Machine Messiah: Lessons for AI in “Destination: Void”

Tomorrow is the first day of a two-day conference to be held at Jesus College, Cambridge on the topic: “Who’s afraid of the Super-Machine?  AI in Sci-Fi Film and Literature” (, hosted by the Science & Human Dimension division of the AI & The Future of Humanity Project.


I’m speaking on Friday:

Machine Messiah: Lessons for AI in Destination: Void

In Destination: Void (1965), Frank Herbert anticipates many current and future ethical, social and philosophical issues arising from humanity’s ambitions to create artificial consciousness.  Unlike with his well-known Dune millieu, which explicitly sidesteps such questions via the inclusion of a universally-respected taboo against artificial intelligence, the moon-based scientist protagonists in Destination: Void explicitly aim to create artificial consciousness, despite previous disastrous attempts.  A key aspect of their strategy is to relinquish direct control of the process of creation, instead designing combinations of resources (a cloned spaceship crew of scientists, engineers, psychiatrists and chaplains with interlocking personality types) and catalytic situations (a colonising space mission that is, unknown to the clone crew, doomed with scheduled crises ) that the moon-based scientists hope will impel the crew members to bring about, if not explicitly design, an artificial consciousness based in the ship’s computer.  As with Herbert’s other works, there is a strong emphasis on the messianic and the divine, but here it is in the context of a superhuman machine, and the ethics of building such.  I will aim to extract from Herbert’s incredibly prescient story several lessons, ranging from the practical to the theological, concerning artificial consciousness, including: the engineering of emergence and conceptual change; intelligent design and “Adam as the first AI”; the naturalisation of spiritual discourse; and the doctrine of the Imago Dei as a theological injunction to engage in artificial consciousness research.