Very smart people have given the world some of its greatest gifts. The very piece of technology you’re using to read these words was created by the combined work of humanity’s greatest thinkers: the semiconductors needed to make the device function, the display that shows the images on-screen, the controls that send signals to the machine to navigate to webpages like this one. It’s all possible because of engineers, programmers and countless hours of study and hard work.
But smart people can often think themselves in painful corners, using nothing but their own intellect to trap themselves in brutal hypotheticals. One example of this tendency is seen in the brutal thought experiment of Roko’s Basilisk. If you’re prone to anxiety or faint of heart, we’d recommend you skip this one, as the thought experiment has been known to cause people distress if they’re susceptible to the kind of thinking it preys on.
Roko’s Basilisk is a thought experiment created by a forum user with the screen-name Roko. In a post on the forums, Roko postulated the hypothetical existence of a super-intelligent AI in the far future that could simulate the entirety of human history. In so doing, it would be able to figure out which people helped it come into existence, and which people had heard about its eventual creation but done nothing to hasten its arrival to existence.
In Roko’s thought experiment, this super-powerful AI, “the Basilisk,” would then “see” you in the past, and you would “see” it. Like the mythical Basilisk, this would be your “doom”: Roko suggests that such an AI, were it vindictive, could use its processing power to simulate an exact replica of your consciousness, and then torture that consciousness for eternity.
There’s a lot wrong with this thought experiment, the first thing being that a hypothetical future construct that thinks just like you isn’t actually you. As such, even if the unlikely event of a mega-powerful, vindictive AI comes to pass in the far future, it won’t be able to actually use necromancy to summon your mind back to earth just to torment you.
This notwithstanding, the threat of the Basilisk is great enough that it has caused some very smart people actual distress. As one observer keenly put it, “Some people are so smart they accidentally invent Hell using science fiction and then trap themselves in it”.