Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Summoning the Demon": Robot Cultist Elon Musk Reads from Robo-Revelations at MIT

Speaking at MIT, no doubt as one techbro sooperbrain to others, Elon Musk has declared the Coming of the Robot God and His Robocalypse the greatest existential threat humanity faces. The religious cadences of his formulation are not an interpretive insinuation on my part. I am not just offering up snark to bolster my familiar characterization of the futurist sects of transhumanism, singularitarianism, techno-immortalism, digital-utopianism, nano-cornucopism, and so on as a Robot Cult: "With artificial intelligence," declared Musk, "we are summoning the demon," literally summoning the demonic. "In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon." 

I have devoted more than my share of time to the exposure of infantile wish-fulfillment fantasizing at the heart of the Very Serious pseudo-science and pseudo-policy propounded by our well-funded futurological elites at Stanford, Oxford, Google, and MIT: all that adolescent pining for irrefutable logic-armor and free treasure piles and sexy slavebots and all the death denialism you can eat. But when futurologists furrow their browns over so-called "existential threats," when they flip the futurological script from Digi-Eden to Robo-Revelations, they cease for a moment to peddle paradise and distract the world and its resources instead from our real problems with phony ones. I have recently exposed transhumanist "philosopher" Nick Bostrom's Very Serious insistence that anthropogenic climate change is a non-problem compared with the Coming Robocalypse. Citing Bostrom's book in a tweet, Musk has already declared artificial sooper-intelligence a greater threat than nuclear weapons proliferation. 

I shouldn't have to say this, but climate change and nuclear weapons are real, and have really killed multitudes, and really threaten to destroy the world. But there is no Robot God to kill anybody anywhere -- though I suppose this dumb notion has lead a few people to waste their lives. Dead-ender champions of artificial intelligence have been declaring the arrival of AI imminent more or less every year for a century like Rapture-Ready evangelicals, always completely wrong, never the least bit diminished in their faith despite always being completely wrong, and still talking about intelligence in palpably incomplete, reductive, disembodied, sociopathic ways that may have something to do with all that.

I once described Elon Musk and Peter Thiel as the Koch Brothers of Reactionary Futurology, because these celebrity tech CEOs funnel their skim-and-scam bazillions into techno-transcendental vanity projects in which they play at being Randroidal protagonists on a world-historical scale, coding Robot Gods on leashes and "solving death," sure, sure, no problem, not to mention building libertopian techno-utopias on oil platforms right off the coast of San Francisco where they can indulge in innovative piratical kick-assery without having to stray uncomfortably far from the clean restaurants and working hospitals made possible by evil socialist regulations, state-subsidized electro-luxury sedans few want and fewer can afford that will trickle-down car culture into sustainability (greenwash, working at the greenwash, yeah), replacing real space programs devoted to science and exploration with profitable low earth orbit amusement park rides and glossy brochures promising to terraform Mars once we've trashed this motel room we call Earth, demolishing public education with gizmo infotainment and hologram MOOC re-runs, eradicating the tyrannical scourge of multicultural tolerance of those who are not "culture fit" techbros and so on.

These guys are for real whatever the irreality of their assumptions and aspirations. They are spending real money and they are being taken very seriously by people who are taken very seriously, even if everybody should know better since all this nonsense they are peddling is conspicuously idiotic. Remember, the Neocons were a marginal klatch of palpably crazy, stupid white guys who thought they were the smartest people in the room, too -- and look at all the damage they did and are still doing.

And make no mistake, in addition to all the usual corporate-militarist reactionaries who crow for high-tech libertopian ideology, American (neo)liberals also have a special weakness for this kind of techno-transcendental moonshine, falling for anti-democratic technofixes and technocratic design elites and gizmo fetishizing consumer "activism." Democrats who deride Creationists and climate change denial (as any person of sense should do) too often fail to grasp that techno-transcendental futurisms amount to faith-based initiatives, just as progressives demanding hope and change too often fail to grasp that techno-utopians repackage an ideology of status quo amplification as "revolution" and "disruption" and "accelerating change." 

At MIT, we are told that Musk also talked about "his favorite sci-fi books." Over and over again, we are confronted in the futurological with a perverse mis-identification of science and science policy with science fiction. This mis-identification falsifies the sense and substance of both consensus science and speculative literature, but it is richly enabling of fraud. When he was finished, all the venture-capitalists and bomb-builders of The Future gave the man a standing ovation.

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