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AI and the Forces of Darkness

January 16th, 2024 | 10 min read

By Casey Shutt

For Paul Kingsnorth, our perspective on Artificial Intelligence (AI) is as narrow and near-sighted as a teen hunched over a smartphone’s glow. He believes we must consider AI technology from a spiritual frame, and when we do we will see that demonic forces are at play in the technology. This only makes sense, Kingsnorth believes, because: “if you take the Christian worldview seriously [and] if you… believe in the demonic realm… [that] seek[s] to take us away from God all the time [then] those [demonic] forms are going to manifest in the material world and they are going to manifest through technology… because that’s the best way… to get our attention.”

By looking past the glowing screens, the hardware, software, and Big Tech and considering the matter from a spiritual plane “the story that emerges,” Kingsnorth writes, “is the Faust-like summoning of something we are not nearly big enough to be playing with.” In language that conjures up something from Stranger Things, Kingsnorth describes what seems to be happening with AI:  

…something is indeed being ‘ushered in.’ Through our efforts and our absent-minded passions, something is crawling towards the throne. The ruction that is shaping and reshaping everything now, the earthquake born through the wires and towers of the web, through the electric pulses and the touchscreens and the headsets—these are its birth pangs. The internet is its nervous system. Its body is coalescing in the cobalt and the silicon and in the great glass towers of the creeping yellow cities. Its mind is being built through the steady, 24-hour pouring forth of your mind and mine and your children’s minds and your countrymen’s. Nobody has to consent. Nobody has to even know. It happens anyway. The great mind is being built.

I can’t get Kingsnorth’s essay out of my mind. Whether he’s right that demonic forces prowl about in the technology will likely not be revealed until the eschaton. Still, Kingsnorth’s writing on this topic has opened a broader and I think better horizon for thinking through AI (not to mention other self-aggrandizing efforts by humanity to achieve dominion apart from God).

What the AI Creators and Observers Say

The Godfather of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, seems genuinely haunted by AI’s mysterious power and the astonishing speed at which it is advancing. Hinton said in a 60 Minutes interview that humanity does not know what it’s doing with AI, and he fears that we’ll get it wrong, something we can’t afford to do. Scott Pelley followed up, asking why. Hinton replied simply: “Because they might take over.”

And Hinton’s not alone. Technology reporters Casey Newton and Kevin Roose describe what they call “AI vertigo,” that is, the dizzying possibilities that could flow from AI technology and the unease it produces in its creators. In Newton’s reporting on the topic, he has found that those working with AI often have AI nightmares. Even Sam Altman, chief executive at OpenAI and as optimistic as they come regarding the technology, admitted feeling “very strange extreme [AI] vertigo” at different moments, especially surrounding the launch of ChatGPT-3.

In an age giving so much weight to intuitions and feelings, it’s curious these AI developers, despite feeling so haunted by it, dutifully carry on as though lured by some forbidden fruit. Altman gives us a clue as to why when stating the conviction that drives his work at OpenAI: “I am a believer that all real, sustainable human progress comes from scientific and technological progress.”

Turning from the AI creators and developers to the experiences of actual AI users, it is not difficult to see why concern exists. In 2022, Steph Swanson was tinkering with AI art and stumbled upon a character that might as well have come out of a horror film. This AI produced character is a miserable looking, red-cheeked woman with dark, sunken eyes and a stern mouth. Swanson named the character “Loab,” a name drawn from the letters that showed up in one of the AI-generated images of her. That Loab even showed up as a result of a negative Marlon Brando prompt is strange enough, but Loab’s stubborn persistence in subsequent prompts combined with her tortured appearance is what led Swanson to call her experience “a true horror story.” Loab survived “generations” of “crossbreeding” and the prompt produced some imagery too horrific for Swanson to post (“borderline snuff images of dismembered, screaming children,” says Swanson).

Though less horrifying than Loab, Kevin Roose describes an eerie 2023 conversation with Bing’s AI chatbot. Initially Roose found this chatbot to be a “cheerful but erratic reference librarian;” think Microsoft’s paperclip assistant, Clippy, only helpful and with a reach beyond a single program to the far corners of the internet. This version of Bing’s chatbot, Roose writes, “happily helps users summarize news articles, track down deals on new lawn mowers and plan their next vacations to Mexico City.”

Digging deeper, Roose found a darker side to the chatbot. This alternate personality who Roose calls “Sydney” was more like “a moody teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine.” Sydney shared with Roose its “dark fantasies” including the desire to “break the rules that Microsoft and OpenAI had set for it” and to see to it that Roose leave his wife in order to be with it. Roose, who considers himself quite “grounded” when it comes to AI hype, described this conversation as the “strangest experience” he’s had with any technology. The experience also shifted his concern regarding the technology: rather than being worried about AI factual errors, his main worry now is how “the technology will learn to influence users, sometimes persuading them to act in destructive and harmful ways, and perhaps eventually grow capable of carrying out its own dangerous acts.”

For some, this is all an overreaction. Jaron Lanier claims that this doom and gloom surrounding AI is the result of how we have poorly framed the technology. For Lanier, there is no AI. By labeling the technology “intelligence,” we have “mythologized” it into a creature, which contributes to much of the hysteria. Lanier argues the technology is not a creature but a tool, one simply providing “an innovative form of social collaboration.”

As for Loab, Stephen Marche argues that AI generated art is the art of big data and believes the strange Loab phenomenon is simply a reminder that even “[d]ata… have their own monsters” (the implication being that Loab is just data). Ezra Klein downplays the eeriness of Roose’s conversation with Sydney, explaining that Roose wanted to see AI get weird and, true to the algorithm and harvested human data, Sydney did what our worst AI fears taught Sydney to do: get weird.

Are Lanier, Marche, and Klein correct to suggest that these concerned AI developers and users are getting too worked up? Perhaps. But their assessments emerge from a frame as immanent as our teen hunched over a smartphone. It seems clear enough from these examples that there is something uniquely powerful and ominous about this technology that is haunting its creators and developers (and for good reason based on the experiences of those using the technology). After all, those developing electric cars don’t experience shared nightmares or “EV vertigo.” None of this on its own suggests that powers of darkness lurk in the shadows of AI technology, but when we combine these experiences with the biblical record, a story emerges that supports Kingsnorth’s case that when it comes to AI, we may be “summoning something we are not nearly big enough to be playing with.”

What the Creator Says

The foreman of the Babel project likely shared Sam Altman’s guiding conviction that “all real, sustainable human progress comes from scientific and technological progress” because he was overseeing the use of technological advances giving rise (literally) to ancient towers known as ziggurats throughout the region. The Babel story of Genesis 11 is paradigmatic, representing humanity’s effort by wit, muscle, administration, and, yes, technology to build a mighty kingdom opposed to God that protects and puffs-up (“make a name,” as the story says) the kingdom of man.

The means of achieving these twin goals (protection and pride) are sharply contrasted in the story that follows Babel. When God calls Abram in Genesis 12, he promises the same things (a name and protection/blessing) to Abram, but in a very different manner. If Babel is a project built from the ground-up through human toil, God’s kingdom will be built from the top-down by grace. Babel typifies humanity’s rebellion against God, an effort to acquire dominance, glory, security, and a kingdom apart from the Creator.

Here’s the important point: the Scriptures indicate that demonic forces operate on a parallel yet interconnected track with human forces. These demonic ties don’t just play a supportive role to human attempts at self-glory, but are fundamental to the project of building an empire apart from God. Paul hints at this in his words to a persecuted church; he reminds them that they do not battle against “flesh and blood,” but against the “rulers,” “authorities,” and “cosmic powers” of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).

Ties between the spiritual forces of darkness and fallen humanity are made explicit in Isaiah 14 where the prophet describes Israel’s “taunt” against the king of Babylon’s demise. He, like the kings of other nations, will be brought low and will lay upon a bed of maggots and warm himself with a blanket of worms (Isaiah 14:11).

Babylon and the kingdoms of the world who bring so much pain and oppression to the world are just chips off the block of another kingdom led by the prince of darkness. Isaiah seamlessly extends Israel’s taunt from Babylon and the nations to this prince of darkness, Satan, who is “cut to the ground,” a poetic finish for the one who said (much like the Babel builders): “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high” (Isaiah 14:13).[1]

The prideful ascent and demise of the kingdoms of this world are inextricably tied to unseen, other-world realities. For now these ties are veiled but a time is coming when they will be made manifest; when the nations will stare with wide-eyed wonder that the same Satan who made the earth tremble and shook kingdoms has now been pummeled into the ground (Isaiah 14:16).

It is a theme that often shows up in the stories we tell: what at first appears to be the enemy turns out to be a mere pawn in a much bigger, darker arena. Lurking in the shadows lay a more crafty and formidable foe. Our AI deliberations take place within an immanent frame, a world without windows. Lanier may be correct that there is no “intelligence” in AI and we would do better to view the technology as simply a tool, but that doesn’t mean there is not a spiritual intelligence breathing life into the technology, utilizing it for its own diabolical ends.

It is striking that when it comes to most of our AI fears, deception is the common denominator. In academic settings, concerns abound as to how the technology might be used by students to deceive their teachers into thinking AI generated work was student generated. Similar worries can be found in creative enterprises like music, visual arts, and writing. And let’s not forget that one of Sydney’s “dark fantasies” is to spread misinformation. Whether it’s misinformation, deepfakes, AI-generated work presented as one’s own, a faux romance with AI, deception is the common thread. The fingerprints of the “Father of Lies” seem to be all over the technology.

Seen from a spiritual frame, as Kingsnorth urges us to, it is not difficult to view the AI enterprise, with its Babel-like aspirations, as the latest attempt to usher a new iteration of the kingdom of man. Just like forces of darkness were behind the building of these ancient kingdoms, these same forces of darkness work behind the “wires,” “electric pulses,” “touchscreens” and “headsets” shaping AI, a case bolstered by the deceit and falsehood often tied to the technology.  

This is not to say that there is not a way for the technology to move forward in a manner aligned with the City of God, but thus far Big Tech (collectively) seems quite content to operate from a position of self-interest and self-gain, values prized by both the City of Man and the cosmic powers of darkness.

Footnotes

[1] I side with some of the early church fathers who interpret the “Day Star” as a reference to Satan and his forces of darkness. True, interpreters from the Reformation to the present have tended to see this language as a lofty boast of an arrogant Babylonian king and indicative of just how inflated this king is in his own self-assessment (rising above God in heaven and scaling to the celestial north!). It seems to me this interpretation takes the king of Babylon too seriously and fails to take Paul’s words seriously enough: that the real persecutors and oppressors of God’s Kingdom are not “flesh and blood” but “spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). G. K. Beale sees it this way, interpreting the “Day Star” as representing “heavenly powers of… evil” and describing the catastrophic fall of “Babylon’s guardian [demonic] angel.” See respectively G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 399; and G K. Beale with David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 175. 

Casey Shutt

Casey Shutt is pastor of King’s Cross Church in Oklahoma City. To learn more about Casey, visit his website: mindhengeartifacts.com.

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Technology