This blog post is based on Singler, B (2020) “The AI Creation Meme: A Case Study of the New Visibility of Religion in Artificial Intelligence Discourse” in Religions 2020, 11(5), 253; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11050253
Few images are as recognisable or as frequently memed as Michelangelo’s Creazione di Adamo (Creation of Adam), a moment from his larger artwork that arches over the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Two hands, fingers nearly touching, fingertip to fingertip, a heartbeat apart in the moment of divine creation. We have all seen it reproduced with fidelity to the original or remixed with other familiar pop-culture forms. We can find examples online of god squirting hand sanitiser into Adam’s hand for a Covid-era message. Or a Simpsons cartoon version with Homer as god, reaching out towards a golden remote control. Or George Lucas reaching out to Darth Vader. This creation moment is also reworked into other mediums: the image has been remade with paperclips, satsuma sections, or embroidered as a patch for jeans. Some people have tattooed the two hands nearly touching on their skin, bringing it into their bodies. The diversity of uses and re-uses of the Creation of Adam speak to its enduring cultural impact.
My particular interest in the meme-ing of the Creation of Adam is because of its ‘AI Creation’ form, which I have studied by collecting a corpus of 79 indicative examples found online (Singler 2020a). As with some of the above examples, the focus is often narrowed to just the hands and forearms of the subjects. The representation of AI in my corpus came in two primary forms: an embodied robotic hand or a more ethereal, or abstract, ‘digital’ hand. The robotic hands were either jointed white metal and plastic hands or fluid metallic hands without joints – reminiscent of the liquid, shapeshifting, T-1000 model from Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). In examples with digital hands, they were either formed with points of light or vector lines. The human hands in the AI Creation Meme also had characteristics in common: almost all were male and Caucasian in skin tone. Some might argue that this replicates how Michelangelo and his contemporaries envisaged Adam and the Abrahamic god. But if we can re-imagine these figures in Simpson’s yellow or satsuma orange, then there are intentional choices being made here about race, representation, and privilege.
The colour blue was also significant in my sample. Grieser’s work (2017) on the popularity of Blue Brains in neuroscience imagery, which applies an “aesthetics of religion” approach, was relevant to this aspect of the AI Creation Meme. She argues that such colour choices and their associations – for instance, blue with “seriousness and trustworthiness”, the celestial and heavenly, and its opposition to dark and muted colours and themes – “target the level of affective attitudes rather than content and arguments” (Grieser 2017, p260). Background imagery also targeted affective attitudes: cosmic backgrounds of galaxies and star systems, cityscapes with skyscrapers, walls of binary text, abstract shapes in patterns such as hexagons, keyboards, symbols representing the fields that employ AI, and more abstract shapes in the same blue colour palette. The more abstract examples were used in more philosophical spaces, while the more business-orientated meme remixes were found more often on business, policy, and technology-focused websites, suggesting active choice in aligning the specific AI Creation meme with the location in which it was used. These were frequently spaces commonly thought of as ‘secular’ – technology and business publications, business consultancy firms, blog posts about fintech, bitcoin, eCommerce, or the future of eCommerce, or the future of work. What then of the distinction between the religious and the secular?
That the original Creation of Adam is a religious image is without question – although its obviously specific to a specific view of a monotheistic god. As a part of the larger work in the Sistine chapel, it was intended to “introduce us to the world of revelation”, according to Pope John Paul II (1994). But such images are not merely broadcasting a message; meaning-making is an interactive event where the “spectator’s well of previous experiences” interplays with the object itself (Helmers 2004, p 65). When approaching an AI Creation Meme, we bring our own experiences and assumptions, including the cultural memory of the original form of the image and its message of monotheistic creation. This is obviously culturally specific, and we might think about what a religious AI Creation Meme from a non-monotheistic faith would look like, as well as who is being excluded in this imaginary of the creation of AI. But this particular artwork has had impact across the world. Even in the most remixed form, we know broadly who is meant to be the Creator and who is the Created, and that this moment is intended to be the very act of Creation.
Some of the AI Creation Memes even give greater emphasis to this moment, with the addition of a ‘spark of life’ between the human hand and the AI hand. The cultural narrative of the ‘spark of life’ likely begins with the scientific works of Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1789). He experimented with animating dead frogs’ legs with electricity and likely inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the 19th Century, the ‘spark of life’ then became a part of the account of the emergence of all life on earth from the ‘primordial soup’ of “ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity etc.” (Darwin 1871). Grieser also noted such sparks in her work on ‘Blue Brain’ imagery in neuroscience, arguing that such motifs can be seen as perpetuating the aesthetic forms of a “religious history of electricity”, which involves visualising conceptions of communication with the divine (Grieser 2017, p. 253).
Finding such aesthetics, informed by ideology, in what are commonly thought of as ‘secular’ spaces, problematises the distinction between the secular and the religious. In the face of solid evidence against a totalising secularisation and in favour of religious continuity and even flourishing, some interpretations of secularisation have instead focused on how religions have lost control over their religious symbols, rites, narratives, tropes and words. So, we find figures in AI discourse such as Ray Kurzweil being proclaimed ‘a Prophet’, or people online describing themselves as being “Blessed by the Algorithm” when having a particularly good day as a gig economy worker or a content producer, or in general (Singler 2020). These are the religious metaphors we also live by, to paraphrase Lakoff and Johnson (1980).
The virality of humour and memetic culture is also at play in the AI Creation Meme. I’ve mentioned some of the examples where the original Creation Meme is remixed with other pop culture elements, leading to absurdity (the satsuma creation meme is a new favourite of mine!). The AI Creation Meme is perhaps more ‘serious’ than these, but we might see the same kind of context-based humour being expressed through the incongruity of replacing Adam with an AI. Humour though can lead legitimation through a snowballing effect, as something that is initially flippant or humorous can become an object that is indicated towards in more serious discourse. I’ve previously made this argument in relation to New Religious Movements that emerge from jokes or parodies of religion (Singler 2014), but it is also applicable to religious imagery used in unexpected places that gets a conversation started or informs the aesthetics of an idea, such as AI.
The AI Creation meme also inspires thoughts of what is being created. The original Creation of Adam is about the origin of humanity. In the AI Creation Meme, we might be induced to think about the origins of post-humanity. And just as the original Creation of Adam leads us to think on fundamental existential questions, the AI Creation Meme partakes of posthumanism’s “repositioning of the human vis-à-vis various non-humans, such as animals, machines, gods, and demons” (Sikora 2010, p114), and it leads us into questions such as ‘Where will the machines come from?’, ‘What will be our relationship with them?’, and the apocalyptic again, ‘what will be at the end?’. Subsequent calls for our post-human ‘Mind Children’ to spread outwards from the earth might be critiqued as the “seminal fantasies of [male] technology enthusiasts” (Boss 2020, p39), especially as, as we have noted, the AI Creation Meme tends to show ‘the Creator’ as a white male.
However, there are opportunities in critiquing these tendencies and tropes; as with the post-human narrative, we can be alert to what Graham describes as the “contingencies of the boundaries by which we separate the human from the non-human, the technological from the biological, artificial from natural” (2013, p1). Elsewhere I have remarked on the liminality of AI itself and how we might draw on the work of anthropologists such as Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, as well as the philosopher Julia Kristeva, to understand how AI is conceived of, sometimes apocalyptically, as a ‘Mind out of Place” (Singler 2019) as people attempt to understand it in relation to themselves. Paying attention to where and how we force such liminal beings and ideas into specific shapes and what those shapes are can illuminate our preconceptions and biases.
Likewise, the common distinction between the secular and the religious is problematised by the creative remixing of the familiar and the new in the AI Creation Meme. For some, a boundary between these two ‘domains’ is a moral necessity; some see religion as a pernicious irrationality that should be secularised out of society for the sake of reducing harm. There can be a narrative of collaboration in AI discourse, a view that the aims of AI (the development and improvement of intelligence) and the aims of atheism (the end of irrationalities like religion) are sympathetic and build cumulatively upon each other. So, for some, illustrating AI with religious imagery can be anathema. Whether or not we agree with that stance, we can use the AI Creation Meme as an example to question the role of such images in how the public comes to trust or distrust AI. For some, AI as a god or as the ‘child’ of humankind is a frightening idea. For others, it is reassuring and utopian. In either case, this kind of imagery might obscure the reality of current AI’s very un-god-like flaws, the humans currently involved in making and implementing AI, and what biases these humans have that might lead to very real harms.
Boss, Jacob 2020. “For the Rest of Time They Heard the Drum.” In Theology and Westworld. Edited by Juli Gittinger and Shayna Sheinfeld. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Darwin, Charles 1871. “Letter to Joseph Hooker.” in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter. London, UK: John Murray, vol. 3, p. 18.
Graham, Elaine 2013. “Manifestations of The Post-Secular Emerging Within Discourses Of Posthumanism.” Unpublished Conference Presentation Given at the ‘Imagining the Posthuman’ Conference at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, July 7–8. Available online: http://hdl.handle.net/10034/297162 (accessed 3 April 2020).
Grieser, Alexandra 2017. “Blue Brains: Aesthetic Ideologies and the Formation of Knowledge Between Religion and Science.” In Aesthetics of Religion: A Connective Concept. Edited by A. Grieser and J. Johnston. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.
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Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark (1980) Metaphors we Live by, Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press
Pope John Paul II. 1994. “Entriamo Oggi”, homily preached in the mass to celebrate the unveiling of the restorations of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, 8 April 1994, available at http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1994/documents/hf_jpii_ hom_19940408_restauri-sistina.html (accessed on 19 May 2020)
Sikora, Tomasz 2010. “Performing the (Non) Human: A Tentatively Posthuman Reading of Dionne Brand’s Short Story ‘Blossom’”. Available online: https://depot.ceon.pl/handle/123456789/2190 (accessed 30 March 2020).
Singler, Beth 2020. “‘Blessed by the Algorithm’: Theistic Conceptions of Artificial Intelligence in Online Discourse” In Journal of AI and Society. doi:10.1007/s00146-020-00968-2.
Singler, Beth 2019. “Existential Hope and Existential Despair in AI Apocalypticism and Transhumanism” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 54: 156–76.
Singler, Beth 2014 “‘SEE MOM IT IS REAL’: The UK Census, Jediism and Social Media”, in Journal of Religion in Europe, (2014), 7(2), 150-168. https://doi.org/10.1163/18748929-00702005