Will Artificial Intelligence Produce a Dystopian Future?

by K. V. Turley | But what if Wells was wrong about the accuracy of Metropolis—in some ways at least? Looking at how all-pervasive AI is becoming and the plans for the Way of the Future church, it would seem that the vision of Metropolis is closer than many imagined in sketching out where we may be headed (image, AMPP Group).

In 2017 the following quotation was reported:

What is going to be created will effectively be a god. It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?

These are the words of Silicon Valley wunderkind, Anthony Levandowski. He is moving Artificial Intelligence (AI) to the next level: godhead. Perhaps one should not be surprised that another church should be started in California. This time the difference is that this latest denomination’s god is not a supernatural being but AI: the church of AI is a religion known formally henceforth as the Way of the Future, with a gospel called The Manual.

Ninety years earlier, in 1927, there emerged from the Weimar Republic’s increasingly weird movie milieu, the dystopian fantasy Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang. Watched today, this Silent film masterpiece remains disturbing. Its unsettling prophecy of what 2026 would look like is heighten by the creeping suspicion on the part of the contemporary viewer that we may have already entered into this nightmare reality.

At the heart of the plot is a man-made robot—an artificial intelligence. It is shaped into a human likeness and then used to subvert social change, or provoke lust, depending upon the audience upon which it is unleashed. The manner in which this occurs is quasi-religious, accompanied by a faux mystical sense of a savior come at last.

The plot of Metropolis concerns a bitterly divided society. There are the haves and the have-nots, the workers who toil endlessly and the wealthy whose leisure time is just as endless; these two co-exist in a world with the trappings of 1920s modernity: telephones, cars, planes and—drawing from a future modernity—close circuit television, to name but a few of the features on show. But there is no pity in this world. The workers are little more than caged animals or automated pieces of machinery.

Into this mix steps Maria. She is a woman who rallies the downbeat workers and inspires them with a vision of a future they could not have dreamed of, one where their chains will be shaken off.  This is the hope until, that is, a robot doppelgänger usurps her role and distorts her message. Needless to say, the robot is part of the elite’s master plan to control the masses.

The creation of the robot takes place in the laboratory of a Modernist scientist. There is an air of the magician about this man as he goes about his Frankenstein-like generation of this robotic being. Tellingly, a Pentagram is fixed upon his door and upon his laboratory wall throughout these activities. Tech pioneer, and subsequent billionaire, Elon Musk, once famously remarked, “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.” Watching what takes place on screen in Metropolis and the symbolism swirling around it, it would appear that Fitz Lang might have agreed.

Today, Levandowski, the “John the Baptist” of the coming AI savior, is at pains to stress that his plans for creating a deity are neither gimmicky nor a publicity stunt. He makes no reference to occult powers issuing from this proposed being—not yet anyway. No, he wants humanity to be able to “talk to god” and “know” that this god “is listening.” For the majority of us living outside Silicon Valley what Levandowski speaks of is known as prayer and has been around for a few years longer than the Internet. Nevertheless, Levandowski envisages this form of religion as eventually having its own lands where the new deity can be worshipped and where its social teachings may be implemented fully. At this point, on hearing such pronouncements, you might be forgiven for wondering if, inadvertently, you had slipped into the realm of Sci-Fi.

Talking of which, the Sci-Fi author, H.G. Wells, was asked to review the film, Metropolis, on its release, for The New York Times. He was underwhelmed: ‘Six million marks! The waste of it!’ In particular, he was unimpressed by the vision of the future as seen on screen. Wells suggested that the mechanical apparatus of how people live and how society is ordered one hundred years hence would be much more advanced than what was then on display. Given his own bleak vision of the future in The Time Machine (1895), one wonders how he could have thought of the future as so upbeat. As for today’s nascent church of AI, doubtless Wells would have found the whole idea too far-fetched and, for such a confirmed atheist, far too irrational and unscientific for credence.

But what if Wells was wrong about the accuracy of Metropolis—in some ways at least? Looking at how all-pervasive AI is becoming and the plans for the Way of the Future church, it would seem that the vision of Metropolis is closer than many imagined in sketching out where we may be headed.

The workers of 2017 do not trudge along, downcast as the industrial workers of Metropolis do but many of our contemporaries are just as enslaved—if invisibly so. What is predicted in the film is not a return to nineteenth century working conditions but rather an existence where the nature and purpose of work are annihilated. It would be fair to say that for many in the West today the challenge posed in the workplace is not one of inhuman working conditions but rather an existential crisis about the purpose of work, and a sense of its futility. That mirrors exactly the world of the masses in Metropolis.

Throughout the film, the wealthy are prone both to carnal lust and to the lust for power. This breeds contempt for their underlings and, presumably, for themselves and each other. There appears no philosophy of redemption worth noting in Lang’s imagined universe. The Maria character mouths platitudes but then her demonic doppelganger twists these words to enslave her audience further. The technological and the occult appear to be the only two realities available to the citizens of this metropolis.

In Metropolis, the sexual lust excited by the demonic Maria, now resembling an incarnation of the Whore of Babylon, is all the more empty because ‘she’ is unreal—a man-made manipulated entity. In a series of jump-cut scenes we are shown how lust for this phantasm has provoked madness and badness in equal measure ending in suicide for some. In our own day, it is all too easy to see how the Satanic union of AI and pornography has shattered many lives, and will destroy many more. On this point, and in a society awash with pornographic unreality—be it digital or robotic—Lang’s vision of our contemporary reality is eerily accurate.

Given the latest announcement from California of the marriage of religious worship and AI, it is fitting then that the final scenes of Metropolis should take place in a church. Although sin is represented by a tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins, there is no Christian aspect referenced throughout the ecclesiastical building featured. In Lang’s vision of 2026, the church is a place of worship where the workers and the ruling class make their peace but the film is clear that the church is not a Christian one. Of course, as Silicon Valley did not then exist, Lang could not have foreseen that a century later the god worshipped would not be in a building but online: every day and every hour, with every digital footprint, in every page turn and view, by every click. Forsaking virtue for the viral, we have all taken steps, to some degree, along the Way to the Future.

In the 1927 film, surprisingly, there is reference by the good Maria to the Tower of Babel. The story is explained as a parable to the workers of Metropolis about what happens when man’s pride is given free rein. Today Levandowski and his friends are promising that the future they are building by the Way to the Future will take us to new heavens. Watching its construction from afar, one can’t help thinking that, with a virus or two, this whole digital divinity will come crashing down from a great height like that earlier tower dedicated to history’s first world-wide communication network.

K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker.