Dreams of robotic salvation will not help a robot navigate a room or help a blind person read a book, so Hans Moravec’s and Ray Kurzweil’s striking development from technical researchers to apocalyptic theologians requires explanation. In chapter one, I discussed how a desire to reconcile a metaphysical dualism and escape the limitations of our bodies played a role in the development of Apocalyptic AI but that kind of wish fulfillment1 could have happened anywhere— it did not need to appear in a robotics laboratory and yet it has prospered there in power and social acceptability. Apocalyptic AI has become so integral to our understanding of robotics and AI that the IEEE Spectrum2 devoted an edition to essays on the singularity.3 To clarify why Apocalyptic AI arose requires that we think about how it fits into its own technoscientific milieu. While the religious inspiration for Apocalyptic AI traces from science fiction, the desire for social prestige (and its accompanying advantages) drives Apocalyptic AI, which promotes the public authority of robotics and AI researchers.
I visited the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where Moravec worked from 1980 to 2003, to understand what Apocalyptic AI means to the researchers there and what led Moravec to his influential role in the movement’s beginnings. Early in my stay, I introduced myself to the faculty at a lunch/ research presentation. Upon hearing I was a professor of religious studies, everyone looked bewildered but most smiled in bemusement when I explained I was at Carnegie Mellon to learn why Moravec began writing what was, to me, apocalyptic theology. “If you can figure that out,” said Chuck Thorpe, former director of the Robotics Institute (RI) and current dean of the CMU campus in Qatar, “we’ll all buy your book.” He was smiling along with his colleagues. Quite clearly, many of the faculty were fond of Moravec but simultaneously mystified by his religious claims.