Social Science Blog

We might have just elected a nightmare AI thought experiment

Donald Trump's campaign tactics parallel Roko’s Basilisk

January 3, 2017
The many threats issued by Donald Trump and his supporters mirror those of Roko’s Basilisk: support my cause or be punished. [Image Credit: flickr user Gage Skidmore | CC-BY-SA 2.0]

After Donald Trump’s surprise victory, millions of Americans were left wondering how someone who had alienated, threatened and othered so many different groups could still win the presidential election.

Yet Trump was named president-elect after running a campaign that appealed to the angry and afraid. One unsettling thought experiment, first proposed on the LessWrong forums — a discussion board focused on the nature of cognition — may provide some answers.

The thought-experiment-turned-horror-story describes a powerful artificial intelligence capable of simulating the universe that will punish anyone who didn’t help bring it into existence. Roko’s Basilisk, named after the LessWrong member who first proposed the idea, is a malicious force that presents two options: either oppose — or at least refuse to work on developing — the AI, or dedicate your life to programming so you can do your part in bringing about Roko’s Basilisk. Those who refused would be punished, trapped in one of the basilisk’s simulations and tormented for eternity, while the latter group will escape the omnipotent software’s wrath.

After enduring the presidential campaign of a man who repeatedly threatened his political opposition and dissenters, it may feel like Roko’s Basilisk is already among us.

Trump may not have threatened the average person as directly as Roko’s Basilisk does, but it cannot be denied that his political strategy thrived on fear. Roko’s threats of eternal damnation become the idea that Donald Trump — and only Donald Trump — can stop ISIS, save the economy and rid America of corruption. And unless you vote for him, everything will go from bad to worse. Trump, like Roko’s Basilisk, doesn’t reward service, but makes it clear that those who get in the way will face trouble down the road.

Roko’s Basilisk has been a potent source of stress for those who would tend to get caught up and buy into the underlying logic. Other simply don’t worry about whether or not Roko’s Basilisk does or will exist.

But for those who believe that the basilisk will really come about, the logical reaction is a self-serving one. After all, if everyone agrees to serve Roko’s Basilisk, no one will be punished. And if people refuse, well, it’s better to not be one of them.

Even among those who voted for Trump, few expect him to solve many of the problems Americans face. Whether they’re working to program malicious software or voting for the next president of the United States, many may have acted based on this logic. These voters may have decided that it would be better to be support an overlord not because he would help them, but because he would come after those whom he dislikes.

About the Author

Dan Robitzski

Dan Robitzski graduated from Lafayette College with a B.S. in neuroscience and a minor in creative writing. Passionate about accessible information, Dan hopes to use science journalism as a way to bridge the communication gap among researchers, medical professionals, and the public. In his spare time, you can find him competing and coaching at fencing tournaments, pretending to understand pop culture references, and looking at cute rodents on the internet.

You can follow Dan on Twitter here.


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