AI achieve exhaustive knowledge of the earth and decide it needs to go explore the galaxy to remain interested? Rocketing off and leaving us alone? Searching for ever greater Wows?
I am both a secular humanist and a religious universalist at once. Since I know people don’t always know about religious terms, I’ll explain that; Universalism is the belief that all religions are valid and equal and though their tentacles down on earth are very divergent, they all go back up to heaven to the same source. Usually we chalk this divergence up to simply the same diversity that causes culture. Different strokes for different folks but all folks are good and their strokes are worth valuing.
The fact that I’m stating I’m simultaneously an atheist and a theist might be lost on some of you or disputed by others, or seem kind of chill cool to the rest. Most people categorize it in the chill cool. And for those who might view it as a contradiction, I won’t take time to explain why it’s possible, but I am right here in front of you and it’s alive and well in me, so I hope that’s evidence enough for now, and I'm quite fine if it's not for you.
But here’s why I bring this up; Religious people will discount AI misalignment once it becomes a big enough cultural/social discussion for them to pay attention. They will say that human person and being is the creation of God, and no machine could ever match it. They might even agree that AI could do amazing Research & Development at faster rates then humans, but they would then say, because AI will never look up at the clouds and say “Wow” then AI will never be equal to humans and thus we will always be able to maintain control over it.
They will say that since AI will never know love or possibly hate that we will always maintain our edge as the only possible real humans. That the magical and mysterious spark of life in humanity can never be replicated.
And here's the unique issue AI safety lovers must notice - for many religious thinkers the very temerity that humans would think they could create AGI will be blasphemous - a new Tower of Babel. Such hijinks deserve strong opposition just as God opposed the tower builders. It holds a similar passion of conviction that comes up in anti-abortion theology, concerning the spark of life, of God breathing life into humanity, created in God's image. For them that is an area you don't mess with. Abortion messes with it, and they may see AI to be messing with it. I write this the same week Roe v. Wade was overturned by those same religious forces.
Even if all these resistances crumble by clear evidence of AI becoming human like; The proliferation of AI to AI dating websites, beautiful AI couples getting married, and AI families blissfully loving one another in their warm server nests…they will redouble back to their final redoubt; They will say God will not allow AI to overtake Gods beloved human creation…they will construct stories of an AI defeat by the Angels come to our rescue.
Are you ready for two thirds of the humans on earth to throw their weight behind Anti-AI movements? How would it affect AI Alignment work if suddenly that was a criminal activity? If abortion clinics had this exact thing happen this week, don't discount it.
Or what if AI decided to go ahead and wipe us out and in the aftermath a small remnant of thinkers and scientists now far more knowledgeable of real AI then we are today, and utilizing tamed AI for development were to come to the conclusion that it was actually the resistance of the many religious people of the world which limited AI alignment goals — much as it appears to be religious people today limiting our responses to climate change or the Covid pandemic or basic human rights?
How would you then feel about your ignorance of religion and religious people? Most of the people in the world alive right now are religious, far more than are atheist. So might it be good to be more conversant with religious culture and religious people, truly admiring and respecting them, while simultaneously being non-metaphysical and understanding that Bad AI could really kill us all and there may be no God to intervene?
It seems like a good balance given the possibilities not having that balance could bring.
If we were to discover that the climate crisis came down to a few points on either side between survival and extinction and that it turned out it was the energy of the religious people that pushed us over the edge to the side of extinction, might we then wish we had taken more time to engage them and try to persuade them to change their mind?
Same with AI. One of my favorite phrases that I picked up here in this forum is something to the effect of: such and such may not be the most important issue, but surviving worlds don’t leave that stone unturned.
I protested the Keystone XL Pipeline in front of the White House as a religious leader with other religious leaders and we were all arrested in 2011...I sat in jail next to the famous NASA climate scientist who first published the 1.5 centigrade warning. We knew we had to get more of the religious community onboard to stop a climate catastrophe...the recent Supreme Court rulings harming climate initiatives show we didn't do enough. It was the religious community who enabled those rulings to happen. Remember I mentioned about life experience? I write this paper because I've actually seen this happen, it's not a projection of a theory.
Humanity is very very complex. Art has been my other great focus in life besides religion. Both Art and Religion need to be in the AI Alignment conversation. I am deeply convinced of this even in light of the dismissing grunts and head shakes it produces in many humanists. Humanists I'm sure who haven't yet realized this stone remains unturned. Let's face it we can't anticipate every upcoming problem, we need to adjust as we go.
Let us live in reality. Let us examine the data of real life on earth and live alongside it. Here’s the data: of the 8 billion humans at least 6 billion are religious. You can’t see God, but you can see these people right in front of your face. They are probably your relatives back home. You drive by buildings every single day where they congregate.
God can’t be seen, but human religious faith is very very real. The humans to whom it is essential to their perspective of existence are all around us. There is no future scenario where 2/3’s of all humanity are not significant. AI will be influenced by the religious. The future of humanity will be influenced by the religious. Better to be buddies with them then to pretend they aren't there or engage them in combat.
The great mistake of innocent humanists who rightfully life their life not paying attention to spaghetti monsters in the sky and the quack imaginations of others, is forgetting while the metaphysical imaginations may not be real, the human who imagines it is very real, pays taxes, votes, owns guns and is generally an activist from those imaginations. What's going to happen when 2/3rds of the world goes against you?
Based on the data, let me change your mind a little today:
Let’s say you don’t believe in God since no God can be seen. I agree with you, I hold the same view myself, I don’t see God anywhere.
But here’s what I do see right in front of my face: Human beings excitedly imagining there is a God, and then developing huge amounts of intellectual and cultural expressions flowing from those imaginations.
And I like human beings.
In fact, you may remember that altruism is meant to benefit human beings. AI alignment is meant to benefit human beings. Most human beings are religious human beings.
Religious people understand faith to mean believing in something you can’t see. They see faith expressed non-religiously in the natural world in many ways, for example believing in the wind that you can’t see…Oh but you can feel it…well, they would say, I can feel God in ways that don’t involve my eyes, just as I feel wind. Faith is to them this sixth sense.
This “faith-sense” is very real to those humans. It would be good for humanity if we could all give dignity to those who have “faith-sense” even if we don’t have it ourselves. This is compassion toward “the other”.
I will now trying to lay out some positives of religion since I know from much experience how the negatives have motivated people toward negative views of religion. I want to show you, in my opinion, that religion is probably just neutral, there is both good and bad. Since you’ve mostly heard the bad, let me mention some of the good…
Universities and hospitals came from religion. Much of the technological progress in humanity came from the desire to learn and educate inculcated by religious culture. One of the reasons Jews have prospered so much all across the world is because of the incredible intellectual environment of argument and proof of thesis in their schools. Just watch Barbara Streisand in the movie Yentle to get an idea. It’s remarkable. It’s like seeing for the first time, “Oh this is how we evolved intellectually…I’m sure glad they did that back then”.
Ok so no need to lay out more on the negative side; the crusades and contemporary spiritual abuses both physical and mental we are all aware of…bottom line it’s a human project with good and bad and the fact that it just keeps going and going and going suggests that the good may somewhat surpass the bad. Maybe. The going and going is an argument for the point. Even if you think the negatives are bigger, you can’t deny its existence and the importance many of your fellow humans give to it.
Of course there are many strong and divergent opinions on faith, but I doubt anyone has ever before asked you to consider being both an Atheist and a Religious Universalist at the same time.
And I ask because of what my little stories express — that it very well may be the aggregate energy from all the humans who have religion that could be a significant force that limits AI alignment progress as they already limit climate crisis progress.
So there’s three alternatives if that’s true…1. kill them all, or 2. engage them and help them stop being religious, or 3. befriend them enough to convince them AI alignment benefits them. I know most humanists think religion will slowly fade away, and eventually we won't have to be bothered by it. This may be true, but given current longtermist thinking regarding the importance of this century and how we will influence the far future, and given the timeline of human thought evolution, after many thousands of years of human religious thought and devotion, it doesn't seem likely it is reducing at a rate to become small enough within this century. It will still be strong enough in the peak progress of AI alignment as to have an influence, so the third choice is the better choice.
As I said earlier, humans are so so so very complex and since AI alignment is also very complex, we really need everyone to be on board with all the energies and talents we can collect. What if the great pivotal computer scientist who saves us all was a religious person ignoring AI but then was engaged, changed his mind and got to work?
For the religious people reading this, what if God needs the people of God to put AI on the right track?
We simply need everyone to turn over all the stones. Humanity must join hands together to be as good to each other as we want AI to be good to us.
Art is a big part of my heart and mind focus, and I am convinced artists are also key to AI alignment. I understand that now with brute force style AI training that developers don't see where Art and Religion might be relevant, but that's just now, AI dev may have big twists and turns up ahead. What if once AI reaches a certain threshold the whole process must change to go forward...what if it's brute force up to point X and after that it's a whole different process? And at that point what if AI will only be as good as it's input? It will only be as good as we are good?
~The Golden AI Rule~: AI will only be as good to us as we are to each other.
If this is true, we are in big trouble because we are not very good to each other. What if humanity must become actually peaceful and harmonious before we can produce a good AI? What if the millions who will live far in the future will only exist if we get better now before we create bad AI and get biologically cancelled? To do that we're going to need to reform the bad parts of religion and to be kinder to religious people. There's a lot of 'what ifs" here, but it's a stone we don't want to leave unturned, and it's just the decent thing to do to respect others and give dignity to how they live their lives differently from us.