This was a group of Saturday evening drinkers who looked no different from any other weekend revelers. These men and women had gathered in a London pub to discuss the future.
On closer examination, however, there was an intensity about them not found in a purely social gathering. This was because they were discussing something so fantastic that you could be forgiven for thinking, as you listened, that you had entered through some mysterious portal into The Twilight Zone.
The meeting in question was that of the London Futurists. This is a group set up some years past with a view of the future that is decidedly now. The London Futurists had just held one of their regular meetings in a London University building where Dr. Anders Sandberg, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, had been speaking on – as you would expect — the future.
A movement of sorts, Futurism has many different strands. More akin to the ecological movement than an academic symposium, like the ecological movement there are political, social, economic and even “spiritual” aspects to the Futurists’ evolving manifesto for a brave new world. Although Futurists eschew the word “religion,” judging it too dogmatic, some aspects of their worldview appear distinctly religious.
In 2017, Silicon Valley wunderkind, Anthony Levandowski, opened what might be described as the first church of Artificial Intelligence in service of a religion known formally henceforth as the Way of the Future with a gospel called “The Manual.”
He explained, “What is going to be created will effectively be a god. It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?”
Levandowski may appear here to be the “John the Baptist” of a coming AI savior, but he is at pains to stress that his plans for announcing a deity are neither a gimmick nor a publicity stunt. He makes it clear that his motivation is spiritual. He wants humanity to be able to “talk to god” and “know” that this god “is listening.” Levandowski envisages this form of religion as eventually having its own lands where the new deity can be worshipped and where its social teachings can be implemented fully. This is surely the birth of a new religion?
When the question of a religion is posed to Futurists at the London branch of tomorrow’s world, they answer that they are more than happy to be seen as a movement with a radical agenda rather than a “religion.” The word “religion” has negative connotations in Britain today. The United Kingdom is one of the least religious places on the globe if statistics of such things as church attendance are anything to go by. Recent figures indicate that as few as 10% of Britons go to any weekly religious service. This stands in contrast to the United States where 50% of the population attend church on a Sunday — to say nothing of attendance at the mosque and synagogue. England’s state religion, one might argue, is no longer Anglicanism but agnosticism.
Nevertheless, and even if the participants don’t recognize it, there is among these assembled British Futurists something of the air of a religious gathering. They appear as evangelical in their beliefs as any group of committed believers, and as clearly focused on another world as the most fervent millennialists.
When asked if they believed in heaven, the London Futurists answer in one voice: NO. That said, if their future plans come to fruition, they would enjoy a digital utopia that sounds remarkably similar to many religious concepts of a future paradise: a better world with a happier human population, if all linked and maintained through AI. With some similarities to an early-20th-century Socialist nirvana, today’s visionaries address societal inequality and climate change via transhumanism and cryogenics. The Futurist vision consists not so much in a society in harmony because of the end of “class struggle” as more envisioning a “new world” without struggle on account of technology and humanity becoming ever more entwined. In short, it is digital technology that will eradicate any baseness from human existence – AI shall be our savior.
Given that the key component to the Futurists’ tomorrow is technology, in all its many forms, it is unsurprising that those gathered in the pub that night came from professional backgrounds in computer science and physics, with many working in industries linked to the growing influence of AI. As many of the concepts and theories propounded by Sandberg in his lecture were too advanced for many an educated layman unless already conversant with a high-level of scientific theory, the question arises: is the Futurist dream of tomorrow elitist?
To be fair, it is a question with which the Futurists have often been challenged. It is also one for which they have a ready answer. Their utopian dream is for everyone, they say. In this church, technology is seen as a leveler. All shall have equal access to the expected advances that science and computers bring with them. Needless to say, in a Britain where many rural areas still have problems with access to internet broadband, we are some way off this dream being realized today, never mind in the near future. The gathered Futurists are convinced, however, that their ideas are not some “pie in the sky” dream but, instead, a manifesto grounded in today’s realpolitik – so much so, some of their number have founded a political party: the Transhumanist Party.
In the 2015 U.K. General Election the Transhumanist Party supported one independent candidate linked to the party. He was unelected. Undaunted they say this was just the beginning. The Transhumanist Party plans to raise its profile in the coming years, following the political trajectory of the Green Party. That, too, was a party born out of a fringe ideology – ecology — that went on to win Parliamentary, European, and Local Council elections in the U.K. Perhaps more importantly still, the Greens went on to influence all mainstream political parties’ thinking on the environment. Is it too outlandish to think that the Futurists could do the same?
Before dismissing the question too readily, one has only to look at the rapid rise of AI interventions and further proposed interventions of AI in our lives. Many people in their homes now speak and ask questions of AI via various voice-activated devices. Driverless cars are just around the corner – worryingly — while an AI presence in the workplace grows daily. Then there is the darker side to the world of AI: the substitution of human beings whether online or “in person,” sexual or otherwise.
Recently, while attending a tech festival in the United States, I watched as the issue of AI came to the fore in every conversation and in every presentation. What dawned on me was that AI was no longer “future tense” but something already among us. And, with all the threats inherent in so much of that world of Artificial Intelligence — both moral and personal — a longing for an AI paradise from some Futurists may be the least of our problems.
Listening to the Futurists as they talked in the London pub that evening, I heard what would have been deemed science fiction just a few years earlier. In the end their vision of the future was as novel as it was unnerving, and, ultimately, for me at least, the new savior proposed just another false messiah.