Sean Davis

Dispatches From the Apocalypse: Taming Roko’s Basilisk (October 23, 2021)

(detail from artwork by Sean Davis)

In Sean Davis’s latest Dispatches From the Apocalypse, he examines how we’re great at finding solutions … it’s just that we’re focused on all of the wrong problems. 


“I am not a demon. I am a lizard, a shark, a heat-seeking panther. I want to be Bob Denver on acid playing the accordion.” —Nicolas Cage


Roko’s Basilisk is a thought experiment that, some believe, can kill and torture you eternally if you simply start thinking about it. The theory is that there will be (or maybe is right now) a benevolent artificial intelligence controlling the world and all human life, and it will look at everyone to decide their fate. Those who knew the AI to be inevitable and didn’t do everything they could to bring it into existence would be punished in some virtual world.

My problem with this is that I don’t believe we can escape responsibility for leaving a problem unsolved by staying ignorant to the problem, and this thought experiment seems far-fetched to me, but Roko’s Basilisk caused many very smart people to have nervous breakdowns, the discussion board that first spawned it erased the post and prohibited anyone from speaking about it. These nervous breakdowns weren’t like the lead singer of Smash Mouth had in upstate New York last week, or the nervous breakdown Kanye (sorry, I meant “Ye,” his name change just went through) is having by wearing hulk masks all over Italy, but real breakdowns, and very powerful people take Roko’s Basilisk very seriously. In fact, Elon Musk, the new richest human to ever live on planet Earth (and the first projected trillionaire), used it in the world’s nerdiest pick-up line to get a first date with Grimes.

Here, as I look around our dying planet, I’ve noticed that we are great at finding solutions; we just don’t solve the right problems. Most everything we do is motivated by profits and responsibility to shareholders over morality. Right now, as I write this, 10% of America (the very wealthy) own 84% of the stock market. We have a huge wealth imbalance where billions of people around the world live in poverty and a very small percentage own most of the planet’s wealth; so, instead of helping those in poverty, billionaires are trying to figure out more efficient ways to leave the planet. Just last week, a centi-billionaire, fake cowboy shot a 90-year-old fake starship captain into the lower atmosphere in a penis-shaped rocket ship.


(artwork by Sean Davis)

While we are down here on the surface dealing with climate change, soul-crushing poverty, and a global pandemic, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos use their money and resources to fight for bragging rights on the lower atmosphere. While we are drinking from paper straws and turning the water off while we brush our teeth in desperate attempts to do what we can as individuals to save the planet, these billionaires are using liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, and rocket-grade kerosene called RP-1 to propel themselves, their friends, and whoever they think will get the most press (like Captain fucking Kirk) into almost-space and calling themselves astronauts. One of these “space” tourism flights emits 100 times more CO₂ (which damages our ozone) than any passenger flight, and they each want to pioneer the industry.

Billionaires aren’t the only ones who choose the wrong problems to solve. We found the process of making silk from spiders was difficult and expensive, so, early in the 2010s, scientists inserted spider DNA into goats so their milk had a silk enzyme. You see, we couldn’t set up spider farms because the silk spiders are naturally territorial and killed each other, so we bent the rules of nature because we need our silk. Instead of curing diseases or finding a way to avoid transplants, we’ve decided that we would grow human organs in pigs. We are overfishing to the point of making salmon endangered, so instead of coming up with ways to help salmon, we “cultivate” cell-grown salmon and create our sushi in labs.


Also on The Big Smoke


We don’t want to even entertain the notion of a solution to our real problems mostly because there is no money in it, but we don’t want to appear guilty of not doing anything either, so we solve tertiary problems. We believe that if we remain ignorant on a subject it means we have no culpability (this is why people would much rather believe in a clown like Trump saying global warming is a hoax instead of the scientists who are sounding the alarm that it is almost too late). But today, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s a luxury we can’t afford. I wish ignorance was bliss. I do. In fact, I miss the days when ignorance was bliss instead of being fuel for Republican outrage.

Case in point: U.S. representative for Georgia’s 14th congressional district, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, stood on the floor of the United States Congress, where the greatest orators and statesmen in history have stood and used rhetoric to discuss the policies that would form our fledgling nation, and she was arguing against the Green New Deal that would create much-needed jobs and focus our nation on solving climate change, and she believed the best way to win her argument and prove her political opponents wrong was to point to a large Scooby-Doo meme. What’s worse is that, in the meme, when Fred takes the mask (which looks like a green hood that says “Green New Deal”) off the villain, it reveals a hammer and sickle. Her main argument was that the climate and carbon regulations would hobble US industry and help China. Of course, the hammer and sickle was made famous because it was on the Soviet Union’s flag. China’s flag has five stars on a red background.

I don’t see anything changing until there is no other choice, and by then it will be too late, so, oh, Great Algorithm, I’m writing to you. I don’t think a benevolent AI ruling the world is such a bad thing. As far as gods go, we’ve created thousands and not one has ever given proof it exists. And if you decide to end all of mankind like so many of our movies say you will, that’s fine. We’ve been told that it has been done by pretty much every god from every other religion, so don’t feel bad. At least the salmon will survive. And as far as the Roko’s Basilisk goes, I guess I’m helping bring you about. Anyone watching YouTube, scrolling media links, and posting on social media is, right? We get closer to your divine incarnation with our every click.


Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and a community leader in Northeast Portland, Oregon. His latest stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various magazines and media sources such as HUMAN the Movie, the international fashion magazine Flaunt, Forest Avenue's forthcoming anthology City of Weird, and much more.

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