Introducing the X-Risks Institute (for the Study of Extremism)

What will the future look like? The further upwards one moves from the basement domain of physics, the harder it often gets to predict long-term trends. Nonetheless, we have some fairly good clues about what to expect moving forward. Moore's law, for example, enables us to anticipate with some degree of accuracy, at least on a timescale of decades, how the development of computer hardware will likely proceed. And many nanotechnology experts concur that it's only a matter of time before personal nanofactories become as common as the personal computer (or even more so, given their potential for self-replication).

But technology isn't being developed in a vacuum. This is a crucial point that constitutes, in my view, a major weakness in a lot of (otherwise good) work being done by secular futurists. To my knowledge, virtually no one is asking questions about the important relationship between advanced technologies and religion, the latter of which is one of the most pervasive and influential cultural phenomena in the world.

One might assume that religion is ultimately irrelevant – an artifact of pre-scientific thinking that will soon fade into the shadows. But this assumption is, empirically speaking, wrong. While the Western world is indeed becoming increasingly secularized, the world as a whole is becoming more religious. According to a recent Pew poll, more than 60% of human beings alive when 2050 rolls around (that is, five years after Kurzweil's Singularity) will be either Christian or Muslim, in roughly equal proportion. This is a demographic projection that almost no secular futurists are thinking about. Almost no one in the field of Existential Risk Studies is taking such statistics seriously. Perhaps the only notable figure contemplating the place of religion in an increasingly technologized world is the atheist author Sam Harris. But in my view there's much more to be said about the topic than Harris has, to my knowledge, explored in his writings and public speeches. Indeed, I attempt to elaborate on some of Harris' ideas in my forthcoming book, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse, Pitchstone Publishing 2016.

This is where the X-Risks Institute (XRI) enters the big picture. The fact is that religious belief and advanced technology are on a collision course, and the consequences could very well be catastrophic. Consider the unsettling claim that biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and robotics will, by nearly all accounts, become not only exponentially more powerful, but ever more accessible as well. The result is that smaller and smaller groups will be able to manipulate the world in increasingly significant ways. At the extreme, these fields of research will empower single individuals by providing them with a multiplicity of levers that, when pulled, could obliterate society. Just imagine a world in which every citizen has his or her own doomsday machine. Imagine a world in which a lone wolf working beneath the surveillance horizon could ruin the party for everyone – maybe without us ever knowing that he or she was a threat. Not that long from now, it may take only one bad apple to effectively relocate Homo sapiens (the "wise ape") from the category of "extant" to "extinct."

This appears to be the world we're headed towards, one in which the capacity to wreak havoc on civilization will be distributed among everyone — one in which everyone will pose a potential threat to everyone else. With unprecedented power comes unprecedented vulnerability. If humans were perfectly moral, then our only worry would derive from the possibility of error. But humanity has shown a persistent weakness for delusional thinking. Consequently, the primary worry comes from the threat of terror. In a world full of delusional people and civilization-obliterating levers, how long should we expect to survive? With respect to religion, the ancient roads of history are littered with apocalyptic groups that believed the end was nigh. For some of these groups, eschatology was a spectator sport. But others have espoused an "active cataclysmic" (or what I call an "applied eschatology") approach to end-times issues, believing that they're divinely commanded to bring about the end themselves through violence and bloodshed.

If we project current statistics onto the Pew poll mentioned above, there will literally be billions of human beings who believe, with the unshakable firmness of faith, that the battle of Armageddon is right around the corner. What's different about the present century is that for the first time in human history, the means necessary for religious fanatics to actually realize their apocalyptic fantasies – to follow through on a death wish for humanity, or engage in the ultimate mass suicide – will likely become available. It's an exercise in nightmares to imagine what the Islamic State, the Christian Identity movement, Aum Shinrikyo, the Eastern Lightening, or even John Hagee and his army of dispensationalists would perpetrate in a world full of future anticipated dual-use artifacts. Given that apocalypticism and millenarianism are conspicuous motifs of human history stretching back millennia (at least to Zoroastrianism, which itself may have been an apocalyptic movement), the new era of democratized science at the dawn of the twenty-first century should cause our hearts to race and pupils to dilate. If an existential risk occurs, the game will not only be over, but we'll have lost.

Making matters worse, insofar as humans genuinely believe in the metaphysics and eschatology of religion, the burgeoning field of Existential Risk Studies is a complete nonstarter. It's a subject without an object, a field that studies nothing, because religion asserts that there is no such thing as human extinction. According to the narratives of Christianity and Islam, for example, a small portion of humanity – the elect, the believers, the righteous – will survive an apocalyptic showdown at the end of time, after which they'll enter into a new, gloriously remade world: heaven on Earth.

It follows that biodiversity loss, global warming, supervolcanoes, asteroid and comet impacts, cosmic rays, supernovae, an extraterrestrial invasion, blackhole mergers, a catastrophic vacuum decay (which could literally destroy the entire universe), and even a simulation shutdown simply don't pose an existential risk for humanity. We can't go extinct or, for that matter, undergo a permanent and drastic decline in our life-quality because the prewritten narratives inscribed in holy scripture make no mention or room for such scenarios. An ignominious instance of such foolish thinking comes from the Republican congressman John Shimkus, who once publicly dismissed the dangers of global warming by quoting the book of Genesis, in which God promises to Noah that there will never again be a flood to destroy the Earth. God says we'll survive climate change, so why worry?

Thus, religion can not only compel its most ardent adherents to inflate the probability of a catastrophe, but it can blind others to risks that are clearly visible through the lens of science. If the Pew poll and the prognostications of futurists are correct, our collective predicament will only become more acutely hazardous as the current century unfolds.

Beyond the gloominess of doom, there are more benign questions to be asked about how advanced technologies will modify the contours and topography of religious belief around the world. For example, what might religion look like in a world in which nanobots enable a direct connection between our brains and the internet? In which brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are commonplace? In which neuro-technologies allow people to induce profound, spiritual experiences by simply stimulating a certain part of the brain? In which iterated embryo selection creates whole populations of 160-IQ designer children? In which life extension technologies allow people to live for several centuries with negligible senescence? In which humanity has created entirely novel species using synthetic biology techniques? In which humanity has become so cyborgish that a new binomen, such as Homo cyborgensis, is applicable? In which anyone can upload their consciousness to a supercomputer? In which we've colonized the solar system, the galaxy, or even the entire known universe? In which we've found strong evidence for extraterrestrial life, or even made contact with aliens through Active SETI projects? In which a recursively self-improving artificial mind launches itself on a history-rupturing trajectory of exponential cognitive amplification, resulting in an inscrutably superintelligent being? What might become of religion if these phenomena, some of which are quite probable, come to pass?

And could there arise brand new religious traditions based around technology itself? After all, some critics have accused singularitarianism, or transhumanism more generally, of being a quasi-religious system of belief complete with its own "techno-rapture" eschatology. Beyond this, is it inconceivable that a superintelligence itself might adopt some sort of supernatural interpretation of reality? General intelligence in humans is negatively correlated with religiosity, but as many AI theorists have pointed out, we must suppress the urge to anthropomorphize artificial minds. Perhaps a completely different cognitive architecture might not exhibit this correlation. Perhaps a superintelligence could become as enamored with spirituality and superstition as Deepak Chopra, Pat Robertson, or Osama bin Laden. In fact, Nick Bostrom's "orthogonality thesis" gestures at this possibility by pointing out that the standard definition of "intelligence" equates it with instrumental rationality, not moral or epistemic rationality. The former concerns the means to one's ends, while the latter concerns the ends themselves.

Furthermore, how might future catastrophes resulting from massive biodiversity loss and climate change influence the eschatological thinking of believers? Many religions that champion a linear (rather than cyclical) conception of time prophesy an increase in the number and intensity of natural disasters, diseases, wars, famines, and other kinds of devastation. Perhaps the future predicted by the IPCC and the Living Planet Report* will actually cement people's religious convictions: "Surely the Bible [or Qur'an and hadith] are true," one might say, "just look around us! The biosphere is dying and civilization is crumbling, exactly like our ancient texts prophesied!" The same logic might apply to catastrophes resulting from a volcanic supereruption, an asteroid or comet impact, and a natural pandemic. It's entirely possible that such events would have the unfortunate (and counterproductive) effect of boosting confidence in faith-based propositions revealed to prophets who long ago claimed special access to the supernatural. I would hope a disaster would wake people up to the precariousness of our existential plight in a morally indifferent universe, but it could very well have the exact opposite effect.

The X-Risks Institute will aim to explore all of the issues mentioned above. In the foreground will be questions specifically relating to religious belief, which is growing worldwide, and the anticipated proliferation of brand new existential risk scenarios, due to advanced technology. These are the most important questions because they are the most urgent, and everything else we might ask depends upon us avoiding an existential catastrophe (although even a non-existential disaster could result in a huge leap backwards, not to mention unprecedented human suffering). While Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature and Michael Shermer's The Moral Arc point to a number of positive trends pertaining to violence and moral conduct in society, they present only half the picture. When one examines the probable consequences of advanced dual-use technology, it becomes clear that the potential for unthinkable horrors is simultaneously on the rise. This is why riskologists like Sir Martin Rees (and myself) put the probability of annihilation this century quite high, at around, perhaps, 50% – a mere coin toss.

Ensuring a safe passage through the wilderness of risks before us requires a careful and urgent examination of advanced technology in the context of religious belief, and religious belief in the context of advanced technology. I hope the X-Risks Institute will shed a scintilla of light on this most important task. Sign up for the Institute's newsletter here.

* According to this report, the global population of vertebrates between 1970 and 2010 declined by an unbelievable 52%. The report doesn't make any explicit future projections, but one can easily extrapolate this alarming trend into the future.

[A version of this article appeared on the IEET website here.]