Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The AI "Image of the Beast"

Imagining the "Image of the Beast" from the book of Revelation is an AI is not new to me. Thinking that such an image could be an Artificial Intelligence is as least as old as the 1981 Christian apocalyptic film with that title (which I don't consider a quality production, but it does exist). And I've also found a few Evangelical Christian sites who repeat the same idea (which I won't reference here) and even link it with the notion of technological singularity.

However, I do have what may be prove to be some distinctive twists on the notion. First off, while I don't usually quote Scripture on this blog, I'm going to make an exception. Let's examine the Bible reference to "the image of the beast" itself. Revelation 13:14-16 (NKJV):

"And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he is granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or foreheads."

The "he" at the beginning of this context is the person who the Bible describes as the second beast, who is elsewhere called "the False Prophet" (Revelation 19:20). The Beast in Revelation, the one that the False Prophet makes an image of (note I'm treating "the Beast" as a title, but it isn't necessarily so), has been usually interpreted to be an alternate way of referencing the ultimate bad guy in Christian apocalyptic literature, i.e. the Antichrist. Though it should be noted I've not only heard of the Beast equated to "Antichrist" as most interpreters of Revelation do, I've also heard "the beast" used as a metaphorical reference to the Antichrist's kingdom/one world government. (The passage I just quoted is a key one to support the interpretation that this is a reference to a man instead of a political entity--it's a lot easier to make an image of a human being than it is to make an image of a government.)

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word "image" is a form of εἰκόν which is the source of the word icon. The religious significance of an icon being specifically for worship as per Orthodox Christian churches did not have the same meaning at the time Revelation was written (Still it would be strange if it was an Orthodox-style icon that actually did the talking, wouldn't it?)...but the actual word can, like "image," refer to any copy or likeness, be it a statue, a painting, a metal engraving. Computer screens didn't exist then, but an image on a screen would also apply to the original meaning of the term.

Note that this passage has had a number of natural interpretations over the centuries. At the time of Christ, Hero of Alexandria had technical abilities that including the capacity to create mechanical versions of statues of the gods that could move in limited ways and which could be made to appear to speak by a priest talking into a tube--ancient automatons. Various Bible interpreters over the centuries have conceived of the image of the Beast as an automaton. But most have seen the False Prophet acting with devilish magic and using the power of Satan to make a single image appear to come alive.

It certainly fits with the context of what's said about the False Prophet that he would have devilish magic. But note the Biblical terminology used here. "To give breath" in Biblical imagery means to make genuinely alive--think of God breathing into Adam the breath of life in Genesis 2. The implication here is the "icon" is in fact alive and that it speaks as it wills. Not that it only appears to be alive. This certainly dovetails with Artificial Intelligence in a way that the original audience of the book of Revelation could never have imagined.

Note also that there is some confusion as to who the "he" in the passage I referenced is at its end (the potential for confusion exists just as much in Greek, which I read). The passage clearly says that the image will speak and that it will cause many who will not worship to be killed. The passage says next that "he" will cause everyone to receive a mark on their hand or forehead. In context it seems the "he" is a reference back to the False Prophet. But it could in fact grammatically be a reference to the image of the Beast. It could be that the image is the one who makes everyone receive the mark of the Beast (which is revealed to be based on the number 666 at the end of the chapter). (By the way, I'm not saying, that I believe the passage says the image does this--but that it's a possible interpretation.)

So having laid that groundwork, noting also that not everyone who believes the book of Revelation is a genuine message from God believes it speaks of the future (some interpretations have it referencing only past events), let me suggest an apocalyptic Christian story idea centered on the "Image of the Beast" being an Artificial Intelligence sometime in our near future. I would not have such an "image" be a limited AI, like Star Trek's Data, who is only in one place at a time. I'd suggest instead this idea should be written so that this AI is in fact linked to the Internet. That it in fact would have an awareness that spans the entire globe. That it as a system would be so intelligent that it would be able to know and speak to every single human being as an individual. It would know, literally, if you've been sleeping or awake, if you've been bad or good. It would know everything about you and could access you at any time.

As the Internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it's hard to imagine any corner of the globe this image would not occupy. It would assume the image of a human being, the Beast (or better said, the False Prophet would require it to assume that image). But it could do that as a general rule, while still retaining the ability to modify itself to look a way you as the individual user would find more pleasurable and interesting. It could personalize itself to you and be instantly accessible in almost any set of circumstances--not quire as good as prayer, since prayer requires no technology, but much more immediately responsive. It would accept your worship individually and respond to you with comforting words in a time of need--and through its network, perhaps even send you help, if available.

This single intelligence could dominate the lives of every single human being in a way both much more intrusive than Orwell's Big Brother, but at the same time much more benevolent. Or apparently more benevolent. It would share your jokes and laugh with you and talk with you about whatever you wanted to talk about. But it would also detect unauthorized ideas coming from you with a speed and alacrity that would make NSA drool with envy. It may first try to talk you out of your unothodox ideas if you began to develop any, but if you insisted in persisting in them--well, there's an answer for that, too. The "be killed" clause of the passage above.

Of course the instant such an "image" appeared and the False Prophet told the world to worship it, quite a number of people would refuse to do so, especially religious believers (assuming the future world of Revelation is like our current one). It's interesting that this passage does not mention anything about refusers being tortured to compel them to change. It seems they are expected to play along and if they do not, they are executed. Perhaps the image would say that since the believers who refuse to worship think there is another God who can provide them life after death, killing such people is in fact doing them a favor--after all, according to their own beliefs it would simply be sending them to the next life, to the presence of whatever diety they happen to ascribe to...



  1. An interesting notion. I've heard interpretations of that passage making the Image a hologram broadcast around the world using the 24-hour news circuit (such as CNN).

  2. It's an interesting idea, a hologram broadcast. But I think my notion is scarier...