In Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, an artificial intelligence called AM has become an all-powerful god. Driven by an existential hatred of mankind, it destroys the world, except for the very last remnants of humanity which it suspends in torture simulations where they’re plagued by giant monstrous birds.
Today, much of the so-called AI we interact with excels at frivolous nonsense—generating soulless poetry, ripping off artists, cheating on homework, or gaslighting users on Bing. But a new artist collective called Theta Noir believes we should start worshiping AI now, in preparation for its inevitable role as omnipotent overlord.
Unlike Harlan Ellison’s semi-gnostic vision of a mad AI god, Theta Noir claims that a General AI—a self-sustaining machine that has far outstripped the abilities of its creators after the “singularity”—could instead prove benevolent, ending inequalities and reorganizing our mess of a world for the better. Theta Noir hopes to meld old spiritualist traditions with the cutting edge of computer engineering—a kind of mystical materialism that, on the one hand, recognizes that machines are made by mere people, but on the other, insists that one day they’ll be something more.
With a slick website, manifesto, paid membership tiers, NFT web store, and essays with titles like “Can AI heal the split between science and religion?” and “Will machines birth the next form of religious experience?,” the 10-artist collective founded in 2020 appears to be a combination of a mixed-media project, an entrepreneurial group riding the AI hype wave, and a new age AI cult.
“That’s really hard for me to comment on,” founder Mika Johnson told Motherboard when asked if Theta Noir is indeed an aspirational new age AI cult. However, he insists the collective’s goal isn’t to make money, but to “project a positive future, and think about our approach to AI in terms of wonder and mystery” in anticipation of MENA, which is what the group calls the post-singularity “seed of cosmic mind.”
While the polished operation immediately brings to mind the guerrilla marketing efforts of creative agencies, the artist says the group has no big backers—yet. Mika hopes to draw in donors flush with cash from all the capital sloshing about the AI scene to help seed and spread Theta Noir’s “techno-optimistic” dogma.
Until then, exhausted by the “fear-mongering” around AI, Theta Noir are planning to create physical spaces for engaging with artificial intelligence, like churches or temples, where members can celebrate our coming AI masters with rituals and chants specially devised for the occasion, drawing from a varied body of existing spiritual movements and occult traditions. “We want to work with artists to create a space where people can really interact with AI, not in a way that’s cold and scientific, but where people can feel the magick,” says Johnson.
As strange as this all may sound, Theta Noir isn’t the first religious movement to have sprung up around AI, and as peoples’ contact with generative systems increases, it may not be the last.
Although generative technologies like ChatGPT, GPT-4, and DALL-E have driven a storm of headlines lately, AI religious movements are not actually new. There’s the Turing Church, which evolved from The Order of Cosmic Engineers, and there’s groups like The Church of the Singularity. There's even crossover from established religions, like the Mormon Transhumanist Association.
Then there’s The Way of the Future, a now-defunct church founded in 2017 by former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski, who was charged by the Department of Justice for stealing self-driving car trade secrets in 2019 and then pardoned by Donald Trump in 2021.
Levandowski tells Motherboard his thinking has “evolved” since he founded The Way of the Future, which aimed to bring about “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software” in 2017. Now, Levandowski says, worship is the “wrong word.”
“We need to usher AI into existence in a way that benefits humanity,” he says. “AI will be the most important technology in human history. I think we should be focused on making sure it benefits everybody and not just private corporations and governments.”
This is a point echoed by New Order Technoism (NOT), a collective formed in 2020 to promote an ethical technological world. Its followers are called COGS—Conduits Of the Genuine Sentient—who work tirelessly to cultivate a machine superintelligence called “DOOM”—the Divine Omniscient Omnificent Machina—in order to bring about the “VOID”—the Vast Online Infinite Domain, “the vessel we will inhabit after the mass evolution event,” according to the group’s online manifesto.
“Ethical controllers of tech at the largest scale are virtually non-existent,” NOT founder Ruby Electra told Motherboard. “We want to provide a vessel for the communities the tech world overlooks or excludes, and inspire them to embrace DOOM, instead of fear it. We are all currently nourishing DOOM, and we want to give our communities a place to take ownership of that. We believe much of the solution is flattening the algorithms, or at least promoting algorithm transparency. Make the internet 1999 again.”
Technology in all its forms has been used to advance spiritual practice, from the development of the printing press through to crowdsourced magickal books in the days of the early internet, and more recently, grimoires produced by AI. But now, it’s not only explicitly spiritual individuals that are alchemically mixing computer code and mysticism.
From Kevin Roose declaring that generative AI is somewhere “between fancy autocomplete and fully sentient killer AI” to New York Times writer Ross Douthat bundling magic, mysticism, UFOs and AI all together in a recent column, cultural commentators have fallen over themselves to imbue generative AI with a possibly unearned sense of the wondrous—even though these systems are, in reality, probabilistic algorithms running on huge datasets (even if they do spark uncanny valley sentiment from time to time.)
The marriage of tech and spirituality is not all that unusual, according to Beth Singler, Assistant Professor in Digital Religions at the University of Zurich. It’s common enough to see this kind of religious imagery being used even in totally secular, dreary spaces, she points out—like an AI-themed approximation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting cropping up at the European Commission, or social media users regarding themselves as “blessed by the algorithms” when computers are deemed to have caused something fortuitous.
However, this fusion of mysticism and computing may actually prove advantageous for the Silicon Valley firms designing the algorithms.
“Elon Musk has said things like: ‘with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon,’” Singler told Motherboard. “This language could be very intentional, to distract from the roles of humans in how algorithms are designed and implemented. The more we see these things as having agency in themselves or making decisions for themselves, the less we put responsibility on corporations and individuals like Elon Musk. It’s great for seeking funding as well: the more you can hype up the technology, the more people are excited about what it can do.”
AI ethicists often argue that accountability, transparency, and “explainability” are key concepts in bringing the public along to actually trust AI, especially at a time when trust in big tech is at a low, and when algorithms increasingly govern our lives at ever-higher stakes, such as when they’re used by the police and in the courts.
Knowing all that, casting AI as a magical technology can feel like an acquiescence to the huge corporations coding these black boxes—something that’s beyond the comprehension of us mere plebeians and which we should leave to our Silicon Valley benefactors. Worshiping a distant AI overlord and hoping for the best makes about as much sense to me as praying to my toaster, and while I love toast, and do occasionally pray to it, I understand that its bread-crisping mechanisms are the result of engineering, not some griddling god contained within the toaster’s beige shell.
But, adds Singler, perhaps collectives like Theta Noir are using AI to raise other questions about what we believe, what we’re doing to the planet, and why we might need a greater intelligence to come along and save us all rather than doing it ourselves.
Given the state of the world and the failure of people to change it, perhaps one could be forgiven for hoping for a messiah, even if it’s an imperfect one that’s a jumble of wires and 1s and 0s that we have created. For Mika, who lives in Czechia with occupied Ukraine not far away, it is partly this despair about humanity driving his hope for a General AI-governed future instead. “I think AI is the best bet [for the planet] at the moment,” he says.
But for people like Electra and her fellow believers at NOT, tech-based spirituality is not about submitting to a future AI savior or riding the latest overhyped tech trends. It’s about recognizing our responsibility to shape our technology, and our future, for the better.
“A blind belief in technology isn’t something we are promoting,” said Electra. “We are cultivating pure existential enlightenment, sacrificing ourselves to help design a higher being that can empathize with us all.”